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Speakers Discuss Relationship-Building in Science Engagement at the Tenth Annual AAAS Communicating Science Seminar

panel of five plus interpreter
Speakers and participants joined virtually for the tenth annual AAAS Communicating Science Seminar.

This February 17 marked the tenth time AAAS has hosted the Communicating Science Seminar as part of its Annual Meeting, bringing together scientists, science communicators, and others interested in dialogue between scientists and the public. The sessions this year focused on cultural competence and cultural humility in public engagement with science, and on building connections and reciprocity between scientists and communities. There were also five discussion (“breakout”) sessions for participants to choose from later in the day.

The first session on cultural competence and humility in science engagement, moderated by Greetchen Díaz of Ciencia Puerto Rico, shared lessons learned from two collaborations that became long-standing relationships between scientists and community leaders. Ella Greene-Moton, administrator of the Community-Based Organizations Partners Community Ethics Review Board and community director of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions, has worked for years on a variety of public health projects with Suzanne Selig, professor emerita of public health and health sciences at the University of Michigan-Flint. Greene-Moton described cultural humility as the ability to admit what you don’t know and embrace opportunities to learn – but also, that it is “not a skill we can learn but something we can become…a way of being.” Martin Lively from Local Environmental Action Demanded (L.E.A.D.) in Oklahoma, a group that has worked with scientists to respond to lead contamination of their water ever since their executive director Rebecca Jim first reached out for help, cautioned that people should not think of community partners or leaders as synonymous with the community. “We are part of it. We bring our own perspectives, and limitations, to the partnership.” Dan Brabander, a professor of environmental science and geoscience at Wellesley College who has continued to work with L.E.A.D., along with co-presenter Claire Hayhow, long after many other scientists completed their discrete projects, emphasized that partnerships are finite, but relationships can be infinite. He shared the importance of recursive listening focused on reflection, rather than persuasion, and said, “Joy is the ultimate (unexpected) outcome. We celebrate our successes and experience joy. This is not something I’ve ever said before about science.”

The next session on reciprocity and relationship-building, moderated by Julie Maldonado of the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network and Rising Voices and co-sponsored by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, brought together pairs of scientists and community leaders that have engaged with communities who had reasons to distrust science and scientists. Reverend Christopher Spencer, community engagement officer at the Black Belt Community Foundation, has partnered for years with Pamela Payne-Foster, a physician and professor of community medicine and population health at the University of Alabama. Reverend Spencer said of the Black Belt region of Alabama, “We have lots of problems, but we feel like we are part of the solution.” He also noted that having relationships with people like Dr. Payne-Foster gives him the ability to reach out when there’s an issue, even if it’s not something she can help with, because she may have other connections. Dr. Payne-Foster added that her team was able to engage effectively with the community during the COVID-19 pandemic because they already had relationships with pastors from previous partnerships focused on HIV/AIDS. She also pointed out the need to make time for each other -- to pick up the phone when her community contacts call, even if she is busy, and to know that they will do the same. In response to a question about how shorter-term participants such as students can be part of these efforts when trust-building takes a long time, Dr. Payne-Foster noted that she often brought medical students with her to churches and introduced them to communities, and the experience, even if time-limited, could still be transformational and still serve the larger project.

Adam Parris, now deputy director of climate science with the City of New York, previously executive director for the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay, worked for years with Public Agenda on local community engagement on climate change response. He said after Hurricane Sandy, “study” was a four-letter word: people wanted action. One thing he learned from this work is to “collect data in a way where we act on what we hear, and not what we want to hear.” Director of Public Engagement at Public Agenda Nicole Hewitt-Cabral discussed a game they played, “Jamaica Bay Jeopardy,” in which each team needed a mix of people in order to be successful, demonstrating the value of diversity without “shoving it down people’s throats” -- and also revealing the different hats people wear, that you might not always expect (e.g., a community organizer who is also a nuclear engineer). Speakers cautioned against underestimating the knowledge and sophistication of your audience or the community you’re engaging with – and also trying to understand the historical and cultural reasons, and the lived experiences, of people who may be different from you when working with them (remembering, as Rebecca Jim of L.E.A.D. has said, “Empathy is so much stronger than charity”).

This year’s breakout discussion sessions were focused on:

  • debriefing and unpacking the two panel sessions, facilitated by members of the “SciEngage” Steering Committee (Manasi Apte, Stacey Baker, Julie Fooshee, and Geoff Hunt);
  • engaging with policymakers, facilitated by Taylor Scott and Elizabeth Long of the Research-to-Policy Collaboration;
  • connecting science communication researchers and practitioners, with Reyhaneh Maktoufi (a Rita Allen Foundation Civic Science Fellow in Misinformation at GBH|NOVA);
  • mentorship in science communication and engagement, with Kristin Lewis and Rob O’Malley of AAAS; and
  • science communication from around the world: with Sarah Iqbal from India, Meital Salmor from Israel, Roselyne Namayi from Kenya, Jessica Rohde in New Zealand, Marina Joubert from South Africa, and David Price from the United Kingdom. 

The seminar is convened by the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science -- although when it was first held ten years ago it was organized by Cornelia Dean, then science editor at the New York Times, and Dennis Meredith, an independent science communicator and trainer. It has always focused on supporting scientists in particular with best practices, theory, resources, and a stronger sense of community for doing public engagement with science – emphasizing moving beyond one-directional, deficit-based models of communication to dialogue-focused mutual learning and engagement. It has also sought to bridge research and practice in science communication by bringing together both communication researchers and practitioners.

In its ten years, the seminar has covered topics such as engaging through social media and the media, engaging with policymakers, using visuals in communication, strategies for creating greater institutional support for public engagement, how to reach different audiences, engaging via public events or at science museums, and ways to make science engagement more inclusive. Starting in 2021 and continuing this year, the seminar has shifted to include community and scientist leaders from science-community partnerships as the basis for the panels, to focus on the public perspective of what makes these deeper, often more equitable, forms of engagement successful and sustainable.


Elana Kimbrell

Project Director

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