In many cases, we are living in a golden age of popularization and dissemination in terms of the infrastructure, the support, and the activity we have for translating complex science, informing different publics and trying to build an appreciation for science. Even 5 years ago it would be hard to predict the things that we are seeing today.
What would an infrastructure for life science communication look like? Studies on the effectiveness of public engagement—as well as examples of existing public engagement infrastructures from academic, government, and private institutions—provided a framework for discussing future communication infrastructures for the life sciences.
In general terms, explained Brooke Smith of COMPASS at the start of the workshop, infrastructure refers to “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.”8 Infrastructure for science communication and public engagement includes the operational structures, policies, and cultures at research institutions, in scientific enterprises, and even in science and society more broadly that are needed for communication and engagement. An infrastructure for life science communication, Smith continued, is sustainable if it is adaptable, scalable, transferable, and lasting.
The components of such an infrastructure, said Smith, should include (i) resources, especially time and funding for public engagement activities; (ii) incentives, such as consideration for public communication in promotion and tenure decisions; (iii) training in engagement skills and the ability to practice them; (iv) the freedom to choose the content to share (e.g., to communicate about one’s science rather than to promote one’s institution); (v) training in identifying the target audience for a communication effort in recognition that the public is not a monolithic group but rather multiple “publics;” (vi) the ability to adapt to the changing media landscape; (vii) academic institutions that support a cultural change, such as through the incorporation of communications training in graduate science education; and (viii) access to the science of science communications.
Scientists are adept at conducting research and publishing their findings for consumption by other scientists. But this, Smith asserted, is just the beginning of the communication process. Between the completion of a study and the start of engagement with nonscientist audiences lies a gap that Smith referred to as the “valley of death” (Figure 4-1). Sustainable infrastructures can help scientists navigate this difficult terrain. Nalini Nadkarni of the University of Utah offered an alternative interpretation of this gap, suggesting that it could be considered “the mountain of understanding.” Becoming more adept at navigating the scientist–nonscientist interface allows one to climb this mountain, and “actually get the advantage and benefit and the feedback” that scientists and society both desire. “It is not a one-way street,” she remarked.
8Definition from Oxford Dictionaries 2014, www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/infrastructure.
FIGURE 4-1. Where infrastructures for life science communication are needed within the research-to-societal-outcomes pipeline. Brooke Smith argued that, where scientific research interfaces with society, many scientists perceive a “valley of death” where little infrastructure is in place to guide their engagement with diverse audiences (e.g., the popular media and policy makers). Source: Brooke Smith, slide 10.
Matthew Nisbet of American University described four main approaches to science communication and public engagement: (i) popularization and dissemination, (ii) strategic communication, (iii) public engagement and dialogue, and (iv) stakeholder-driven science or lay expertise (see Box 4-1).
The currently dominant model of science communication is the popularization and dissemination model, explained Nisbet. This model is reflected in popular science media, such as print and online science news sources, science blogs, television and radio coverage of science, and webcasts of scientific meetings. The access to and dissemination of science information, he observed, is of a type and a level that we couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago.
The popularization and dissemination model engages a core audience of science enthusiasts—10 percent to 20 percent of Americans according to some surveys—who comment on and repurpose science news and information and share it with a broader audience. The popularization and dissemination approach can shape the decisions and thinking of policy makers, journalists, and funders. Using this approach, scientists can increase their citation impact, influence peers, and develop skills and experience.
Models of Science Communication and Public Engagement
Matthew C. Nisbet (American University) reviewed the four major models of science communication and public engagement that have been studied in the literature over the past 15–20 years:
• Popularization and Dissemination: Reaches a core group of science enthusiasts and broadens its impact through sharing and incidental exposure; dominant communication model at present.
• Strategic Communication: Targeted communication, often by way of opinion leaders, to multiple audience segments.
• Public Engagement and Dialogue: Invites the public into the process of decision making to democratize the governance of science and technology.
• Stakeholder-Driven Science: A variant of the public engagement and dialogue model; treats science as a “co-production” between scientists and society.
However, noted Nisbet, critics have argued that the popularization and dissemination approach can lead to a “cycle of hype.” This may occur in part because of the emphasis by funding agencies on the broader impacts of research, which motivates scientists and institutions to “oversell” their findings. Further, media coverage often emphasizes near-term societal benefits and market development and downplays uncertainty and possible risks. Hype reduces scientists’ credibility in the eyes of the public. In addition, although one might assume that increasing knowledge through popularization would reduce controversy and disagreement, often this is not the case. Sometimes more scientific knowledge, argued Nisbet, can actually lead to more disagreement as each side in a highly polarized debate uses scientific evidence to camouflage differences in opinion or political goals.
The strategic communication model, continued Nisbet, draws on research to better understand audiences, to test messages, and to identify and work with opinion leaders who are trusted within the target audience. Using marketing segmentation methods, such as surveys, one can identify different groups within the population characterized by different underlying attitudes toward a particular topic (Figure 4-2). One can then use methods such as focus groups to gauge how different segments within the audience will respond to messages framed in various ways. However, the diversity of audiences, said Nisbet, could lead to difficulty in coordinating multiple message strategies and even unintended segment fragmentation (e.g., resulting from so-called “boomerang” effects, in which a communication strategy alienates its intended audience). Some critics have argued that the strategic communication model can become a tool for manipulating messages to achieve political goals (see Brossard and Lewenstein 2010). Nisbet gave an example of private interest groups that have used strategic communication to sway public opinion on scientific policy issues in California and Washington.
The other two models described by Nisbet involve the public in dialogue and decisions. The public engagement and dialogue model seeks to “democratize” science or its application to decision making. Through public meetings or online forums, citizens are able to express their views and participate in debate and collaboration. This approach can
FIGURE 4-2. Audience segmentation with respect to embryonic stem cell research. The circles represent four distinct groups within the population: Optimists, pessimists, conflicted, and disengaged. The size of each circle (and percentages within) corresponds to the relative sizes of those groups. The vertical axis quantifies the percentage of people within that group who favor embryonic stem cell research, which is reflected in the elevation of each circle. Demographic information for each group is provided underneath each circle. SES = Socioeconomic status. Source: Matthew Nisbet, slide 8; based on Figure 1 of Nisbet and Markowitz (2014).
increase trust and knowledge and reduce polarization among citizens. It can inform policy options and adapt knowledge to local contexts. However, noted Nisbet, critics have questioned whether the people who participate in these forums are truly representative of the population as a whole. Others have suggested that this approach is little more than a public relations strategy.
A variant of the public engagement model, the stakeholder-driven science or lay expertise model, turns to citizens for local knowledge and expertise, such as local agricultural practices or cultural heritage. The emphasis is on applied research that aims to solve a particular problem in a socially acceptable way, aligning research efforts with national, state, or local needs. By involving the public and stakeholders early on and then using the research process as a context for communication and participation, this approach promotes trust, appreciation, and support for research institutions among citizens and policy makers. But Nisbet cautioned that this model can be time-consuming and resource-intensive while also being incompatible with traditional models of collaboration.
Donald Boesch, director of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES), offered a glimpse of a small-scale infrastructure for outreach at UMCES. He began by explaining that UMCES is valued and funded by the State of Maryland based largely on what it does for citizens in terms of helping them use scientific knowledge to manage resources. Maryland state legislators and the Governor of Maryland turn to UMCES to learn about practical issues, such as the status of oyster or crab populations in the Chesapeake Bay, said Boesch. Thus, researchers at UMCES must consider the potential impact and practical use of the knowledge they generate.
Shortly after assuming his current position as president of UMCES, Boesch was influenced by a report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Boyer 1990), which argued that universities should move away from the traditional “three-legged stool” of research, service, and teaching to a model with more complex, action-oriented dimensions: (i) discovery, which emphasizes the outcome, as opposed to research, which emphasizes an activity; (ii) integration, which has to do with the responsibility of scholars to integrate their specialized knowledge with a broader range of knowledge; (iii) application, which differs from service because it puts researchers’ knowledge to use for the benefit of humankind; and (iv) teaching
Boesch put this model in place at UMCES, using it to define the requirements for promotion and tenure. UMCES researchers need no encouragement to engage in discovery. To promote and facilitate integration and application, Boesch uses a number of strategies. For example, he gives an award each year to the faculty member who has been most effective in application. To minimize the time required to communicate about their knowledge and results, he holds short, focused workshops to address particular problems. In addition, continued Boesch, UMCES created a communications office, whose guiding principle is that it is, first and foremost, about public education, not the institution’s reputation.
To emphasize the importance of communicating with the popular media, Boesch told participants how a journalist came up with the name “dead zone” to describe the area in the Gulf of Mexico characterized by low levels of dissolved oxygen. It was through that journalist’s writing—and, in particular, his simple yet powerful term for a complex problem—that the then-governor of Maryland made the connection between the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and similar processes occurring in the Chesapeake Bay. This story illustrates that the translation of knowledge into action is rarely linear, from scientist to decision maker; instead, argued Boesch, decision makers often get their information through the popular media, where skilled journalists must hone and package their messages well. For this reason, Boesch makes an effort to be available to reporters. Though rarely quoted himself, he helps them think through issues and frame their stories and points them to the appropriate experts.
Whereas Boesch must fight against the current to establish an infrastructure for public communication in a publish-or-perish culture, the Cooperative Extension System provides an example of an existing large-scale infrastructure supporting public engagement.
The Cooperative Extension System, explained Sonny Ramaswamy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was established by the Smith–Lever Act of 1914. Extension specialists translate science-derived knowledge into innovations and deliver it to end users,
such as farmers, who then implement these innovations as solutions to problems they are facing. Cooperative Extension, which is overseen by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is a partnership involving the federal government, state and local levels of government, and end users. Cooperative Extension offices are located in every county, parish, and borough in the United States, said Ramaswamy, and Extension specialists serve on panels and commissions in local communities.
Cooperative Extension uses numerous channels and tools to communicate with audiences that include not only agricultural producers, but also gardeners, local homeowners, and schoolchildren (Figure 4-3). From an early reliance on outreach via methods such as farmer field schools, agricultural demonstration farms, and radio and television, said Ramaswamy, Cooperative Extension has evolved with communication technologies. Now Cooperative Extension communicates using e-mail, the Internet, distance diagnostics, distance education, podcasts, apps for smart phones and tablets, and communities of practice. In particular, Ramaswamy noted, Cooperative Extension specialists are very familiar with social media, in part because agricultural producers have Twitter accounts and receive tweets related to, for example, agricultural pest abundance and weather events.
FIGURE 4-3. A graphical history of communication in the Cooperative Extension System. (Starting at the top left and following the dotted lines) What is known today as cooperative extension began as “farmer field schools” in the 1870s. The Cooperative Extension System was established in 1914 by the Smith-Lever Act, and consisted primarily of public lectures and tours. Today, the Cooperative Extension System encompasses a wide range of communication modalities and technologies, to enable both in- person and distance learning about agricultural resources. Source: Sonny Ramaswamy, slide 4.
In its outreach and communication activities, noted Ramaswamy, Cooperative Extension considers the importance of framing and ensures that its messages and resources are audience-driven and site-specific so that they stand out amid the sensory overload to which each of us is exposed. Cooperative Extension, he continued, consistently provides objective, science-based information and gains the trust of its audiences through its presence and service in local communities. The Cooperative Extension Service regularly evaluates its communication methods to assess their impact.
Cooperative Extension, said Ramaswamy, is a “well-kept secret” and one that could be used as a model for a life science communication infrastructure.
In a later panel discussion, Ramaswamy provided additional insights from Cooperative Extension. In many institutions, he said, public communication is an afterthought, with communications staff brought in only after the research is completed. At the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, in contrast, communications staff members are included in discussions at the inception of a research project. In this way, they are able to follow the story from the beginning, ask questions early on, and ultimately communicate the results effectively. Such an approach may help other institutions more effectively communicate science to the public.
Jack Schultz, Director of the Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri, introduced workshop participants to his center’s innovative approaches to public engagement. The ability to communicate about research with diverse audiences, he argued, should be part of the training of each science student. With this in mind, and with funding from a training grant, he has initiated a number of unusual collaborative projects. In one project, the center collaborates with the university’s journalism school, pairing undergraduate science students with journalism students in such a way that the journalism students learn about science, and the science students improve their communication skills. In another collaborative project, the university’s news bureau provides media training for the center’s faculty and graduate students, who then write news releases and other content about scientific findings for dissemination by the news bureau. In collaboration with the university’s theater department, the center assists with “applied theater” productions, which engage the audience in solving particular problems; this interactive approach, explained Schultz, can effectively communicate science-related messages to various audiences. Although the grant support is coming to an end, the projects have become so important to all parties on campus that the university is taking steps to institutionalize some of these activities.
To initiate collaborative projects like these, advised Schultz, requires an individual to champion the cause, a willingness to negotiate, and an understanding of the needs and interests of each party. Schultz acknowledged the difficulty of incorporating such communication and engagement activities into promotion and tenure evaluations. But he said that the center’s researchers gain considerable personal satisfaction—as well as improved teaching skills—from communicating and engaging with the public.
Nisbet asserted that these projects—especially the partnership with the journalism school—come closest to what he envisions for a university-level public engagement infrastructure. Such efforts, he said, could “turn a land grant university into a hub for public engagement.”
Throughout the workshop, many participants expressed a need for more organizations that operate at the boundary between science and diverse audiences. One such organization, COMPASS, helps scientists engage effectively as productive members of societal dialogues, explained Chad English of COMPASS. Using a variety of techniques—such as one-on-one or small-group coaching—COMPASS helps scientists build connections and develop the knowledge and skills to determine when, where, and how to share their knowledge for greatest societal benefit. COMPASS aims to change the culture of the science community, said English, to one that values and prioritizes effective public outreach and communication.
COMPASS’s focus, continued English, is direct interpersonal interactions between scientists and others; the organization works by understanding and managing—or perhaps aggregating—credibility. With credibility within the science community, the policy community, and the popular media, COMPASS helps scientists not only to share their data, but to actually become involved in a conversation and to share the entire depth of their knowledge in their field. COMPASS has no policy endpoint, no agenda, and no institutional brand to advance; the organization’s goal is purely to get the scientists in the room as participants in a way that can help drive a richer, more open, and constructive conversation, said English.
Bruce Lewenstein of Cornell University observed that, in addition to groups such as COMPASS, boundary organizations include the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other scientific societies.
About two hundred scientific professional organizations focus on the life sciences, explained Erika Shugart of the American Society for Microbiology. “One of the things that member organizations do is really know their members,” she added, implying that scientific professional societies are a resource for community sentiment and public engagement. In addition, she cited a 2010 survey done by the American Institute of Biological Sciences,9 which found that most members of professional organizations in the life sciences are members of two to three societies; a society’s reach is larger than just its direct membership through extended national and international networks.
The American Society for Microbiology, she continued, addresses public engagement and science communication in three basic ways: Professional development, opportunities and resources for scientists to interact with the public (e.g., podcasts, videos, and science cafés), and the society’s direct communication with the public. The goal, Shugart stated, is to use member-centric approaches to empower members to be better communicators.
During panel discussions, Rick Borchelt (U.S. Department of Energy) and several other participants noted the lack of objective metrics for evaluating the effectiveness of public engagement activities. Even when we do have metrics, added Borchelt, they are not widely shared in a community of practice.
From her experiences with Wilburforce awardees, asserted Amanda Stanley of the Wilburforce Foundation, anecdotes may be the best way to evaluate effectiveness. John Burris of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund noted that his organization does not evaluate awardees based on their success as communicators. The National Science Foundation (NSF)
tries to persuade grantees that communication is important, said Dennis Schatz of NSF. But, he argued, if every grant that NSF funds had a positive impact, then NSF might not be doing its job, because we also need to find out what does not work. We need to have some failures and recognize their importance and learn from them, continued Schatz.
Erica Goldman of COMPASS observed that we don’t know what we are spending on science communication, and we don’t know what we’re getting from the investment. Goldman and Borchelt emphasized that evaluation should be a core component of any sustainable infrastructure. Goldman wondered whether filling these knowledge gaps is a prerequisite for building a sustainable infrastructure, or whether filling the gaps and building the infrastructure can happen simultaneously. Kei Koizumi of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy argued that a sustainable science communication infrastructure will have to develop while some gaps in knowledge remain.
If we collected information to fill the knowledge gaps, Schatz asked, at what point can we make a decision? We don’t know the best metrics to use to evaluate the impact of communication and engagement activities. And it can be difficult to determine what is being spent on these efforts. But many good models are out there, said Schatz, such as the Nanotech Network. An analysis of networks like this might help us see how the life sciences should build its infrastructure.
Martin Storksdieck of the National Academy of Sciences agreed with the importance of evaluations, but he argued that we also need to consider the potential for a collective impact, which may not be easy to evaluate.