About 25 years ago … it was almost comical to watch the scientific community truly scramble because scientists had no clue how to talk to the public and how to approach the issues that we were facing. I think that was a rude awakening to some of the problems that we will be facing today.
The models are changing. Even peer review has changed. When you think about social media [and its] potential impact on peer review, it reminds me about a case study with the arsenic-eating bacteria … and a very healthy debate that happened in the blogosphere. It ended up scrutinizing that article in a way that hadn’t been possible with the traditional view of peer reviewing.
The exploration of historical and contemporary trends in public engagement emerged as a second major theme in the workshop, with discussions of recent scholarship as well as journalists’ and scientists’ perceptions. The few studies that have been conducted have yielded broad insights into the challenges facing science communication today, and presentations by workshop participants who led some of those studies ignited a spirited discussion of goals, incentives, and obstacles in the current practice of science communication.
Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University summarized some of the changes over time in scientists’ attitudes toward public engagement and the predominant forms of science communication. In addition, John Burris, director of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, highlighted some of the major milestones over the past 2 centuries in public awareness of science, changing forms of public engagement, and sources of funding for science communication. These historical overviews are summarized here to provide context for the contemporary trends discussed later in this chapter.
In the early 19th century, explained Burris, discoveries reported in scientific journals triggered a wave of public interest in science. In response, scientists began giving public lectures on their experiments or explorations. The most famous talks during this period, said Burris, were the Royal Institution Christmas lectures in London, which began in 1825. At the same time, newspapers began to cover science. Lectures and newspapers, along with museums, were the primary means of science communication well into the 20th century.
In 1951, the American Association for the Advancement of Science revised its goals, stating its intention to increase public understanding and appreciation of science, noted Lewenstein. It was an early effort to promote what Lewenstein described as a cultural shift “to improve public discussion and use of science information.”
This effort was perhaps prescient: When Sputnik was launched in 1957, Americans became very concerned about competing globally in science and technology, asserted
Burris. Education about science and its importance was considered the best way to communicate. Curricula were revised with this in mind. Moreover, the National Science Foundation (NSF) initiated the Public Understanding of Science program in 1958, said Lewenstein. At the same time, television was beginning to replace newspapers as the primary mechanism for the communication of science, Burris stated.
Momentum for the broader communication of science began to build in the 1970s and 1980s, Lewenstein contended, citing WGBH’s creation of the science television series NOVA, the launch of several popular scientific periodicals, and the establishment of mass media fellowships by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, all of which occurred during those 2 decades. Burris also highlighted the importance of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in 1975, which was covered by Rolling Stone Magazine. He asserted that this unprecedented coverage by the popular press thrust life scientists into the spotlight as communicators.
Scientists were becoming more open toward public communication, continued Lewenstein. Research by Dunwoody and Scott (1982) showed that contact between scientists and the popular media was occurring more often than expected. In particular, they found that more than half of the scientists they interviewed had granted at least one interview (and, on average, more than four interviews) with a journalist. Of those scientists who had spoken with a journalist, explained Lewenstein, 75 percent said that they would do so again.
However, sources of friction embedded within the culture of scientists slowed the move toward widespread participation in public outreach. Lewenstein quoted from Dunwoody and Ryan’s (1985, p. 26) nationwide survey, which found that scientists believed “there is little to be gained within science by engaging in the public dissemination of information,” despite acknowledging that public outreach might be “instrumental in obtaining external rewards such as research funding.” Lewenstein also cited more formal obstacles to communication during that time, such as a medical society in Florida that prohibited doctors from being quoted in media stories without the society’s prior approval.
Researchers in emerging areas with clear ethical or political implications (e.g., biotechnology and genetically modified foods), however, recognized the need for “good press” to continue their work. “That led to a change in the incentives in favor of communicating with the public,” argued Lewenstein. “Suddenly, it was okay to talk to journalists, at least for some scientists.” Simultaneously, institutional support for science communication grew, as seen in the establishment of new science museums and interactive science centers during this time, as well as a new grant-review criterion at NSF, Broader Impacts,7 established in 1997.
Today, science magazines for lay audiences are scarce, and newspapers’ science coverage is declining, observed Burris. Increasingly, people learn about science through electronic media as well as radio and television programs. Yet scientists have always been more comfortable communicating indirectly through the printed page, he asserted. Museums and zoos continue to play an important role in augmenting the public’s familiarity with scientific concepts. “We lose sight of how many people learn their science in traveling to a museum, in traveling to a zoo,” Burris remarked. “They put the animals in context in a scientific fashion or the exhibits in a scientific fashion, much better than what has been in the past.”
Lewenstein mentioned a survey of UK scientists and engineers conducted in 2005, which revealed that nearly 75 percent had taken part in at least one public engagement
7“Broader Impacts” is one of two review criteria used by the NSF during the merit review of proposals. It “encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes” (National Science Foundation 2013, p. III-2).
activity in the past year, an 18 percent increase since 2000 (The Royal Society 2006). In a small replication of this survey, Lewenstein and his colleagues found that around 91 percent of life scientists at Cornell had participated in at least one public event during the past year. The Cornell survey led to new incentives. In particular, he said, “our biotech center established a $10,000 research support prize for the group within the center that was doing the best job of presenting at a public symposium.”
Looking forward, Burris predicted that, although the mechanisms will change to some extent, the popular media will continue to play an integral role in the overall enterprise of science communication. “It … reaches a lot more than that public lecture of 1825 or that scientist speaking to Mrs. Jones’ third-grade class in Wake County.”
David Ewing Duncan, a health and science journalist, and David Malakoff, deputy news editor of Science magazine, offered their perspectives as journalists interacting with scientists today. In particular, they described some of the obstacles they have encountered as journalists reaching in. “As a science writer,” said Duncan, “it is my job to explain things. I am obviously dependent, as a nonscientist, on having scientists willing to talk to me.” But quite often, he remarked, scientists who discuss their research in an open, engaging way in conversations prior to a recorded interview will “shut down” once they are on the air, barely speaking at all. In other cases, two scientists who engage in a heated debate behind closed doors will “clam up” once the cameras are rolling. The explanation, observed Duncan, typically appears to be a concern over saying something that would endanger one’s career.
At the other end of the spectrum, Duncan continued, Carl Sagan was always eager to talk to reporters. Even near the end of his life, when he was sick, Sagan insisted on providing an interview, saying it was something he had to do. Sagan also admitted at one point that he communicated out of “naked self-interest”—in other words, explained Duncan, his public engagement brought him fame and research funding.
Sometimes, however, scientists may be willing to talk to reporters, at least in part, because they have an agenda, cautioned Malakoff. “Much of science communication takes place in the context of an agenda—a researcher [and] a university attempting to tout their work, a lab attempting to tout [its] work, a foundation attempting to tout [its] work,” said Malakoff. “What is often lacking, of course, is any kind of outside context, criticism, or comment.”
In the past couple of decades, Duncan said, academic scientists seem to have become much more comfortable speaking with the press and with the public. “As a reporter,” he recalled, “when I first started out, there was a lot more resistance among scientists. They were busy. They didn’t have the training. They didn’t understand or see the importance of communicating with the media. A lot of them were afraid of the media….” But today, Duncan said, scientists seem to be much more interested in communicating. On the demand side, added Malakoff, the audience for science information today is probably larger than it has ever been.
Despite the growth in the supply of, and demand for, the public communication of science, Malakoff noted that popular science journalism “is under great threat right now because of funding changes and a drop in advertising.” An independent voice is important to provide the public with a balanced picture. “If you don’t have an independent voice,” argued Malakoff, “then it becomes an echo chamber.”
Kathryn Foxhall, a health and medical reporter, sees another threat to popular science journalism: Policies regulating communications between science staff and the media. Over the past 20 years, she has seen federal agencies introduce new policies that have severely limited the types of interactions that journalists could have with science staff. In the past, she recalled, reporters were able to converse openly with the science staff at federal agencies. From these conversations, reporters were able to become educated about the science, which enabled them to frame their stories properly. Today, journalists typically must seek permission from an agency’s public affairs office for each interview. Delays often stretch for days, in part because many agencies have few public affairs staff members. Sometimes, public affairs officers do not allow reporters to speak to anyone, or routinely block requests by a particular reporter. If the agency does allow a source to speak, noted Foxhall, monitors often listen in and may prevent the discussion of certain topics.
To illustrate the value of open communication, Foxhall relayed an experience she had reporting on the AIDS epidemic during its early years. While interviewing a doctor at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about program cuts amidst an outbreak of the then-still-unfamiliar disease, she noticed that the optimistic message he was conveying seemed disingenuous. “One would think that with a fatal epidemic exploding, we could be urgently honest with each other, but not so,” she remarked. However, because no public affairs oversight was in place at the time, she was able to obtain an unfiltered opinion from her contact on the condition of anonymity. “It was like a light being switched on in a dark cave. He told me why people were going to die and how it related to AIDS. Just as importantly, he told me how the system worked,” she recalled. “Had he been tracked by the PR office, like today, he would have stuck to the official story, which was completely accurate and completely misleading and muddling for the 30,000 public health professionals I wrote for.”
As a result of these increasingly aggressive restrictions, Foxhall estimated that the frequency of contact between journalists and federal scientists has declined by more than 90 percent over the past 2 decades. “This is powerful, mean censorship,” Foxhall asserted, “that is now a cultural norm.” She cited Gary Pruitt, president of the Associated Press, for pointing out that nonofficial news sources are critical to the free press and for holding government accountable. Without access to federal scientists who are closest to the story, Foxhall argued, reporters will hear only the official stories from the official sources, and citizens will know only what the government wants them to know.
This kind of censorship, said Foxhall, has concealed horrific events. For an example, she cited the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the U.S. Public Health Service studied 399 African American men with syphilis—without ever treating them or informing them that they were infected. This experiment continued for 40 years, she noted, and ended only as a result of the unauthorized conversations of a former Public Health Service researcher with a reporter. True informed consent in research on humans is not possible, asserted Foxhall, if organizations that conduct or fund the research are silencing scientists. “To save our lives and our integrity,” she continued, “the press needs gushing rivers of unauthorized communications; confidential conversations; discussions that bosses would never, ever approve of; and talks with as many of the ‘wrong’ people as possible.”
Foxhall acknowledged the importance of coordinating an agency’s official response, and she agreed that individual scientists speaking candidly may be wrong or may have their own agendas. But this is why reporters must confirm everything they are told, she said. “There is no more hazardous information source than the official story,” Foxhall observed. “It is usually not the whole story, and it is frequently politically induced or self-promoting for the agency or the leaders.” Furthermore, she said, the majority of what is
blocked by the new restrictions is noncontroversial information to which no one would object.
While the anecdotes from Duncan, Malakoff, and Foxhall were compelling and suggest a science communication landscape currently in flux, researchers in the communications field have built a sizeable body of research on how and why scientists engage with the public today. Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin–Madison summarized her research on scientists’ interactions with journalists as well as scientists’ use of social media.
In a survey of about 1,200 biomedical scientists in the five top research and development countries (France, Germany, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom) from 2005 to 2006, Brossard and her colleagues found that interactions between scientists and journalists are surprisingly frequent. Of the scientists surveyed, 30 percent said they had interacted with the media more than five times in the past 3 years, and 39 percent reported between one and five interactions. Overall, said Brossard, the respondents perceived these interactions positively, and most felt that they’d had a neutral-to-positive impact on their careers (Peters et al. 2008).
In a later survey of 1,200 U.S. biomedical scientists, Brossard and colleagues again found that about two-thirds of respondents had engaged in at least one interaction with the media. Interestingly, though, they found no evidence that the frequency of scientists’ media interactions was related to positive or negative extrinsic factors, such as greater visibility to funders or critical reactions from peers. Instead, the frequency of media contacts appeared to depend on the scientists’ status (gauged by career level and number of publications), whether they had received formal communications training, their perceptions of how well they interact with the media, and intrinsic rewards (i.e., personal enjoyment). In other words, observed Brossard, institutional barriers were not apparent from this study (Dunwoody et al. 2009).
With the rise of social media, Brossard asserted, the notion that journalists are the only intermediaries between scientists and the public is outdated. Scientists are increasingly using social media to communicate directly with the public; and the public—not the media—can decide what goes viral. To examine scientists’ engagement through social media, Brossard and her colleagues conducted a survey of 254 tenure-track faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. Across ages, genders, and disciplines, 42 percent of respondents reported that they blog about their research; of these respondents, nearly half blogged at least once each month (Figure 3-1). Almost 20 percent of respondents tweet at least once a month. The study also revealed social media’s potential effects on academic impact: Being mentioned on Twitter amplified the effects of more traditional communication, resulting in more citations for a scientist’s publications (Liang et al. in press). Contrary to expectation, however, a scientist’s social media presence did not depend on her age (Yeo et al. 2014). “We need to stop saying it is just the young scientists,” Brossard argued. “It is really a change in the dynamic of science communication.” She cautioned that these results may not be representative of scientists’ behavior at other institutions because the University of Wisconsin rewards faculty for being mentioned in the news or on social media. Given scientists’ increasing use of social media, Brossard highlighted the importance of understanding priming, framing, and ways in which this kind of communication can backfire.
FIGURE 3-1. Scientists’ participation in social media. Unpublished data derived from a survey of tenure-track scientists at a large research university (n = 254). Source: Dominique Brossard, slide 11.
Diane Harley of the University of California, Berkeley, gave workshop attendees an overview of her research on scholars’ decisions regarding when and how to communicate the results of their work. Harley distinguished between archival publication (a final, peer-reviewed product) and in-progress communications (e.g., via conferences, public engagement activities, and social media). Although electronic forms of communication are consumed heavily, she said, promotion and tenure decisions in academia are based predominantly on traditional archival publication. On the other hand, she added, one’s reputation in science is affected by both archival publications and in-progress communications.
Harley and her colleagues interviewed 160 scholars at 45 institutions. They asked seven broad questions that focused on (i) promotion and tenure and professional reputation; (ii) criteria for disseminating research at various stages; (iii) sharing; (iv) collaboration; (v) resources created, resources consumed, and resource needs; (vi) public engagement; and (vii) the future. Though not initially a focus of this study, peer review quickly emerged as “the value system supporting the assessment and perceived quality of research” and “the primary mechanism through which research is made both effective and efficient.” In other words, Harley observed, peer review is clearly the “coin of the realm.”
In particular, Harley and her colleagues found that a stellar publication record, documenting “groundbreaking” research that “moves the field forward,” is considered essential for promotion and tenure. Teaching and public engagement (“service”) are generally considered secondary. They found a heavy reliance on peer-reviewed publications to aid promotion and tenure committees and external reviewers in the evaluation of scholarly work. Those interviewed felt that academic advancement “can and should” support nontraditional publishing models, provided that peer review remains a strong component of the process (Harley et al. 2010).
They also found that early, “half-baked” results are never shared publicly. Generally, scientists share their work first with a trusted group of colleagues, noted Harley. Public posting of working papers is typical in some disciplines, such as physics and
economics; in other fields, including biology, researchers do not post anything publicly prior to the penultimate draft that has been vetted by an inner circle—and that shared draft is often simultaneously submitted to a journal. Young scholars, said Harley, appear to be especially conservative about sharing their work; they are concerned about being “scooped” and getting “off-track” in terms of their career. Although some informants reported feeling an “obligation” to “give back” to the public in return for taxpayer-supported research funding, they nevertheless viewed public engagement as appropriate only for senior scholars. Young scholars, Harley continued, are told to focus on research, teaching, and getting published and are cautioned not to get distracted.
Harley emphasized that public communication and engagement are complex: Building an infrastructure based on the early sharing of ideas and results could be a waste of time if it ignores the culture of a given field or the needs of young scholars.
Phillip Needleman of Washington University recounted some of his early experiences in academia, when communication occurred only in the form of publications, abstracts, meeting presentations, and grant applications. One primarily communicated with experts in one’s own field. “We used three-letter jargon codes and we didn’t and couldn’t communicate with others,” he said, adding that public discourse was seen as a distraction from achieving tenure or from advancing the science.
When he became a department chair, Needleman and his colleagues invented what he referred to as the “single greatest communication experience” he had ever known. They held weekly brownbag research seminars at which all faculty members and graduate students took turns presenting research; every other talk had to be outside of the presenter’s scientific field. Because it was a small department, everyone led the seminar several times each year. Through these seminars, observed Needleman, faculty and students flourished, learned new fields, and learned how to communicate and think on their feet.
When Needleman left academia for an industry position pursuing drug development, he found a very different environment. In industry, the goal is a successful product that receives regulatory approval, appropriate market share, and a competitive position. Thus, the great barrier for science communication in industry, he explained, is the need to protect intellectual property; all communications are strongly influenced by legal and business considerations.
Needleman has also served on the boards of the St. Louis Science Center and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Such centers, he asserted, offer excellent opportunities to engage with the public through exhibits and presentations. One exhibit and debate on evolution—a controversial topic in Missouri—was received positively, he said, probably in part because the “pro” side was presented by medical students who had gained the trust of the participants. In another science center demonstration, a violinist from the St. Louis Symphony and a nonmusician underwent neurological imaging while listening to music and other sounds to demonstrate differences in patterns of neurological activation. Hundreds of people watched this demonstration live, noted Needleman; in addition, it was televised, and discs were made for education programs.
Drawing from his diverse experiences, Needleman described several obstacles to communication with the public. At an institutional level, he observed a general lack of training in teaching and communication for life scientists. At an individual level, scientists communicating in a presentation format tend to use complicated, crowded slides and excessive jargon, Needleman observed. Communication in such formats could be improved by better understanding the audience; simplifying complex issues; using fewer, more
readable slides; and eliminating jargon. “Make it interesting,” he said. “Tell stories so that they can visualize the data.”
Rewards for engaging with the public are frequently inadequate, he said, and prevailing attitudes discourage public communication. In the pharmaceutical industry, secrecy—driven by competition and patent positioning—is sometimes an obstacle to communication, he added. When public communication does occur, results are sometimes sensationalized. Needleman cautioned against what he described as a tendency for scientists to overpromise or overinterpret, instead arguing for an unbiased approach to communicating about controversial topics.