conservative academic culture that emphasizes peer-reviewed publications and downplays the importance of public engagement.
No community of practice exists in life sciences communication, Borchelt added. The communications activities of scientists are surprisingly disconnected from the literature on science communications. For example, said Lewenstein, scientists still appear to follow a deficit model of communication, with the assumption that “if we just provide more information, then everything will be better.” This misconception persists in spite of social science research that has demonstrated the importance of audience segmentation, framing, and building trust. Borchelt emphasized that part of the problem is the lack of a good set of metrics and an articulation of what success would look like.
“Most organizations in the life sciences landscape have relatively robust communications activities,” Borchelt acknowledged. Their goals, audiences, and communication protocols are well defined, and they “are still primarily focused on legacy media, not new media, [and] not new models of communication.” In addition, institutions sometimes conflate marketing with communicating, making it difficult to distinguish between programs designed to tell the public about science and programs designed to promote the institution, said Borchelt. One troubling area is the effect of policies that may intentionally or unintentionally hamper communication—especially by government scientists—with the press or the public. “Gag orders” in the guise of coordinating communication create mistrust and dissuade scientists from communicating with anyone. As a rule, Borchelt argued, institutional policies should not create a “better safe than sorry” attitude toward communications; instead, they should err on the side of “better sorry than safe.”
Lewenstein noted that new media may be creating changes in institutional incentives, that new initiatives for training scientists are widespread, and that training efforts should be focused on core competencies, according to recent social science scholarship. Research has yet to demonstrate what steps need to be taken to change institutional infrastructures for science communication, however. Moreover, little information and discussion is available about incentives for and barriers to communication by scientists outside of academia and federal agencies.
Because research is not yet at the point where it can provide clear guidance on infrastructure-related needs, “we have a life sciences communications community that doesn’t really have a good theoretical focus on what [the] critical issues are,” Borchelt explained. There is agreement that life science communication is a good thing, but the community has yet to agree on what it wants to accomplish with life sciences communication. Both the life scientist and the science communication communities-of-practice are disconnected from the social science research being brought to light by the National Academy of Sciences Sackler Colloquia on the Science of Science Communication and other forums. Lewenstein agreed that better connections between the science communication research and practice communities are needed. But, he said, the ultimate question is, “what really are our goals and what do we think we can accomplish?”
Over the past 2 centuries, as public interest in science and forms of engagement have evolved, the sources and amounts of funding for science communication have also changed. On the second day of the workshop, John Burris of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund provided a brief history of science communication funding sources. Participants then discussed current funding for public engagement and possible means of funding a sustainable life sciences communication infrastructure.