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The 2020 Communicating Science Seminar Offered Ideas for Framing Science and Improving Inclusivity

Panelists at the 2020 AAAS Communicating Science Seminar.
Carrie Tzou, Sunshine Menezes, Monica Ramirez-Andreotta, and Rabiah Mayas spoke at the 2020 Communicating Science Seminar.
Photo credit: Robb Cohen Photography & Video

The AAAS Communicating Science Seminar, held on Thursday, February 13, brought together approximately 350 scientists, professional science communicators, students and others interested in bridging science and society. This was the eighth time this seminar has kicked off the many sessions related to science communication and public engagement at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting (see this event summary compiled by the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology, which organizes the seminar). Both panels at the seminar encouraged scientists to ask themselves what their underlying motivations are for engaging with the public about science: why do they want people to have the information they are sharing and what do they anticipate people will do as a result of the conversation?

The first panel addressed strategies for talking with the media about challenging science-society topics, and was moderated by Sara Yeo, assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah. Robin Nabi, professor of media effects and health communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shared her research on the importance of emotions in reactions to science news. When seeking a response or behavior change of some kind from the public, such as taking actions to protect their health, she suggested it may be most effective to either convey hope, or pair fear with hope – and to be aware of whether you’re framing an issue in terms of gain or loss. Lisa Johnson, a science reporter with CBC News Vancouver, offered her observations and tips from years of interviewing scientists and doing media trainings. In particular she described how reporters may get an assignment at 9:00 a.m. that is due at 5:00 p.m. (or sooner!). This constrains reporters’ efforts, including their ability to frame scientific debates and characterize areas of consensus, since this takes more time to understand and describe. Her recommendation to scientists was to help reporters do this by “defining the debate” -- explaining where there is agreement versus disagreement, and why. Johnson also encouraged participants to support news organizations they think are high quality, to combat these issues and problems of misinformation. Finally, Jeffrey Duchin shared his experiences as health officer for Seattle and King County and chief of communicable disease epidemiology and immunization at the University of Washington; particularly timely given that the first case of the recent novel coronavirus in the U.S. occurred in nearby Snohomish County.

The second panel focused on inclusive public engagement with science, and was moderated by Sunshine Menezes, clinical associate professor of environmental communication at the University of Rhode Island and executive director of the Metcalf Institute (Menezes was also a founder of the 2018 and 2019 Inclusive SciComm Symposia). Menezes began by sharing a few findings from a recent landscape survey of those working in this area, and introduced a recent article she co-authored calling for a rethinking of science communication. She noted the need for building critical dialogue skills, a critical analysis of language, and drawing on equity-focused education research. Bringing in such perspectives from the learning sciences, Carrie Tzou, associate professor of educational studies at the University of Washington, Bothell, suggested ways to bring cultural backgrounds and practices into designing both engagement and teaching to be more inclusive and equitable (such as asking students or participants to self-document their cultural practices by responding to a prompt such as ‘what are the ways my family weighs things?’ through taking photos and bringing in artifacts). Mónica Ramirez-Andreotta, assistant professor of soil, water and environmental science at the University of Arizona (and winner of the 2019 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science), used two participatory research projects, investigating pollution in water and soil, to show how she engaged diverse groups of people at different stages. “People will participate if the research aligns with community-identified needs,” she said. The materials and ways of reaching people and gathering their data must align with their needs as well (submitting data online, for example, is sometimes less successful than providing worksheets people can mail in). As the vice president of education and guest experience at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Rabiah Mayas described several programs that brought an equity lens into the professional development of science graduate students and early career museum professionals. She mentioned her approach of making explicit her reasons for decisions, such as using a microphone, and also developing value statements that translate directly into actions.

The Communicating Science Seminar included five afternoon breakout sessions, providing participants a chance to have more interactive discussions and share their own knowledge and experience with other attendees. One session focused on research-practice partnerships in public engagement, while another session shared recent research on millennials’ relationships with science and invited participants to consider how this might inform their engagement programs. The organizer of the Science In Vivo project shared their pilot project to incorporate third-party critique into public engagement in order to evaluate effectiveness; leaders from Advancing Research Impact in Society (ARIS) gave a Broader Impacts 101 workshop; and yet another session helped participants think through ways to better support public engagement at their institutions.

Video of the two panel sessions is available on the AAAS Center for Public Engagement website.


Elana Kimbrell

Communication Program Officer

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