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Scientists Embrace Public Engagement but Their Activity Varies

SAN JOSE, California — Most scientists support engagement in public policy debates related to science and technology, and many believe that engaging with the public and news media can advance their careers, according to a new survey. But, how much and what type of public engagement these scientists are involved in varies substantially.

In the report about how scientists engage the public, released 15 December at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, nearly all of the scientists surveyed say they have some level of interaction with citizens about science. But only half talk to journalists or use social media to talk about science, and roughly a quarter blog about it. The Pew Research Center conducted the survey in collaboration with AAAS. 

Pew AAAS Panel, Scientific Engagement

From left, news briefing moderator Earl Lane, Lee Rainie, Cary Funk, Dominique Brossard, Elizabeth Hadly | AAAS/Ashley Gilleland

An earlier Pew/AAAS report revealed gaps between the views of scientists and those of the general public about key issues. These include the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and foods grown with pesticides, the use of animals in research, whether climate change is mostly due to human activity, and whether humans have evolved over time. Most scientists believe that policy regulations related to land use and clean water and air are not often guided by the best scientific findings, the report found.

In the face of these challenges in public understanding, the new report released at the AAAS meeting showed that 87 percent of scientists say they should take an active role in public policy debates about issues related to science and technology.  And among the 3,748 AAAS scientists surveyed, 53 percent say that debate about their field is in the news.

 "This issue is abstract, but it has real consequences," said Joel Achenbach a reporter with the Washington Post, who moderated a discussion about the report.

Scientists from different disciplines gave different answers about their level of engagement and amount of debate in their fields, said Lee Rainie, who directs Internet, science, and technology research for the Pew Research Center. Social scientists and earth scientists are the most publicly engaged, he said.

In a new trend, the share of scientists who believe their careers can be advanced by media coverage and social media use increased from 37 percent in 2009 to 43 percent in 2014.

"A fifth of scientists now say that coverage of their work and discussion about their work in social media is also important for getting advancements in their discipline," Rainie said.

 "Who are these scientists?" asked panelist Dominique Brossard, a science communication specialist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

She pointed out that AAAS membership is open to anybody who is interested in science. She said 39 percent of the members are 64 years old or older, predominantly white, and 71 percent male. The biological sciences are over-represented and social sciences are under-represented, when compared to U.S. scientists and engineers who engage in scientific research, according to a 2013 National Science Foundation report.

"We need to be careful when we think [the AAAS membership] represent scientists. I think they represent people interested in science," Brossard said.

She reviewed the social media habits of an alternate population — scientists at UW Madison — because that group more closely resembles the one in the NSF study, in scientific disciplines and gender. 

When Brossard asked UW scientists how they use social media for scientific purposes, Wikipedia came first for almost 30 percent of them.  Frequently engaging through Facebook ranked second. Twenty-four percent engaged with social media in the context of their job. Only 12 percent of UW Madison scientists occasionally or often tweet, a less active picture than the Pew survey represented.

Elizabeth Hadly, a biologist at Stanford University, gave a personal account of her experience as a scientist engaging with nonscientists, specifically artists, government officials, and military officers. "The key to good science communication is knowing your audience," she said.


Through dialogue with scientist Elizabeth Hadly, artist Cheng "Lily" Li illustrated Earth at a tipping point. | Cheng "Lily" Li

In her work toward developing undergraduates as both humanists and scientists, Hadly created a course for six artists and six scientists to explore Yellowstone National Park together She taught the science, and scheduled a set time for the artists to do art. But she learned that artists don't simply do art in a scheduled time slot, the way scientists might take temperature measurements on a regular basis. Artists develop their ideas over time. "This was the experience that helped me understand that people from other audiences need to be listened to," she said. Hadly's work on the course led her to commission a painting by Cheng (Lily) Li, an artist and technician in her lab. They worked together to develop an image of Earth. "In one illustration, it inspires you to say we are at a tipping point in earth history," Hadly said.

She used the image in a journal article, which captured the attention of California Governor Jerry Brown, and led to a dialogue among Hadly, her colleagues, and his staff. Through listening to the staff, Hadly said she came to better understand the facets of development of government policy.

The image now hangs in the governor's office. "He has used it to embolden his own message," she said.

 "The next frontier is quality," said Thomas Hayden, who teaches communication and environmental sustainability at Stanford, and who was not involved in the survey or the symposium. "How do we enable scientists to engage more effectively?"

Answering that question, Hayden said, will require agreement about goals, and development of ways to quantify and assess the impact of scientific engagement.