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Communicating Science Seminar Holds Discussions on Policy Engagement, Communicating Synthetic Biology, and Science Visuals


Jim Gates (left), Arthur Lupia, Carrie Wolinetz and Erin Heath discuss science policy engagement at the 2016 Communicating Science Seminar panel on Scientists Engaging in Policy | Boston Atlantic Photography.

For the approximately 300 scientists and science communicators (and more via Twitter) who participated in the fourth annual Communicating Science Seminar, three robust panel discussions on diverse science/society topics kicked off the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. This seminar, organized by the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology, provides a forum every year for investigating and exchanging actionable knowledge about best practices and research on scientists and engineers engaging with public audiences on scientific and technological issues.  An archive of seminar livestream is now online.

The first of the three panels, Scientists Engaging in Policy, launched an examination of science policymaking and the role of scientists, with panelists bringing their research and experiences to bear as a physicist on the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology (Jim Gates, University of Maryland), as a political scientist studying science communication and decision-making under uncertainty (Arthur Lupia, University of Michigan), and as Director of the Office of Science Policy at the National Institutes of Health (Carrie Wolinetz). The panelists emphasized the power of developing relationships, speaking to people’s core values, and listening more than talking. This panel was co-organized with the ESEP program (Engineers and Scientists Engaging in Policy) and workshop. Erin Heath, Associate Director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations, moderated the panel.

Andrew Maynard (left), Gretchen Gano, Kristala Prather, Natalie Kuldell, and Dietram Scheufele answer questions during the panel on Communicating Synthetic Biology | Boston Atlantic Photography.

The Communicating Synthetic Biology panel, moderated by Andrew Maynard with Arizona State University, delved into the challenges posed by synthetic biology and other quickly-emerging technologies. Kristala Jones Prather, a chemical engineer at MIT, shared her insights as a scientist actively pursuing synthetic biology research and communicating its complexity and uncertainty. Her MIT colleague Natalie Kuldell, founder of a web-based resource and an educational non-profit called BioBuilder, discussed the value of authentic experiences with synthetic biology research. Another panelist, Gretchen Gano of the University of California, Berkeley, added further ideas about designing and assessing participatory processes, including an ongoing synthetic biology public engagement project, Building with Biology. Dietram Scheufele added context from his research in the science of science communication at the University of Wisconsin and as a member of the National Academies’ Committee on Human Gene Editing; he also encouraged openness to a range of possible outcomes from public dialogues.

Bonnie Berkowitz (left), Matt Hansen, Alberto Cuadra, and Laura Rickard discuss using visuals for science communication | Boston Atlantic Photography.

The third and final panel, Using Visuals for Science Communication, considered guiding principles for creating effective science visuals. Bonnie Berkowitz, a reporter with The Washington Post, moderated the discussion, which ranged from practical approaches to improving visuals (such as function ruling over form) and tailoring them to your audience (Alberto Cuadra, AAAS/Science), to how maps are used to display data and improve transparency (from Matt Hansen, University of Maryland). Laura Rickard (University of Maine) shared key ideas from visual communication theory, including the potential implications of different types of visuals on people's actions.The panelists noted that visuals should focus on the most salient information but not be oversimplified, and that teaching scientists basic design principles would be useful. 

Recurring themes throughout the panel were the need for scientists to be supported and rewarded, individually and institutionally, in their engagement efforts, as well as the benefits of honest, bi-directional engagement.

If you’re interested in participating in continued online conversations related to these and other topics, please contact us.


Elana Kimbrell

Communication Program Officer