Society’s Growing Disconnect with Science Calls for Attention

Jane Lubchenco confers with AAAS CEO Rush Holt before delivering the 2016 Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture focusing on science communication. | Kat Song/AAAS

Americans are growing more distrustful of science and researchers according to recent studies – doubt that is emerging at a point in time when society needs science more than ever to solve pressing problems, said Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist and environmental scientist who served as the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This is a time when science is more relevant to society than ever before in history,” said Lubchenco, who was NOAA administrator from 2009-2013. “And yet, at the same time, there is a widening gap between science and society with respect to at least many key issues,” such as climate change, which will need to be addressed with policy solutions.

Bridging the gap which Lubchenco said scientists and society need to do will require scientists embracing research that is designed to solve problems for society and encouraging more effective two-way communication between scientists and the public, among other efforts. However, Lubchenco acknowledged, there is insufficient support and funding for scientists who want to do such research and increase public engagement with science to create large-scale change.

Lubchenco delivered that assessment during the 2016 Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture at AAAS headquarters on 26 October. She is currently a distinguished professor in marine sciences at Oregon State University and is completing her term as the first U.S. science envoy for the ocean. Lubchenco is also a past president of AAAS and was part of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network that advises the United Nations.

Understanding the science-society paradox is the first step to addressing it, Lubchenco said. Researchers should also learn to speak the same language as lay people, becoming “bilingual” in science and non-science language, she said. Lubchenco has practiced what she preaches. In addition to her leadership and outreach positions, she has co-founded three organizations that train scientists to become better communicators and to interact more effectively with the public. However, much more needs to be done to scale up these efforts, she said.

Science has been increasingly devalued for several reasons, Lubchenco said. While the public still trusts science in general, that trust has been declining in recent years. There are also disparities between what the public believes about an issue, what it understands scientists to say about the issue, and what scientists actually say. Those differences can be caused by people intent on misleading the public, like the organized campaigns to create doubt about the science pointing to human-caused climate change, she said.

Other times, there is a conflict between scientific facts and people’s beliefs that prevents the public from accepting the research. For instance, only 65% of the public believes the evidence that evolution occurs, compared to 98% of scientists, Lubchenco said. Having a messenger who shares the same values as certain groups, such as a scientist who is also an evangelical Christian, can also increase the chances that audiences will believe that scientist’s message, she said.

The public’s perception of scientists can also be a problem, Lubchenco said. A study comparing people in various jobs along two axes of competence and warmth found that those surveyed thought scientists were high in competence, but relatively low in warmth. The same study found that for individuals to be seen as trustworthy, they needed to be considered as both warm and competent.

“We train scientists to be neutral, to focus only on the facts, and to strip away their humanity,” Lubchenco said. “And actually, that’s just the opposite of what makes them more trustworthy.”

She also recommends scientists engage directly with people about their research, and ask them about their concerns and what questions they would like investigated.  “I’m increasingly convinced that scientists are stuck in the old framing of there’s basic science and there’s applied science,” Lubchenco said. “There is actually a third category,” similar to translational research in medicine called “use-inspired science.” That approach also advances fundamental knowledge like basic science, but is designed to address societal problems.

After Lubchenco opened the floor to questions, Arianna Sutton-Grier, an ecologist with NOAA and the University of Maryland, noted that while she has tried to make a career of use-inspired, interdisciplinary science, it has been hard to find a fit at institutions that are not accustomed to those approaches. Lubchenco agreed that it is a challenge to find support and funding for communications training and use-inspired research, but was optimistic things would improve with time.

“It takes scientific leaders and organizations… and shining a spotlight on the problem and creating some new pathways and new identities” for researchers to make a career out of this work, Lubchenco said.