[T]he word “science” is increasingly becoming part of the lexicon that the public utilizes. Of course, those of us interested in the scientific side of that dialogue often times find ourselves wanting to communicate. The question then becomes how best to do that, recognizing that … communication is really a two-way street at a minimum.
Advances in the life sciences—from the human genome to biotechnology to personalized medicine and sustainable communities—have profound implications for the well-being of society and the natural world. Improved public understanding of such scientific advances has the potential to benefit both individuals and society through enhanced quality of life and environmental protection, improved K-12 and undergraduate science education, greater understanding of human connections to the natural world, and more sustainable policies and regulations (Brossard and Lewenstein 2010, Nadkarni and Stasch 2012). Yet few systems of support exist to help life scientist communicators share their research with a broad range of public audiences, or engage the public in discussions about their work.
The form of communication traditionally favored by researchers and research institutions is the publication of results in archival peer-reviewed journals, which primarily reaches other scientists (Harley 2013). Efforts to expand the reach of scientific communication have been hindered by a lack of institutional and societal commitment to such activities as well as cultural inertia within the research community (Andrews et al. 2005). The use of the science of science communication to inform public engagement activities, as highlighted in 2012 and 2013 Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia at the National Academy of Sciences, is gaining traction among many science communicators. However, the science communication activities of life scientists are generally viewed by the broad science community as merely a hobby (Harley et al. 2010).
Concern about the myriad of challenges facing life scientists interested in public communication and engagement led the Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences to hold a two-part workshop on December 9, 2013, and January 10, 2014, in Washington, D.C., on the role of infrastructure in science communication. The workshop attendees included individuals in the room as well as more than 100 persons joining via webcast. Webcast participants actively engaged in discussions through Twitter (#NASinterface).
Key topics addressed during the workshop included the following:
• Personal experiences of life scientists with public communication
• History and research on communication infrastructures and culture
• Existing models of sustainable science communication infrastructure
• Resources for building science communication infrastructures
In his opening comments, Kenneth Ramos of the University of Louisville and workshop planning cochair discussed how integrating diverse perspectives was a key challenge the planning committee faced when developing the workshop agenda (see Appendix B). “I am a scientist and a physician who is obviously involved in trying to communicate, whether I communicate with my students, whether I communicate with my
patients, and whether I communicate with the public at large on issues related to science,” he said. The Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences and the planning committee members represent different sectors of this science communication dialogue. These different cultures are not trivial, noted Ramos: “Because we bring a different perspective, our filtering is different. Our way of looking at the problem is different.” However, Ramos emphasized, the diversity of perspectives is also a “critical” component of the dialogue for addressing sustainable science communication infrastructures.
May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign underscored that interest in science communication may be at an all-time high. In the past 2 decades, public engagement has evolved from simply telling people how wonderful science is to exploring—and taking into account—the social and ethical implications of scientific research, she explained. This popularity, in part, has led to increasing scrutiny of the content and structure of these communication efforts. During the workshop, several attendees argued that public discourse on the life sciences often lacks key information, such as clarity on areas of scientific consensus and acknowledgment of gaps in knowledge. Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University observed that many communication projects appear to be based on the ineffective and short-sighted deficit model—that is, the notion that most Americans lack basic scientific knowledge, and that, for poorly defined reasons, this knowledge gap must be filled (see Brossard and Lewenstein 2010). These opposing realities present challenges for life scientists wishing to communicate science more broadly in the future.
Workshop planning cochair, Brooke Smith of COMPASS, explained that as a starting point, the planning committee acknowledged that “there are a lot of different ways that scientists engage with the public, [and] this is good.” The planning committee did not want the workshop to become a discussion about what types of communication are the most effective. Instead, they agreed to focus on the question, “What allow[s] scientists to engage with the public?” More specifically, as Lewenstein later elaborated, “What are the operational structures and policies and cultures that enable and provide momentum for life sciences communication? As we look at those things, what is adaptable? What is scalable? What is transferable? Ultimately, what is sustainable?” Smith pointed out the paucity of information about the infrastructures supporting scientist communicators; she therefore encouraged workshop participants to pay close attention to “what we do know,” “what we don’t know,” and “what we really need to know” to build more sustainable infrastructures.
What emerged during the workshop, from presentations of empirical scholarship and personal experiences, was an understanding of the obstacles and opportunities life scientists have when communicating science. The obstacles highlighted by participants included a lack of funding, time, and training for such activities and the competing priority of publishing original research, and a professional culture that undervalues public engagement. Opportunities for infrastructure development included partnerships with professional science communicators, those in the arts and humanities, and government organizations. Presentations reviewing the scholarship on community attitudes and common approaches toward science communication further illuminated the strengths and weaknesses of current institutional structures for supporting science communication.
The presentations also led Lewenstein and others to pose a new question: “What, really, are our goals [for science communication] and what do we think we can accomplish?” Participants illuminated a lack of common goals for advancing an infrastructure for life science communication, reflecting the many and often personal reasons
scientists choose to engage with the public, as well as the variety of contexts in which science communication occurs (e.g., popular media, online media, local communities, and international communities). Consequently, the discussion of next steps revolved around the actions, rather than the goals, embedded in a sustainable infrastructure for life science communication.
On Day 1, Ramos opened Session 1 by welcoming participants; recognizing roundtable members, workshop organizers, and National Academy of Sciences staff; and discussing the goals for the workshop. Smith then explored the meaning of a sustainable infrastructure for life science communication. Berenbaum described her own public engagement activities and provided her perspective on the need for a life science communication infrastructure.
In Session 2, a panel discussion moderated by freelance health and science journalist David Ewing Duncan, life scientists shared their motivations for engaging with the public, what and how they communicate, and how they have overcome infrastructure-related obstacles. Daniel Colón-Ramos of Yale University described his online network connecting geographically dispersed Hispanic scientists and science communicators who collaborate in science education projects and in the creation of new scientific content in Spanish. Craig McClain of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center discussed his use of social media to reach out to diverse audiences about ocean science. Nalini Nadkarni of the University of Utah provided an overview of three innovative outreach projects that have engaged audiences—ranging from religious congregations to correctional facility inmates—in science and sustainability.
Session 3 focused on the infrastructure-related incentives and disincentives for public engagement by scientists in government, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and industry. After an overview by moderator Lewenstein, Sonny Ramaswamy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture discussed the Cooperative Extension Service as a model for life science communication infrastructure. Freelance health and medical journalist Kathryn Foxhall explained how the restrictive policies of some public affairs offices can reduce transparency in federal agencies and other institutions. Philip Needleman of Washington University described his diverse experiences with science communication in academia, industry, and community science centers. Diane Harley of the University of California, Berkeley, discussed her research on how and where academic scientists publish their results and their views of public engagement vis-à-vis their other professional responsibilities. Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin–Madison then summarized her findings regarding scientists’ interactions with the media, their use of social media, and the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards of these forms of communication. The session concluded with a panel discussion in which the session’s speakers and other workshop participants explored the available evidence regarding sources of friction and momentum in life science communication and outlined the gaps in knowledge.
Matthew Nisbet of American University started Session 4 with a presentation describing the main approaches to science communication and public engagement. Nisbet then moderated a panel discussion that considered the institutional infrastructures needed to connect life scientists with diverse publics. Panelists included Donald Boesch of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Rick Borchelt of the U.S. Department of Energy, Chad English of COMPASS, Jack Schultz of the University of Missouri, and Erika Shugart of the American Society for Microbiology. At the conclusion of
Session 4, Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University offered his reactions to the discussions of Day 1.
On Day 2, Borchelt and Lewenstein reminded participants of the information and insights gleaned from Day 1 presentations and discussions. In Session 5, moderated by David Malakoff of Science magazine, participants explored motivations, challenges, and innovative approaches for funding life science communication. John Burris of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund kicked off the session by describing the changing landscape of funding for science communication. The remainder of the session consisted of a panel discussion focusing on sources of friction and momentum in science communication funding. Panelists included Kei Koizumi of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kai Lee of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Dennis Schatz of the National Science Foundation, Alan Slobodin of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Amanda Stanley of the Wilburforce Foundation.
In Session 6, Smith engaged participants in a structured brainstorming activity to generate ideas for life science communication and engagement efforts deserving investment. Duncan then facilitated a panel discussion and audience dialogue addressing the major themes to emerge from the brainstorming activity. Panelists included William Provine of DuPont, Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Shugart, and Stanley. The discussions explored some of the building blocks of a sustainable science communication infrastructure—for example, institutional support, training, and transparency—and the potential roadblocks and returns expected for each of these elements. To close the workshop, Smith offered a synthesis of the progress made during the workshop and next steps.
Approximately 65 individuals participated in person on Day 1, and another 75 watched the live workshop webcast. On Day 2, about 29 people participated in person, and another 31 joined via the Internet. Online participants were encouraged to ask questions and contribute to discussions via Twitter (#NASInterface) or e-mail. Summaries of the Twitter discussions were published online on Storify.com by COMPASS (for Day 1)1 and by Ivan Fernando Gonzalez (for Day 2).2 Workshop presentations and archived presentation videos are available through the Public Interfaces website.3 Biographies of workshop speakers and panelists can be found in Appendix C, and a list of in-person participants for both days can be found in Appendix D.
Ramos and Smith served as cochairs for the workshop planning committee. The other planning committee members were Berenbaum, Borchelt, Lewenstein, and Stephen Palacios of Added Value Cheskin.
This report summarizes the presentations and discussions that took place during the workshop. It is organized by the major themes that emerged during the course of the workshop. Chapter 2 describes the personal experiences of life scientists who have pioneered public engagement in the absence of significant infrastructure. Their stories highlight the diverse forms that public engagement can take. Chapter 3 examines some of the history and scholarship on public engagement, from entrenched cultural frictions to the impacts of social media. Chapter 4 explores what a sustainable infrastructure for life science communication might look like, taking into consideration theoretical approaches to
communication as well as small-scale and large-scale examples of infrastructure. Chapter 5 examines where friction and momentum might exist within the current paradigm that may affect future science communication goals and approaches. Chapter 6 offers a synthesis of the ideas presented and assembles the components needed—including funding sources, goals, and approaches—to build an infrastructure for public communication of the life sciences.
This publication is a factual summary of the presentations and discussions at the workshop authored by rapporteurs. The views contained in the summary are those of the individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants, the organizing committee, or the National Research Council. The summary does not contain any findings or recommendations about needs and future directions; instead, it focuses instead on issues identified by the speakers and workshop participants.