The global, wide-ranging impact of Greta Thunberg’s protest on climate change offers opportunities for reflection on the communication of science related issues.
First, the role of visible figures and spokespersons. In the current political landscape, the capacity of traditional political leaders, including environmental activists, to mobilise the public has been declining, with such figures increasingly viewed as carrying partisan interests. While perceived as much more credible and trustworthy (as confirmed by studies of public perception), scientists are not always seen by relevant audiences - particularly, the young generations- as figures they can easily relate to in terms of identification and role models.
With specific regard to scientists, this could connect with broader trends and changes in their public role. I have been studying for the past twenty years the role of Nobel laureates in this context. While the 20th century offered several significant examples of laureates who became relevant public figures (actively engaging in political, social and cultural debates), this seems less the case during the last decades. A number of factors may have contributed to this transformation: the increasing specialization of research; the more general decline of public intellectuals; the emergence of new figures and models (e.g. hi-tech gurus from Silicon Valley) potentially replacing the role traditionally played by visible figures from science and culture.
Another insight for understanding the appeal of Greta Thumberg’s call to younger audiences has to do with the communicative dynamics of contemporary media. In traditional media contexts, certified competence and celebrity were key elements for establishing the authority and appeal of public figures (Nobel laureates, particularly in some cases, combined both at the highest level). In social media communication, authenticity is regarded as one of the central elements, as testified by the success of young bloggers and YouTubers who provide science related content with their enthusiasm and spontaneity. These are figures that viewers perceive as more accessible and approachable than an established expert.
The nature and perception of the climate change issue itself should also be taken into account to analyse “the Greta Thunberg effect”. As a challenge for everyone on Earth, this is expected to require a non-partisan approach beyond political cleavages, national borders, and specific interests. The call for action from a young student, fresh and without any particular interests or career investments, may be viewed as filling this gap, at least from a communicative viewpoint.
*Massimiano Bucchi is Professor of Science and Technology in Society, University of Trento, and has been visiting professor in Asia, Europe, North America and Oceania. He is the author of several books (published in more than twenty countries) and papers in journals such as Nature and Science. Among his books in English: Science and the Media (Routledge, 1998); Science in Society (Routledge, 2004); Beyond Technocracy (Springer, 2009); Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology (2014, with B. Trench, Routledge). His book Geniuses, Heroes and Saints: The Nobel Prize and the Public Image of Science will be published by MIT Press. He is the editor of the journal Public Understanding of Science.