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Informing Public Engagement Strategies for Scientists

2016-17 Leshner Fellows


The 2016-2017 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute cohort of fellows. | Mary Catherine Longshore, AAAS

Scientists increasingly find themselves called upon to engage the public on issues affecting society such as climate change. The AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology collaborates with science communication researchers to take a closer look at Americans’ attitudes about science and technology and examine effective ways for scientists to connect with the public on societal issues that involve science.

AAAS commissioned relevant white papers in support of its Leshner Leadership Institute, which convenes, trains, and supports a cohort of scientist fellows to engage with the public and foster institutional support for public engagement. The 2016-17 cohort of AAAS Leshner Leadership Fellows is focused on the science-society issue of climate change.

Social scientists Matthew Nisbet and Ezra Markowitz completed reviews of science communication and public engagement research, focusing on applications of theory and best practices for scientists engaging public audiences.

“This work helps equip scientists and scientific institutions as they think critically about how to present information to, and engage in conversation with, public audiences,” said Tiffany Lohwater, deputy chief communications officer and director of meetings and public engagement at AAAS.

“Despite the many studies in the field of science communication, few resources exist that assess and integrate their many findings, clearly emphasizing the practical implications for scientists and their organizations. In working with AAAS, our goal was to bridge this gap between research and practice,” said Matthew Nisbet, professor of communication, public policy, and urban affairs at Northeastern University.

Summaries and links to the white papers follow.

Public Engagement Research and Major Approaches
Nisbet and Markowitz survey the state of research on public engagement with science, cataloging the history of and discussion surrounding effective public engagement theory and practices, research specific to climate change and environmental messaging, and engagement scenarios that encourage co-production of knowledge such as citizen science, science cafes, science festivals, and university cooperative activities. The researchers also identify gaps between theory and practice and recommendations to bridge those gaps.

Americans’ Attitudes about Science and Technology: The Social Context for Public Communication
Nisbet and Markowitz take a hard look at how people respond to new information about science. Research shows, for example, that people perceive new information in the context of what they already know, and that challenging beliefs can lead to an emotional response that prohibits people from accepting new information, regardless of its validity.

Science Communication Research: Bridging Theory and Practice
Nisbet and Markowitz review recent research on the science of science communication, in which social scientists create and empirically test specific communications strategies. For example, one strategy for maintaining trust when discussing a politically-polarized topic such as climate change  is to share information in a way that connects with people’s values, rather than challenging them. Research demonstrates that people may be more open-minded to receiving information that aligns with their values.

Strategic Science Communication on Environmental Issues
Nisbet and Markowitz take a closer look at four evidence-based strategies scientists can use to effectively engage the general public on environmental issues. First, the authors assert that establishing and maintaining trust is critical, especially when discussing controversial topics. Then, the duo discuss research on tackling misinformation, offer ideas on tailoring messages to connect with an audience’s specific concerns and interests, and, finally, emphasize the value of informal conversations and partnerships with trusted mediators.

The Leshner Leadership Institute was created in 2015 in honor of Alan I. Leshner, emeritus chief executive office of AAAS, who founded the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. The center provides workshops, programs, and resources that support scientists engaging with the public and facilitates research-practice collaboration in public engagement.

Applications are open for the 2017-18 cohort of AAAS Leshner Leadership Fellows from September 1 to November 1, 2016. Scientists whose research or work focuses on infectious disease – the science-society issue selected for the 2017-18 cohort – and who actively engage with public audiences should apply.