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When we seek to educate students to use advanced scientific literacies, we are participating in their socialization into global communities. Scientific discourse formations and multimedia genres, at least in their print forms, are today international in their scope and global in their reach. In order to be perceived in the scientific and technical community as deploying them appropriately, students need to learn and adopt, even with reservations, certain values and identities. To ‘think like a physicist’ (or biochemist, or chemical engineer), to write like one, to make sense of technical genres as do those who create them authoritatively, students need to understand the larger value assumptions and subcultural conventions of the scientific community. They need to know what is regarded as of greater relative importance and how to signal such importance. They need to know how conflict and adversarial relationships are managed in this community. They need to understand how the texts of technoscience function not only to serve internal functions within the community, but how they link the community to its larger social, economic, and political functions in the wider society.
It is part of internal ethos or ideology of science about itself that it is an activity of pure human good, and that any discernable links to matters economic or political distances science from its ideal and is to that extent not truly science. Historically this isolationism arose from the conflicts between the grounds of scientific authority and those of religious and political authority (e.g. Shapin & Schaffer 1985) in times of great social unrest and violence. We see its effects today in the restricted semantic register of scientific language, where evaluations of warrantability are manifold and explicit, but other dimensions of evaluative and expressive meaning (Lemke 1998b) must be inferred on the basis of often distant or unwritten intertexts. Scientific texts are written as if they were only about matters of fact and explanation, when of course every text makes meaning about desirability, importance, permissibility, expectedness and all the other value dimensions.
From the viewpoint of social semiotics, scientific multimedia genres are as they are not just because they are fit to the internal functional needs of the scientific community, but also because they play a role in linking that community within the wider social, economic, and political institutions which make its continued existence possible.
It is more or less the case today that all professional science is ‘big science’; i.e. it is funded and supported by large-scale social institutions, whether universities, foundations, or increasingly (and always so historically) governmental and military agencies. One such agency, responsible for the support of a great deal of scientific research in the United States, is NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It was created to separate secret and restricted military research from research that would potentially have wider economic impact and political support. In fact there is relatively little difference between a missile and a ‘launch vehicle’ so far as technology is concerned, and even less between a military spy satellite and a civilian ‘earth observing platform’. NASA is increasingly driven by its potential economic impact and its need for the political support which derives from economic benefits to turn its technologies toward the earth rather than the stars.
NASA also maintains one of the largest systems of scientific and technical communication and publicly available information databases in the world. Scientific teams and high technology companies look to NASA, as to its sister institutions (such as NOAA and the U.S. National Laboratories) to maintain the complex networks of non-print communication on which they depend, and to supply them with the results of taxpayer-supported scientific research. Indeed the global technoscience community, and not just the U.S., depends NASA’s networks of information.
The global communications and information technology infrastructure known as the internet was initially created to permit continuous military communications under conditions of nuclear warfare. It was then parasitized by the communication needs of scientists doing contract research for the U.S. military, and later by the wider scientific community whose research was funded by the U.S. government and seen to be in the national interest. For much longer than the commerical internet has been in the public eye, the scientific internet existed to permit rapid transmission of technical information among distant research centers doing related projects. The model of information on which it is based was designed to allow all forms of meaning: verbal, graphical, numerical to be exchanged with equal ease. Very powerful computing facilities were, and largely still are, needed to convert these information streams into forms of which humans can make sense (text, images, numbers), but in the last few years, as we all know, smaller computers have acquired the power to participate in this communications network and to transform at least small data streams into the beautiful text, images, animations, audio, and video of the WorldWideWeb.
NASA maintains a very large website as the primary interface to its enormous databases of satellite-derived information and many other technical resources. Because it is a governmental agency, and so a political as well as a scientific institution, NASA also uses its website to build popular and business support for its agendas. Conveniently for researchers interested in the multimedia literacy demands of scientific information on the internet, its webpages are also in the public domain.
In a study I am currently engaged in, I am looking at the presentation of scientific information of essentially the same kind and from the same source in two different parts of the NASA website (actually it is a meta-site, a large number of interlinked websites spread across the component institutions in the nasa.gov domain). In one of these sites, the NASA Earth Observatory (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov ), data on conditions of the atmosphere, oceans, land, and biosphere of the earth as observed from space are presented for science teachers, students, and interested members of the educated public. In the other, the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Earth Sciences (GES) Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC, http://daac.gsfc.nasa.gov/DAAC_DOCS/gdaac_home.html) this same information is made available to professional scientists, in strikingly parallel fashion. (In fact I suspect the Earth Observatory site may have been modeled after Goddard’s).