The role of institutions really needs to be highlighted in the whole process of communication and whatever it might mean between science (whatever it is in all of its diverse glory) and the publics (and all of their diverse glory) …. [T]hey require resources—serious resources—as serious as the ones that go into research.
Even if there is no infrastructure, scientists are still communicating. Scientists are still finding [a] way to do it … infrastructure we build around science communication could make it more possible, easier, and even rewarding for scientists.
How can we use existing public engagement initiatives—and the lessons learned from such efforts—to build a life science communication infrastructure? How can we fund the infrastructure and ensure its sustainability? Workshop participants engaged in a lively discussion and a mock resource allocation activity to consider the value of potential elements of a communication infrastructure.
To frame discussions about next steps, Bruce Lewenstein (Cornell University) and Rick Borchelt (U.S. Department of Energy) summarized key points from the presentations through the lenses of science communication research and science communication practice, respectively. Lewenstein pointed out that presentations and discussions were designed to bring out what is known, what is unknown, and “what questions we are still trying to sort out.” These questions were examined, added Borchelt, across three different areas of practice: the private-individual level, the institutional level, and the community-of-science level. We heard from many passionate life scientists who are communicating about their research, he said. For the most part, they have done this without overt institutional support and usually with institutional “benign neglect,” though seldom with active hostility. What is most unfortunate, continued Borchelt, is that the ability to scale up scientists’ engagement activities to regional or national models is usually unsuccessful due to the lack of institutional support and other resources. Echoing May Berenbaum (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Borchelt emphasized that “altruism and public service” are not sustainable paradigms for life science communication.
At this workshop, continued Lewenstein, we have assumed that we can increase communication by creating or expanding extrinsic rewards. But research findings shared by Diane Harley (University of California, Berkeley), Dominique Brossard (University of Wisconsin–Madison), and others suggests that, at least in academia, “extrinsic rewards don’t actually seem to make much difference as to whether or not people communicate.” In addition, research demonstrates that scientists are not deterred by the notion that there will be active disapproval of science communication activities. However, “scientists do remain conservative in their attitudes about what should be rewarded,” said Lewenstein. In academic institutions, Borchelt remarked, the biggest challenge to communication is the
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.
In the 1800s, said Burris, funding for science communication came indirectly from the public through newspaper purchases. By the 1950s, funding was derived mostly from advertising in television, on the radio, and in newspapers. In the 1970s, he explained, the public communication of science was supported largely by advertising in and subscriptions for newspapers, television, radio, and popular science magazines. Communication via museums and zoos has been indirectly funded by the public throughout this time, noted Burris.
More recently, added Lewenstein, the federal government has also supported public engagement (e.g., through the National Science Foundation’s [NSF’s] funding of grantees’ Broader Impacts activities). Between 1994 and 2014, he estimated, annual investment by the federal government in the public communication of science probably increased from around $75 million to as high as $150 million. Additional funding comes from state governments, philanthropic organizations, and individual science institutions.
During a panel discussion, Kei Koizumi of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy explained that, of the $450 billion spent on research and development in the United States, two-thirds comes from private sources and one-third from the federal government. For comparison, Kai Lee noted that his organization, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, accounts for only about 0.05 percent of research and development funding in the United States, despite being the eighth-largest private source of U.S. research funding.
Public communication of scientific findings is important to the missions of federal agencies, continued Koizumi, because it can benefit society by, for example, changing people’s health behavior. But the current level of federal investment in science communication is not clear because it is not a separate item in the budget, said Koizumi. Instead, it is a component of the funding for other activities, such as research and public affairs offices. Without an understanding of the current level of funding, he continued, it would be difficult to determine whether more funding is needed. Every NSF grant must address broader impacts, added Dennis Schatz of NSF, but it is nearly impossible to determine how much money grantees spend on science communication.
Whether more money needs to be spent on science communication depends on the audience and the purpose of the communication, said Amanda Stanley of Wilburforce Foundation. She questioned whether we actually have scientists who are trained in communication and are willing to speak (i.e., “supply”). Moreover, she wondered whether we are creating a demand for the best available science on the part of advocacy groups, agencies, and policy makers that are promoting or instituting solutions to societal problems. Borchelt also wondered about the demand side: Are we sure we have an audience? Is it true that the more we communicate science, the more people will listen to us?
Packard has funded science communication by supporting COMPASS for the past decade, said Lee. Packard’s goal, in funding COMPASS and other communication projects, is to increase the supply of scientists who are interested in communicating.
Burris argued that the money spent on science education—a core part of science communication and engagement—is insufficient. But if funding for science communication were increased, he said, it is not yet clear that we would know how best to use the money.
Citing current budgetary constraints, Alan Slobodin of the House Energy and Commerce Committee suggested that we may need to create better efficiencies in communication activities. Schatz agreed that, given the difficult economic situation, it may be more productive to consider how best to allocate existing funds rather than how to increase funding.
Slobodin discussed the impetus for the congressional investigation he co-led into public relations and education spending by the National Institutes of Health. He explained that Congress has, over time, established a number of individual institutes and centers within
the National Institutes of Health, each with its own policies and staff for the dissemination of health and science information. This has led to some redundancies and duplication of communication and education activities among the individual institutes and centers. The director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), continued Slobodin, requested an assessment of the institute’s communication activities to determine whether they are essential to NCI’s mission, especially in light of current funding limitations. A consultant identified a number of options for streamlining communication and education, said Slobodin. The financial situation in the federal government is tough across the board, but we may be able to do more now by spending limited resources more wisely, Slobodin argued. And greater efficiencies in communication and education could allow NCI to fund additional research projects.
Mary Woolley of Research!America pointed out that a more robust science enterprise in this country would contribute toward improving the financial situation, and science communications are essential to the science enterprise. Slobodin agreed, but asserted that more oversight is needed to determine what works and what doesn’t work.
Brooke Smith of COMPASS asked workshop participants to consider this question: If you had unlimited resources to invest in life science communication and engagement activities, what three things would you invest in? Each participant wrote three recommendations on note cards—online participants tweeted their ideas—which were then posted on bulletin boards (see Figures 6-1 and 6-2). Participants moved the individual ideas around on the boards, collaboratively clumping like ideas together. Smith then summarized the major themes.
• Provide communications training for scientists and science students, including training in the use of social media.
• Create and support more boundary organizations like COMPASS.
• Institute a reward system to encourage scientists to engage in public communication activities.
• Improve K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and provide opportunities for scientists to engage with students and teachers.
• Improve access to scientists for journalists and ensure that scientists can speak freely.
• Set up independent community science centers for engaging communities on the science related to local issues or to address community members’ questions regarding the life sciences.
• Encourage the development of television programs or movies to create a buzz about science (“CSI for science”).
• Rebrand science.
• Train all journalists—not just science journalists—in science journalism.
• Ensure that communication practitioners learn about and use the science on science communication.
• Support popular science periodicals or popular science journalism generally.
Some ideas were not completely captured by these major themes (see the complete list in Appendix E). For example, David Malakoff of Science magazine suggested a “Science Corps,” as proposed by Susan Greenfield, in which a group of scientists would fan out
FIGURE 6-1. Allocating “money” toward suggested initiatives. Coins, notecards, and pens used in the brainstorming and mock resource allocation activity led by Brooke Smith of COMPASS.
across the country or across the world—especially in schools—to engage the public in science. Adam Fagan of the Genetics Society of America suggested finding a way to hold scientists accountable for the engagement activities they propose in NSF and other proposals. Erika Shugart of the American Society for Microbiology recommended finding a way for science communication practitioners to publish papers about their activities. She also advocated for more opportunities for science communicators from different fields to exchange ideas and collaborate. Borchelt urged greater emphasis on citizen science initiatives.
After discussing individual ideas and major themes, Smith distributed 10 plastic “coins” to each participant and designated a bucket for each theme. She asked each participant to allocate their coins among the buckets. Freelance journalist David Ewing Duncan summarized the results, as listed below, with the number of coins given to each theme in parentheses.
1. “Provide communications training for scientists” (64)
2. “Create more boundary organizations” (35)
3. “Connect scientists with K-12 STEM education” (35)
4. “Institute a reward system” (22)
5. “Set up community science engagement centers” (19)
6. “Train journalists in science journalism” (15)
7. “Rebrand science” (14)
8. “Fund popular science journalism” (11)
9. “CSI for science” (5)
Participants explored many of these ideas—and associated funding issues—in greater depth following the coin allocation activity.
Communications Training for Scientists
Schatz argued that we need to decide what kind of training scientists should have; the particular skills, or core competencies, needed for public engagement; and how they should make use of their new skills.
Training for scientists should extend to those who might restrict what scientists say, suggested Duncan. This would allow the public to see that science is not monolithic—that scientists do not know everything about everything and that scientists sometimes disagree with and debate each other.
Stanley commented on the difficulty of finding funding for something as basic as implementing communications training for graduate students. She wondered how to reconcile the disconnect she had observed between the science community and funders in terms of priorities and goals. Borchelt pointed out that $64 million is spent on media training in the life sciences community every year, but it is spent training institutional spokespersons, not scientists. Smith and Borchelt suggested that these funds should be redirected—away from institutional promotion and toward content promotion.
Communications training for scientists is not a need in pharmaceutical companies, noted William Provine of DuPont, because such companies already invest in communications training.
Science Training for Journalists
Provine agreed with the importance of scientific training for journalists because, he said, members of the popular media who interview scientists in industry often appear to be poorly prepared.
Duncan noted that journalists must be aware that scientists have a point of view and a passion—a reason for going into science—and that this can color their remarks.
K-12 Science Education and Engagement
Borchelt observed that the current lack of inquiry in American culture is rooted in our schools. With a more robust education system, people would be more interested in science and would be better able to understand its implications and potential benefits. Without adequate STEM education, he continued, science communications will have no audience. Although Borchelt agreed that a lack of communications training is the biggest barrier to public communication by scientists, he expressed the concern that the people to whom scientists are communicating are coming from a system that has shortchanged them in terms of science understanding.
Martin Storksdieck of the National Academy of Sciences pointed out that K-12 education has its own mechanisms for funding, and considerable effort currently is under way to reform K-12 education. The success of this reform, he argued, will not depend on whether scientists meddle in the process. Therefore, in choosing where to invest in science communication, we should choose areas other than K-12 reform.
A Shifting Culture and Extrinsic Rewards
Participants discussed the culture of the life sciences with respect to public engagement and considered whether and to what degree this culture has already begun to change.
FIGURE 6-2. Brainstorming initiatives on notecards. Each participant wrote down responses to Brooke Smith’s question: “If you had unlimited resources to invest in life science communication and engagement activities, what three things would you invest in?”
Cultural change results from, and cannot occur without, experience and training in communication and engagement, noted Schatz. Nevertheless, said Smith, an infusion of funding might not be necessary to trigger the kinds of cultural changes that are needed to establish a reward system for public communication efforts.
Brossard argued that a cultural shift, in terms of scientists’ perceptions of public communication, is already occurring in the life sciences. Shugart agreed that considerable cultural change has happened already. Even the lack of significant negative extrinsic factors discouraging science communication is an important step. We do not need to start from square one in trying to figure out how to engage the public, continued Shugart; rather, we
can focus on how to further improve public engagement. Younger researchers in particular, added Brossard, appear to be increasingly comfortable with online communities such as ResearchGate, through which scientists can seek feedback from peers.
Andrew Rosenberg observed a generational shift in the way scientists view their careers. Some graduate students do not want to be academics, he said; they want to have greater societal impact than they would from just publishing papers. The question is, in terms of communication, how can we make use of this generational shift? How can we transition to an engagement model in which scientists work with the public with the aim of improving people’s lives in a sustainable way? The goal is not just communication, he continued, but also deeper engagement of scientists in their communities as citizens.
As an example of institutional-level cultural change, Berenbaum noted that, in 2003, her home institution began to include an assessment of “evidence of excellence in public engagement activities” in promotion and tenure decisions. Lee argued, however, that the current culture in the life sciences undervalues engagement; the culture barrier is getting higher rather than lower.
Doing More with Less
Two of the ideas receiving the most coins in the coin allocation activity—communications training for scientists and boundary organizations—are directly related to COMPASS’s work, said Smith. But raising money for these two areas has proven very difficult.
Lee observed that Packard and Wilburforce may be the only two private conservation funders that invest specifically in science communication. Stanley agreed, explaining that because many foundations are issue driven, they start with an agenda and a platform first, and science comes second. She wondered if more foundations—as well as agencies, organizations, and businesses—could be encouraged to begin with science. This goes back to the question of whether we want more science communication because we want more money for science or because we want societal benefits, she continued.
Professional associations play a critical role by, for example, providing professional development opportunities for members, said Shugart. But associations are under considerable financial pressure. So the question is, how can we do a better job with less money?
Duncan questioned the notion that money can solve these problems. Many well-funded programs have failed to achieve their aims. For example, a lot of money has gone into the war on poverty, but today, 50 years later, the percentage of people living in poverty has declined very little. However, Storksdieck asked what might have happened to the poverty rate in the absence of the war on poverty. It’s possible that the war on poverty has actually been a success. By the same logic, Storksdieck continued, one can ask what science literacy and public understanding of science would be like today without the communication efforts in which we have already engaged.
Provine cautioned that, if we simply train a lot of scientists and create a lot of boundary organizations without a concrete result in mind, then the infrastructure we create will not be sustainable. The infrastructure we build has to continue the momentum so it can continue to fund itself. He advocated for the use of partnerships—across cultural boundaries and between industry and academia—as a way to make a public communication
infrastructure sustainable. “The more you can scale something,” like K-12 education and science literacy initiatives, “the more interesting it will be to industry,” added Provine.
Communication as an Inherent Part of Science
Some participants wondered whether all scientists should be expected to communicate with the public. Fagan argued that, for the necessary cultural change, rank-and-file scientists must be committed to science communication. But, he asked, will the average scientist feel that participating in or promoting communication is part of her responsibility? How can we achieve a groundswell of support?
Stanley argued that, although we need a cultural shift, we don’t need to transform every single scientist into a good communicator. Rosenberg agreed that we should not expect every scientist to be a communicator. We should facilitate communication by the scientists who want to communicate, he said, not force them to do it through a top-down structure.
Geoffrey Hunt of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology disagreed, arguing that communication is part of the scientific process. Scientists differ in their particular communication strengths, he said, and we should not focus only on those who are already good at communicating. All scientists are inherently communicators, observed Daniel Colón-Ramos of Yale University. The question is, with whom are we communicating—an undergraduate student, a patient, a journalist, an elementary school student? Can we expand the communication skills we have and create incentives for scientists to communicate with the public? Journalist Kathryn Foxhall observed that the scientists who are not “great communicators” are often the best sources of information for reporters.
Trust and Integrity
Participants repeatedly emphasized the importance of trust—specifically, earning the public’s trust—throughout the workshop. Lewenstein observed that nearly every speaker and panelist had used the word “trust.” Daniel Sarewitz (Arizona State University) urged greater consideration of the importance of trust in the process of communicating.
Rosenberg cautioned that, to improve and maintain trust, we need to be incredibly careful about separating the science itself from the interpretation of the science and from science-based decision making.
Rosenberg and Duncan distinguished between the balanced presentation of opposing scientific data or theories, on the one hand, and misguided attempts (e.g., in the popular media and social media) to balance scientific information against a politically, religiously, or ethically based opinion. Scientists should do a better job of coming together around the things we do know and communicating about those areas of consensus, noted Rosenberg.
A Focus on Issues
Rosenberg suggested the use of an issue-based focus to build the infrastructure, rather than trying, from the beginning, to create a broader infrastructure. Specifically, he explained, we could create meaningful communication activities around well-defined societal issues, using a working-group model, an extension model, or by going through
scientific professional societies. But Smith argued that moving toward a focus on issues might more deeply entrench existing problems with the public communication of science. Such a focus would associate science with an agenda. Instead, she suggested, we should invest in parts of an infrastructure that benefit the whole, not just one piece of it.
Rosenberg clarified that his recommendation was for a focus on large-scale societal problems. If we try to create an overarching infrastructure all at once, he argued, it might not work. Instead, he said, we should rely on models for which we already have some information on what might work and base the infrastructure on broad-scale issues.
Life Science Communication Extension
One model for science communication that is sustained, funded, and widespread, observed Rosenberg, is the Cooperative Extension model described by Sonny Ramaswamy (U.S. Department of Agriculture). In addition to agricultural science, social science and marine science also use a form of extension. The Cooperative Extension model is not without problems, but it is a model of communication, Rosenberg said, and it’s direct to the public. Maybe some elements of extension should be used as a model for a life science communication infrastructure, especially considering that it has been sustainably funded, he suggested. Borchelt observed, however, that some universities are now finding Cooperative Extension too expensive to maintain.
Building a Communications Hub
Lee wondered how we could learn more about existing programs and approaches to determine what kind of infrastructure to develop. To begin developing a public communication infrastructure, suggested Schatz, we should create a network connecting scientists to existing communication and engagement programs. What we lack, observed Storksdieck, is an authoritative guide regarding the relative effectiveness of various approaches. He recommended a community-building exercise in an informal environment. We would invest strategically in a hub that brings people, resources, and communities together, suggested Storksdieck.
As a model for such a hub, Stanley recommended the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange (CAKE13). CAKE is a central clearinghouse with case studies on the approaches of various agencies, communities, and organizations to adapt to climate change; it includes information on which of these approaches have been successful. Creating something like CAKE for science communication would help bridge the gap between the science and the practice of science communication, added Stanley. Duncan noted that such a clearinghouse would not require a prohibitive amount of funding. Additional hubs and networks mentioned by workshop participants can be found in Appendix F.
Matthew Nisbet of American University referred to a recent paper in which he and his coauthors discussed ideas for building a better communication infrastructure around climate change. They recommended setting aside a small proportion of every life sciences grant coming into an institution. Those funds would be pooled, and an interdisciplinary
committee would decide how to invest it systematically in public engagement activities (Nisbet et al. 2010). Nalini Nadkarni of the University of Utah noted that this is exactly the kind of initiative in which the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education would be interested—a place on campus that would do this kind of thing in the aggregate would be better than a single scientist engaging in a single outreach project with a single audience. She suggested that an NSF center might be an appropriate place for that kind of aggregation and wondered if the roundtable could figure out the mechanics of how that could work. Noting that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sets aside 2–3 percent of its major science grants for education and public outreach, Borchelt expressed doubt as to whether these funds have measurably affected the public understanding of science.
At the end of the workshop, Smith synthesized presentations and discussions, as well as proposed next steps. A traditional, physical example of infrastructure, she said, may help us think more concretely about a life sciences communication infrastructure and the progress made at this workshop. The Washington, D.C., Metrorail system is an especially fitting analogy, continued Smith, because the purpose of this kind of infrastructure is to move many people to multiple destinations.
The Metro has many pathways (lines) and many destinations (stations) as well as intermediate destinations (transfer points), explained Smith. The Metro relies on a number of organizations, including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which is in the lead; the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police; and the States of Maryland and Virginia. The Metro has policies (e.g., “no food on the Metro”), and it has its own culture (e.g., “stand on the right, walk on the left”). Before building the Metro’s physical infrastructure, continued Smith, the parties involved had to research how to build it—including the engineering, geological, and social dimensions. Since it was built, the Metrorail system has been updated by, for example, building the Silver line and extending weekend hours of operation.
When the Metro is not working (e.g., due to inclement weather), the most determined people will still find a way to reach their destinations. Similarly, observed Smith, public engagement pioneers—such as Nadkarni and Berenbaum—are the passionate and motivated few. Rather than letting the absence of infrastructure stop them, they find a way to get where they want to go. The Metro is not necessary for people to reach their destinations, but it enables many more people to easily reach many more destinations. Similarly, infrastructure is not necessary for scientists to communicate, but an infrastructure will make it easier to help many more scientists communicate more effectively for various reasons.
Smith repurposed a map of the Metrorail system to consider the goals and approaches discussed (Figure 6-3). We have yet to clearly articulate our goals (i.e., destinations or “stations” in the language of the Metro) for public engagement. By the close of the workshop, observed Smith, only the following goals were articulated: “science is cool,” improved STEM education, improved quality of life, improved jobs and workforce, science literacy, improved health, and specific goals (e.g., conservation). We have made more progress articulating the mechanisms (i.e., pathways or “lines”), said Smith, though these still must be fleshed out. The mechanisms or pathways—the activities that we said we would fund—so far include the following: communications training for scientists, boundary organizations, local community dialogues with scientists, scientists connecting with K–12 education, and science training for journalists. However, we might all agree, she suggested, that the most important mechanism is investment in more communications training for scientists—especially for graduate students—potentially through redirection of funds currently used for institutional promotion and spokesperson training.
FIGURE 6-3. An infrastructure for life science communication is like the Metro. It has well-defined pathways, destinations, intersections, policies, and cultures. One must conduct research to understand the bedrock and social dimensions in which it exists. It can also be adaptable, with new pathways and destinations created in response to social need. This way, one may choose from multiple paths to reach any destination. Source: Brooke Smith, slide 13.
Our infrastructure has organizations (governmental, industry, academic, and nongovernmental), policies (e.g., requiring grantees to engage in communication activities), culture (including promotion and tenure), and at least some research to tell us how to build it and modify it over time. Of course, we have yet to build the infrastructure, maintain it, and adapt it over time and, importantly, added Smith, we have not yet devised good ways to monitor and evaluate our success.
We have many more questions than answers right now, observed Smith. But the biggest takeaway, she said, is the convening function the National Academy of Sciences has played and how this has moved us forward. We need to encourage our respective communities to coalesce around this effort. For now, she suggested that the roundtable and other interested parties should continue to communicate, connect with each other, and meet until “our community of practice around science engagement” reaches “a point where we can really think about the collective infrastructure.”