Communicating Science Seminar at AAAS 2015 Annual Meeting Moves Discussion Forward about How Scientists Engage with the Public
The AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology organized the Seminar to connect scientists with public engagement researchers and practitioners. Panelists and audience members engaged in a vibrant discussion about the challenges and opportunities faced by scientists seeking to engage with the public, and shared strategies and experiences to inform public engagement practice.
The goal of the seminar was for participants to come away better able to take advantage of opportunities to engage with the public, and to address the challenges of communicating about complex and controversial topics. This year’s Communicating Science Seminar included two sessions:
The first session, Scientists Communicating Challenging Issues, was moderated by Susanne C. Moser of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting, and an affiliated researcher at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions. Panelists each gave a short presentation, followed by substantial time for questions from those in the room and those watching the livestream and participating through Twitter.
- The first speaker was Noah S. Diffenbaugh, an Associate Professor of Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford University and a lead author for Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. His talk described his views about his role as a scientist engaging with the public. His approach is to stick to the facts and evidence, and avoid any role in advocacy, to maintain public trust that his information is unbiased. He also noted that people sometimes perceive greater confusion and disagreement among scientists because they’re asked by the media to comment on new reports before they have had a chance to read them.
- Kathleen Hall Jamieson gave a talk on “Using Visual Digests to Overcome Audience Biases.” Dr. Jamieson is a Professor of Communication and the Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She shared her suggested framework for surmounting an audience’s preconceived beliefs, which she calls the “LIVA model,” for “leveraging, involving, visualizing, and analogizing.” She emphasized the importance of using sources of information that are respected across the political spectrum, and of addressing inconvenient evidence rather than underplaying or avoiding it altogether. Scientists also should not assume that ideology dictates a person’s response.
- Lisa Krieger, a journalist who covers science and medical topics for the San Jose Mercury News, presented practical recommendations for framing and conveying information and uncertainties in ways that are meaningful and relevant. She stated that more data is not needed. Instead, communicators should find a way to bring a story home by making it emotionally compelling.
Bruce V. Lewenstein, professor of science communication at Cornell University, moderated the second session, Public Engagement for Scientists: Realities, Risks, and Rewards.
- Elizabeth Babcock, Chief Public Engagement Officer and Roberts Dean of Education with the California Academy of Sciences, discussed lessons from her organization’s impressive array of interactive methods to engage the public in learning about science, including organizational challenges and imperatives. She used the Academy’s Citizen Science initiative and Project Lab, among others, as examples of ways to make science exciting and bring scientists into their efforts as well. She noted the importance of educators and exhibit developers co-creating projects with scientists rather than just asking them to participate in presenting them.
- Nalini M. Nadkarni, a Member of the Faculty at the University of Utah and Director of its Center for Science and Mathematics Education, shared strategies for linking scientific researchers with their communities, which she has developed through over many years, and most recently through her STEM Ambassador program. She creates mutually beneficial projects that, for example, engage religious communities by using their own texts as a basis, or bring inmates into citizen science efforts. The prison project has expanded to 30 prisons in 9 states.
- Heidi Ballard, Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis, gave a talk about the range of approaches to “public participation in scientific research” (PPSR), also referred to as citizen science. These projects can lead to improvements in natural resource management as well as increased “buy-in” among members of the public to the outcomes of research. While there is no “silver bullet” or one-size-fits-all approach for PPSR, there is significant research showing what does work – notably, going out to the public, really listening (with a willingness to modify protocols based on input), and providing feedback about how information provided by the public will be used.
- Anthony Dudo, Assistant Professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising & PR at the University of Texas, Austin, gave a presentation about his empirical research on scientists as public communicators. He shared insights from a recent survey he and others conducted of AAAS members and scientists with the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, highlighting what scientists perceive as the risks and benefits of public engagement (Besley, J. C., Dudo, A. and Storksdieck, M. (2015), Scientists' views about communication training. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 52: 199–220. doi: 10.1002/tea.21186). Overall, recent surveys show that scientists are more willing to engage than people might assume, although there is a need for more diverse and international samples taken over longer periods of time.
Both panels discussed the issue of time and incentives to become better communicators and to engage with the public. The National Science Foundation’s “broader impacts” requirement for its grants was noted as a way that academics can justify including public engagement in their projects. The National Alliance for Broader Impacts also gather institutional models for how scientists can be incentivized to become more involved in public engagement. Panelists also promoted the value of making more scientists aware of science communication and public engagement communities, so they see that others are participating in these types of activities.
See the questions submitted through social media during this event, summarized on Storify.