What really are our goals and what do we think we can accomplish?
Altruism is not a sustainable model.
In building a sustainable infrastructure for life science communication, where do we find friction? How can we capitalize on existing momentum? Throughout the workshop, participants emphasized that friction stems from a lack of funding, time, and training as well as professional cultures that undervalue public engagement. Important points of growth mentioned by participants included scientist–communicator partnerships, the integration of science with the arts and humanities, and operational models of science communication infrastructure found in several academic and government institutions.
During panel discussions, participants examined a number of specific barriers and concerns that have emerged in today’s science communication landscape, including a lack of extrinsic rewards and the potential hazards of social media use by scientists. They also explored existing and potential means of overcoming some of the obstacles. This section organizes those discussions into themes.
Time and Money
Many participants cited a lack of time as a fundamental barrier to the public communication of the life sciences. Scientists who are hired as basic researchers, explained Craig McClain of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and Daniel Colón-Ramos of Yale University, must focus on their research; this leaves limited time for public engagement. Chad English of COMPASS added that a lack of money and other resources required to travel for communication or engagement purposes is also a problem.
Extrinsic Rewards and Disincentives
One reason why scientists feel they have insufficient time for public engagement is the prevailing culture of science institutions, which, as Colón-Ramos stated, tends to characterize public communication as little more than a hobby.
In particular, workshop participants repeatedly cited promotion and tenure criteria as barriers to greater public engagement by scientists in academic institutions. These criteria currently place little weight on public engagement, said May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. English noted that younger scientists tend to be concerned
about where they are in their careers and whether it is appropriate for them to engage in public communication activities. Many scientists feel that they must wait until they achieve tenure before they can become involved in public engagement, continued English. Nalini Nadkarni of the University of Utah said she spent most of her time on building her science “cachet” when she was a junior faculty member; now, as a more senior scientist, she feels that she has the freedom to put more time into public engagement.
Berenbaum noted that the paucity of tangible rewards for public engagement affects scientists at all career levels. She also cited a lack of objective metrics for evaluating the quality of public engagement efforts by scientists.
Participants reconsidered some of the data presented by Diane Harley (University of California, Berkeley) and Dominique Brossard (University of Wisconsin–Madison) on the effects of age and career stage on scientists’ engagement efforts. Harley’s results point to a reluctance to engage with the public on the part of younger scholars, but Brossard did not find a significant effect of “academic age” (years since obtaining a Ph.D.) on the likelihood of communicating through social media about one’s research. Brossard added, however, that her data are from scholars at the University of Wisconsin and may not be representative of academia as a whole.
Regarding the findings indicating that scientists apparently are not motivated by extrinsic rewards, Brooke Smith of COMPASS pointed out that the results might be different if extrinsic rewards actually existed. Rick Borchelt of the U.S. Department of Energy, agreed, but noted that scientists also are not unmotivated by negative extrinsic factors.
One formal incentive for public engagement, said Berenbaum, is NSF’s Broader Impacts criterion, which is used in the evaluation of all research proposals submitted to NSF. Amanda Stanley of Wilburforce Foundation noted that NSF introduced the Broader Impacts criterion but did so without an infrastructure to help grantees maximize the broader impacts. She compared this to requiring data sharing without providing a database through which to share the data. One participant pointed out, however, that an NSF-funded pilot project-sharing platform through the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education is now available.10
Several workshop participants commented that public communication is a two-way street, with benefits for both the scientist and the audience. Public engagement, said Colón-Ramos, has enhanced his research and his training of graduate students. As an example, he recalled a talk he gave to an audience of 7- to 10-year-old children. Their questions forced him to take a step back and reflect on the value of his research in a broader context. Nadkarni said that she has benefited from her engagement efforts by learning about moss horticulture and communicating with the media.
Berenbaum, Nadkarni, and other participants emphasized the benefits to scientists of citizen science efforts, such as those catalogued by the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.11 In particular, said Berenbaum, citizen scientists participating in Bee Spotter12 have successfully reconfirmed the presence in Illinois of species thought to be locally extirpated. Ornithology and astronomy depend heavily on information from citizen scientists, added Brossard.
FIGURE 5-1. Scientists with stories to tell. (Clockwise from top-left) Daniel Colón-Ramos, Nalini Nadkarni, and Craig McClain. Source: Brooke Smith, slide 24.
Fred Gould of North Carolina State University pointed out that scientists have always learned and benefited from their interactions with nonscientists. The careers of Cooperative Extension scientists, in particular, have sometimes been changed by insights into science provided by farmers.
One potential means of encouraging greater engagement was proposed by Ivan Amato of the DC Science Café. He suggested that one could generate profiles of scientists that discuss not only their research, but also their outreach efforts and their personal stories regarding how and why they got excited about science (e.g., Figure 5-1). These could be communicated to the general public to inspire interest in science, and to scientists to help shift the life sciences culture toward greater appreciation for public engagement.
Lack of Training
Many scientists lack training in communication with the public, with journalists, and via social media. The life sciences community does not have an understanding of good communication practices, said Borchelt. One cause, added Berenbaum, is graduate science programs that leave no room for communications and media training.
Participants were particularly troubled over the use of social media by scientists who have received insufficient training in the effective use of modalities such as Twitter. Philip Needleman of Washington University and other participants expressed concern that some scientists may feel compelled to engage in widespread dissemination of their research results prior to peer review and archival publication. Careless communication of results prior to publication could lead to misunderstanding by the public, cautioned Needleman. Sonny
Ramaswamy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture added that prepublication tweeting of results compromises scientists’ ability to protect their intellectual property.
Brossard said that scientists should receive training in the appropriate use of social media and the potential ways in which it can backfire. On the other hand, she argued, excessive concern by scientists over public communication may allow others to take the floor and circulate inaccurate, biased information. “We need vocal scientists,” she said, “because other … groups will be vocal if we are not.” She also pointed out that science has benefited from social media because it provides a type of scrutiny that is not possible with traditional peer review.
Harley said that the scientists she interviewed expressed concern about being misunderstood and misquoted. But, she continued, it’s important to consider what is being communicated. Her informants, including graduate students, had no desire to tweet or blog about their findings before vetting the work internally with colleagues. “It’s one thing to tweet the paper that you just published,” she observed, “versus the ‘sausage-making’ in the process of getting to that final product.” Borchelt pointed out that Twitter interactions may reveal a somewhat closed ecosystem that engages primarily other scientists, rather than the public. Brossard reminded participants that tweets are public, open, and searchable, allowing the public access to these conversations.
Colón-Ramos added that he has not seen much prepublished content on Twitter. He suggested that concerns about the potential backfiring of social media for scientists primarily have to do with using social media to communicate about prepublished content. Some scientists do tweet about their day-to-day work in their labs, said Colón-Ramos, such as technical aspects of their work; but they generally do not share their data in this way. Brossard’s surveys regarding the use of Twitter did not distinguish between published work and prepublication content. Anecdotally, though, she agreed with Colón-Ramos that scientists primarily tweet and blog about their published results, and possibly some prepublished results that have been presented at a conference.
In his previous positions in academic institutions, Ramaswamy said, a curator always glanced over a scientist’s communication before it was tweeted. The scientist did not need the approval of the curator or the communications department—it was simply a way to vet the communication, which could be especially important if it had to do with socially, politically, or environmentally sensitive information. He emphasized the need to find balance between possible censorship and a process of vetting or obtaining feedback on information before it is communicated.
Activism and Personal Agendas
Several participants mentioned the potential for science communication to be infected by a scientist’s personal agenda or that of her institution. Like any other journalists, remarked Dennis Schatz of the National Science Foundation, those who cover science try to give weight to both sides of a story. But, he said, one should not give equal weight to a perspective that is not based on science—for example, one should not present a perspective derived from religion or politics as if it represented one side of a scientific debate. In addition, the public communication of science lacks a peer review process, observed Kei Koizumi of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This places a greater burden on the audience in that we must be better able to evaluate what is communicated to us.
Foundations attempt to bring balance to dialogues about the issues they care about, said Stanley. Wilburforce funds projects that start with science and use the science to inform policies and actions, rather than projects that start with an agenda and then find the science
that appears to support that agenda. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation also aims to promote balanced communications, noted Kai Lee of Packard, and discourages communications that cross the line into activism.
Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University challenged workshop participants to take a step back and reflect more carefully on some fundamental questions. First, he challenged everyone to think about what is meant by “the public” and why it is good to communicate with the public about science. “It seems to me that there were many hypotheses out there, all of which were untested,” he stated. If we hope to make science more popular or to obtain more funding for research, we must remember that budgets are currently quite restrictive across the board, and better promotion of science will not make a difference, he argued. If we aim to facilitate the use of science to solve problems, we need to consider how the political segmentation of audiences for science may make this difficult (see comments by Matthew Nisbet in Chapter 4). “There are many publics, and … we want to reach them for many, many different reasons,” he added. Furthermore, he cautioned that before we encourage more people to become scientists, we should remember that we already have a problem with underemployed postdoctoral scientists in many fields.
Second, Sarewitz noted that the life sciences encompass diverse fields: “If toxicologists and epidemiologists hate each other [in terms of] regulating the risk of toxic chemicals, what does that mean about communicating science?” He suggested that “this whole effort to demarcate science as this thing we communicate is just as troubling as the effort to demarcate the public as this thing we communicate to. Until we actually take seriously this notion of science, not as this one big thing that we all get to be part of and that others get to not be part of, we can’t really take communication seriously.”
Third, we need to think about the institutions in which we practice science and in which we engage with publics. “The example of agricultural extension, I think, is a wonderful instance of an institution that has been around now for a century or more that has its own culture, does its own kind of science, has its own kind of interactions between scientists and [various audiences].”However, the types of science addressed by extension are very different from the types of science in other institutions. The types of science done in an institution reflect the culture of that institution and the stakeholders for that institution. He suggested that academic institutions may not be the best institutional settings for communicating certain types of science.
During workshop discussions, participants addressed many of the questions posed by Sarewitz, reevaluating the goals of engaging with various audiences. They outlined several possible goals for public communication and engagement: (i) To inform and educate the public; (ii) to help solve societal problems; (iii) to encourage more people to choose science as a career; (iv) to show the public the results of research supported by taxpayer funding; (v) to advocate for scientific research and, ultimately, for future research funding; and (vi) to promote an institution. Some argued that we must decide which goal to pursue and then tailor communication activities—and an infrastructure to support them—accordingly. Others countered that the goals for communication are closely entangled and that distinguishing among them is not necessary or productive.
Scientists want to communicate with the public, said Schatz, largely because they are excited about conveying what they do; they want the public to know about it, and they want kids to learn about it and be excited. This is a major incentive for researchers.
Mary Woolley of Research!America raised the issue of accountability, suggesting that the public communication of science is one way to explain to the American public the value of the research they have helped support. Accountability is critical in the environmental arena, noted Lee, because of the focus on common goods in the public sphere.
Koizumi argued that science communication is an integral part of the scientific enterprise. Simply by increasing science communication, we will increase public support for science. It is proper, he continued, for science communication to be integrated with federal research investments. If we are going to maximize the impact of research efforts, Koizumi observed, we must be able to communicate results to the people who either need or want to know about them.
Some scientific discoveries are of interest to the general public, observed Lee. But in recent decades, science has shed light on areas that are not of broad public interest but are very important to decision making. It is important to distinguish among different aspects and types of science communication, he argued, such as a museum appealing to the general public versus Cooperative Extension specialists communicating with farmers. Lee suggested that much of today’s public engagement activities appear to be based on the deficit model, that is, that merely providing more information will lead to a more informed public. “I think we are [still] struggling with the basic model of what it is we are trying to do in science communication,” he observed.
John Burris (Burroughs Wellcome Fund) echoed the sentiment that the science community often focuses on one goal—we want the public to be better informed. This is a goal that museums and zoos achieve very effectively. Ida Chow of the Society for Developmental Biology asserted that the public communication of science should not be focused only on communicating facts. Our obligation is really to help the public understand how the scientific process takes place. We need to educate scientists in how to include this in communications, she said. A second goal—increasing support for research—is very different and even requires a different form of training, said Burris. He argued that both goals are important, but in pursuing them, scientists tend to forget who their audiences are.
The purpose of science communication, asserted Andrew Rosenberg of the Union of Concerned Scientists, should be to actually use research results to improve people’s lives through public policy, not just to fund more research. Alan Slobodin of the House Energy and Commerce Committee added that communication aiming to increase research funding may not be an activity that the taxpayer should fund. We want National Institutes of Health research to result in cures, observed Slobodin, not just more money for itself.
At an institutional level, Borchelt explained, one can distinguish between two potential goals of public communication: institutional advancement versus informing the public and fulfilling our civic responsibility. Over the past 20–30 years, he said, he has observed a shift from a public information officer model—in which one person at an agency is responsible for informing the public and responding to media requests in a neutral, even-handed way—to a marketing and institutional advancement model. This has resulted, in part, from a change in the federal communications workforce. Previously, said Borchelt, most senior science communicators at agencies were career scientists or career officials at the institution; now, they are overwhelmingly political campaigners who take a campaign approach to science communication. Borchelt asserted that science public affairs and science public relations should focus on management of the “trust portfolio” between scientists or institutions and the public(s).
Enriqueta Bond of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund pointed out that agencies and institutions need to make a case for their importance to obtain the resources to fund research. Borchelt responded that some agency officials believe that, with science budgets falling, it is no longer enough simply to do good science and tell the public about it. As a result, they are increasingly using marketing and advertising techniques to sell science. No evidence supports the effectiveness of this approach, argued Borchelt, yet agencies are making a wholesale shift into marketing and institutional advancement. He lamented a lack of guidelines defining civic responsibility in terms of public communication.
Martin Storksdieck of the National Academy of Sciences and Smith both noted that workshop participants had become hung up on the lack of a clearly articulated goal for science communication. We can have different reasons, Smith said. But the question is, how should we, as a community, move forward?