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Role of goals & objectives in public engagement with science


by Elana Kimbrell

When we at the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology differentiate public engagement from other types of science communication, we often emphasize the mutual learning in public engagement with science: both scientists and the public are listening to one another via a dialogue or conversation, ultimately allowing both scientific and societal expertise to be integrated in addressing issues at the science-society interface. This is related to the widespread recognition that the deficit model, one approach to science communication that primarily seeks to inform people (i.e., fill knowledge gaps), isn’t a very effective form of communication.

However, some communication researchers (Besley et al. 2016) have pointed out that while scientists are adopting dialogue-based approaches when communicating with the public, many are still focused on reducing knowledge deficits. At least one concern with this is that even if scientists are effectively conveying information to their public audiences, they haven’t yet embraced the array of broader goals and objectives associated with public engagement with science.

In their more recent (2017) paper, Scientists’ views about communication objectives, Besley, Dudo, and Yuan try to understand why scientists focus on various communication objectives. They also dig into the difference between goals and objectives, defining goals as the longer-term, ultimate outcomes that motivate scientists’ engagement, while objectives are shorter-term and more specific to an individual activity or interaction, and build iteratively toward goals.

Their research also acknowledges scientists’ concerns with the perceived ethicality of goals and objectives that intend to affect behavior. This is important because the perceived ethicality of a given objective often drives whether a scientist chooses to pursue that objective (Besley et al. 2015). The authors ask: are scientists involved in public engagement truly satisfied with educating or informing their public audiences and having no additional effect on their behavior? Some are, some are not, and some grapple with the ethicality of encouraging such effects. Reflecting honestly about the ethicality of engagement objectives and goals improves both the odds for success and an individual’s level of comfort with communication and engagement.

During our AAAS Communicating Science workshops, we do find that some scientists resist or are offended by strategic engagement goals or objectives that seek to change behaviors – saying they want to provide information but not tell people what to do with it, and they worry setting goals or objectives could be perceived as manipulating people or spinning information. Yet, as Besley et al. point out, leaders in the scientific community call for scientists to communicate, often with a desire to affect the public’s behavior. For example, the National Academies’ report Communicating Science Effectively, includes “influencing people’s opinions, behavior, and policy preferences” as one of the five main goals of communicating science.

We encourage scientists to make their goals or objectives more engagement-oriented by thinking about the specific next step or outcome they’d like to see resulting from their efforts. For those less comfortable with this, a behavior change could be as simple as eliciting a question, thus demonstrating engagement with the information, or helping people make more informed decisions.

What's your view on engagement goals or objectives? Does a goal count as a public engagement goal if it doesn’t involve changing someone’s behavior? How important is it to you to parse out whether you’re participating in “public engagement with science” or other forms of science communication? Join us on Trellis to discuss these and other issues related to Public Engagement with Science.


A few related resources:

Persuasion and Influence: Dirty Words In Science Communication? (Brooke Smith, formerly COMPASS, now the Kavli Foundation)

Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda (National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine)

Ethics and Practice in Science Communication (Edited by Susanna Priest, Jean Goodwin, and Michael Dahlstrom)