Science & Society: Negotiating the Communication Gap

The relationship between science and society is impressively intricate. The process of science builds knowledge about the universe, which allows society to solve practical problems and make informed decisions – both individually and collectively. Similarly, the interests and needs of society influence scientists, who often focus their work towards topics that will serve the greater population. Scientists’ expectations, values, beliefs, and goals, shaped in some way by society, factor into the questions they choose to pursue and how they investigate those questions. Society, in turn, helps determine which scientific research will be funded with public money and which research won’t. On this fundamental level, science and society relies on the other for inspiration and survival, and as in many relationships, each provides the support and assistance to help the other grow and develop.

Despite this symbiosis, communication between science and society has never been easy. In recent years, society’s growing demand for greater scientific accountability has put new pressures on scientists to develop and improve public outreach programs. Unfortunately, training to help scientists learn how to effectively communicate beyond their scientific community is largely non-existent. Additionally, academic institutions, private industries, and government offices that employ scientists rarely offer incentives for scientists to disseminate scientific information to the general public.

The field of science communication, developed recently to address these issues, attempts to make science accessible to non-scientists through such means as eliminating scientific jargon, removing cumbersome facts, creating snappier presentations, or producing flashier videos. These efforts do address the issue of making science more accessible and entertaining, but they miss a central principle of communication by channeling the flow of information in only one direction. Communication is more than simply the dissemination of information.

This is not to diminish the importance of improving the public’s understanding of science. A society that holds negative perceptions of science and basic research will create cultural, social and economic problems. Learning how to think logically, empirically, and rationally helps prepare people to make more informed decisions concerning their place in the world.

However, facts and empirical data, no matter how irrefutable or uncontroversial, will not lead everyone to the same conclusions. Attitudes and opinions, after all, are the product of complex processes that depend on individual mentalities, which include not only facts but also emotions, ethical considerations, prior knowledge, and value systems. Although many people know and understand the dangers of smoking cigarettes, or eating fatty foods, or forgetting to wear sun block, or driving without a seat belt, many people still do these things.

Believing that the root of our relationship problem between science and society lies in the public’s lack of scientific knowledge, theories, and methods is too simplistic. We need to regard communication between science and society like any other relationship: success is determined upon understanding, acknowledging, and appreciating the differences between partners.

A more effective strategy for science communication should aim to construct a climate of reciprocal knowledge and trust between science and society. Could both science and society actively encourage each others’ creativity and growth in new directions? Can we develop the flexibility to deal with issues without getting locked into ideologies? Can we be open to finding new solutions rather than holding onto some fixed, and often unstated, concept of how things should be? Scientists need a better means to open an authentic dialogue with the public, and the institutions that employ scientists need to reward them for such efforts.

A survey completed in 2009 by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science found seventy percent of Americans say scientists contribute a lot to the well-being of society. Only members of the military (84%) and teachers (77%) were perceived as contributing more. According to the survey, eighty-five percent of Americans say the effect of science on the quality of health care has been mostly positive. Two out of three Americans say science has favorably affected the environment and food. These numbers suggest the American public overwhelmingly appreciates science and respects scientists. However, the feeling is not mutual.

A study published online last month in the journal Public Understanding of Science synthesizes two recent large-scale surveys of scientists in the UK and US. The findings may not surprise many of us: most scientists in the UK and US blame public ignorance of science for flawed policy preferences and political choices. In other words, scientists don’t think much of the masses. Fully 85% of the scientists surveyed see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem for science, and nearly half (49%) fault the public for having unrealistic expectations about the speed of scientific achievements. The majority of scientists believe policy-makers and journalists are the most important groups to engage, while the public is of secondary importance in terms of influencing political decision-making. How can scientists communicate effectively with a group we don’t respect or appreciate?

Perhaps to improve relations between science and society, we need a better scientific understanding of the public. Communicating science is more sophisticated, psychological, and emotional than simply pumping scientific knowledge in the direction of the masses, albeit in entertaining ways. We need engagement and bi-directionality to encourage debate and dialogue. Most importantly, we need to learn to appreciate and respect the groups we want to reach. And we need institutions to reward these efforts.

Learning about the general public may sound like an irrelevant professional tangent to some of us, but this can’t be further from the truth. In today’s political climate, decisions which affect the direction of scientific inquiry are often the results of complex negotiation with a number of invested social groups like national and local politicians, private companies, lobbies, religious communities, special interest groups, and moral authorities. Those who choose not to communicate risk losing their voice, resources, trust, and– at times– even freedom. Molecular biology, for example, had to develop an intense communication strategy to familiarize the public to trust the science behind the Human Genome Project. This took years of dedicated effort including writing books, popular magazine articles, documentary films, and television appearances, but without public support, the money needed to achieve such a huge scientific endeavor would not have been secured.

“In the early years of science funding, writing papers and publishing in peer-reviewed journals was sufficient justification for ongoing funding for faculty members,” says Darby Dyar, a planetary scientist and professor at Mount Holyoke College. “When the need for public accountability and educational outreach came along, many faculty were ill-prepared for the changing times. Suddenly it became important to justify one’s research in the form of serving the public good, beyond just doing research for the sake of understanding some obscure process in nature.”

“Scientists have an obligation to make their work more accessible for many reasons,” agrees Dan Cristol, an ornithologist and professor at the College of William and Mary. “First, the public has typically paid the bill for these findings through paying their salary at a public institution or through federal grants. Secondly, and more substantially, scholars are in the business of ‘adding to the body of knowledge,’ and this means that doing the research and finding the ‘truth’ is just the start of the process. The ‘truth’ must then be added to the body of knowledge, which is achieved by communicating the information, first through creating a published record of some sort and then through the popular media where the vast majority of people obtain their knowledge. To do research and not publish it is, in my opinion, a violation of a contract. But to do research and publish, but not assist in the communication of your findings to the public, is immoral.”

Science is challenging to communicate to non-scientists. It’s hard to explain complex processes in simple terms, it’s hard to find the right distribution channels, it’s difficult to be interesting and entertaining, and it’s hard to listen patiently to those who do not speak scientifically. Scientists have not been trained in using media to communicate to broader audiences. The challenges we face are real, but they are not impossible to overcome. Much depends on our doing so.

Scientists are not used to, or rewarded for, engaging within a public sphere. “Scientists are generally stuck in the mode of publishing through words and graphs/figures in a set peer-reviewed journal style. Communication efforts that break out of this mold are often devalued,” observes John Swaddle, an evolutionary biologist and professor at the College of William and Mary. “Even writing books for the general public rarely helps get a scientist tenure at a research university. There is a need to address the culture of communication in science.”

To the introverted, learning about the general public might sound like a daunting prospect, but we can start quietly and work our way forward. For starters, try to reconnect with what originally made us passionate about our work; often passion is communicated much faster and easier than facts and conclusions. Over time, we can learn to be comfortable talking to third graders about what we do; at that age they are still interested in everything. Soon, we might try to introduce ourselves more and become involved in our local community. We could volunteer at school science fairs, give public talks, and work with local non-profits that would benefit from our expertise. We might start a monthly column in the local newspaper, teach short courses for retirees through Elder Hostel, or serve on the boards of community groups such as conservation or health organizations.

People who interact with scientists on a daily basis will start to regard scientists differently. And scientists might regard the public differently as well. With time, we might discover that society wants nothing more than to trust those who are pushing our knowledge forward. And trust is obtained through reciprocal understanding and not with simple statements of facts, no matter how incontrovertible they are. The public needs to know that it has a voice that will be heard and respected.

Institutions need to give scientists more incentive to reach out to general audiences. As agents of sharing knowledge, universities and colleges have an obligation to society to encourage broader communication. The social representation of science and technology is often formed during public debate, which occurs mostly in the media. It is here that the credibility of science (its knowledge, its methods, its objectives) must be shared, and shared often. If scientists do not know and understand this playing field, they will leave it to others to defend what they do every day.

Just as science requires learning a new language and basic skills, so, too, does communication. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health tend to favor proposals that outline strategies for communicating their broader impacts to the general public; funding follows those who can communicate effectively and there are a few preliminaries to consider. The first step in effective communication is to know whom you want to communicate with. By involving ourselves in society in greater degrees, we will begin to understand that our audience is more complicated than the “interested and educated general public.” Chances are we have many audiences, and they are getting their information from piecemeal sources. Our society is fragmented into many groups and subgroups, often loosely organized around common interests, educational backgrounds, religious affiliations, financial status, etc. Having an understanding of these cultural groups helps to understand what types of changes we want to encourage in them. Our ultimate goal is to exchange information to raise awareness, create a dialogue, and persuade people to act if necessary.

If we are not familiar with public opinion on our topics of research, or even worse, if we do not respect public opinion, we risk appearing like just another elite scientist. What does our audience already know, or more importantly, what do they think they know? What is the general consensus? A journalist prepares by researching the science to write his article. A scientist prepares by researching the audience because she already knows the science. Approaching communication as an opportunity to exchange ideas will result in more learning on both sides.

Lastly, we need to acknowledge that society receives and processes information differently from the scientific community. While science uses hypotheses and empirical observations to probe deeper into a notion of what is true, the general public often believes stories that ring true to their own lives. Among scientific communities, information is shared through scientific papers, which have a fixed order that leave as few ambiguities as possible. The general public, conversely, connects with emotions and stories. They tend to evaluate information based on personal experience and opinions, as well as social and cultural contexts. We must learn to find the stories within the science to capture our audience.

Those scientists uncomfortable with developing communication strategies might consider collaborating with a communication expert in the communication stage of the research cycle. After all, many scientists value collaboration in the research design, data collection, and analyses stages. These experts can be writers, filmmakers, artists, community organizers – anyone who has experience of creating media and engaging with larger audiences. These collaborations can be beneficial for the scientist, who learns to consider ways to communicate more broadly; the public, who learns of the benefits and implications of this particular research; and science, whose value increases in the eyes of the public.

Science and society have a lot to gain from a healthy, supportive relationship. We need a slight adjustment of professional priorities as well as institutional rewards for those adjustments. The public will take a greater interest in science once science begins to take an interest in the public.