The public’s trust in research depends on the honesty, openness, and objectivity of researchers in communicating their results of research to those outside of the research community. This responsibility can take time away from research, but public communication is essential given the pervasive influence of research on the broader society.
—InterAcademy Council/IAP, Responsible Conduct in the Global Research Enterprise, 2010
The centrality of science to modern life bestows an obligation on the scientific community to develop different and closer links with the general population. That convergence will help evolve the compact between science and society so that it will better reflect society’s current needs and values.
Chemistry is the creative human endeavor to understand all matter. Chemistry and, hence, chemists1 are essential for understanding the world and advancing society. Chemicals are involved in energy production, food safety, forensics, biomedical technology, ecosystem sustainability, and more and are therefore at the heart of many of society’s conversations, such as those about the safety of food and medicines, the consequences of ocean acidification, ensuring access to clean water, and the mechanisms and effects of climate change.
Chemists seek to understand the interactions between molecules and how those interactions produce our macroscopic world. For many reasons—a sense of responsibility for bringing the voice of science to a conversation, a desire to share the joy of chemistry, a drive to encourage the next generation to pursue chemistry as a career, or others—many chemists endeavor to engage with members of the public. However, there is little guidance for chemists
1 A chemist is defined as any professional who works in chemistry-related activities, including but not limited to research, analysis, manufacturing, engineering, education, and science policy.
on how to define communication goals, select a communication mechanism, or improve the effectiveness and reach of communication activities. An evidence-based framework for communicating chemistry is needed.
Given the value and importance of chemistry in addressing societal challenges and its potential to stimulate wonder and interest about our world, the National Science Foundation (NSF) asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the Academies) to develop an evidence-based framework to guide chemists’ communication activities in informal settings. NSF asked the Academies to describe current efforts to communicate chemistry, to identify effective strategies, tools, and venues to engage members of the public in chemistry, to provide case studies of effective approaches, and to characterize a framework that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of communication approaches. (See the Statement of Task in Box 1-1.) NSF also expressed interest in new tools and interfaces that might improve and expand chemistry communication.
To carry out the Statement of Task, the committee deliberated on two key questions: (1) Who are the primary report audiences? (2) What are the most effective mechanisms, given the study resources, to gather data?
The committee identified two primary audiences based on the Statement of Task:
- professionals working in basic and applied chemistry and the organizations that support their efforts to engage the public with chemistry, and
- institutions and professionals of informal science education who collaborate with chemists or their organizations to expand and enhance efforts to feature chemistry in their venues.
In regard to data gathering, the committee first commissioned a landscape study by the Education Development Center (EDC) and Grunwald Associates to provide an overview of informal communication activities related to chemistry. EDC researchers examined relevant material that was available online and in print media, held online discussions via LinkedIn, and interviewed stakeholders in the community to identify the types of events occurring, the venues, and the common goals of the chemists engaging in informal communication efforts. The committee used the results of the EDC study to tailor the report, in part, toward existing communication activities in the chemistry community. Second, the committee commissioned a white paper by Vera Michalchik of Stanford University, an expert in learning sciences, to provide a review of the literature on the evaluation of informal activities. The white paper formed the basis of this report’s chapter on evaluation. Both the EDC study results and the
white paper are publicly available on the project webpage.2 Third, the committee held four public meetings during which experts and practitioners in informal science learning, communication, chemistry education, and other subjects gave talks on how their work might inform a
framework for communicating chemistry in informal settings. Finally, the committee examined the current research literature in communication, informal learning, chemistry education, and other relevant social science fields.
In the physical and life science communities, the terms communication, engagement, education, and outreach are often used interchangeably. Outreach, in particular, is commonly used by the chemistry community to describe goals and activities related to interacting with nonexpert members of the public. However, in social science disciplines, science communication and related terms have specific disciplinary meanings and different sets of goals (see Chapter 4). For this report, the committee chose the terms communication and participants and interprets them as follows:
Communication: Any interaction outside of the classroom between members of the public of any age and members of the science community.
Participants: Persons or groups that attend, use, or otherwise engage in a communication event.
The committee chose communication because the term encompasses a wide array of interactions with members of the public, such as public lectures and informational videos, with an emphasis on two-way interactions, or engagement. Thus, we suggest that communication more aptly describes the range of chemistry communication events than do other terms, like outreach. Communication and participants were also chosen to link the social science language and evidence about effective communication with the events of chemistry communicators. Unless otherwise indicated, communication events discussed in this report take place in an informal environment—any setting outside of a formal classroom—such as community-based programs, after-school activities, museums, libraries, festivals, or home.
Chemists already participate in a wide range of communication activities, including giving public lectures; writing books, blogs, and other Web-based materials; participating in hands-on learning activities in museums; and using online engagement platforms to improve public access to and understanding of chemistry. A 2011 National Research Council (NRC) workshop Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments3 (Box 1-2) demonstrated that chemists communicate through video, television, radio, art, video games, and a variety of other digital media. Current modes of digital communica-
tion on the Internet, such as video sharing (e.g., YouTube), social networking (e.g., Facebook), and microblogging (e.g., Twitter), present new opportunities for chemists to communicate with members of the public. At the workshop, the chemistry community’s interest in engaging with the public was clear, but many workshop participants did not use a systematic approach to develop and implement their activities.
Chemists often work through professional chemical societies and other science organizations to interact with and inspire the public about chemistry. During the 2011 International Year of Chemistry (IYC 2011; Box 1-3), chemists around the world participated in discussions, science cafés, demonstrations, and more with students and members of the public. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization coordinated the events. IUPAC and other professional chemistry organizations are considering the legacy of the IYC 2011 and how efforts to support the public’s interest in chemistry can be continued.
In the United States, the American Chemical Society (ACS) is a leader in coordinating chemistry-related communication through local and national activities. The IYC 2011 prompted ACS members and the organization itself to develop new connections within and outside the chemistry community. Since the IYC 2011, the ACS has coordinated symposia and activities at national meetings to support a continued focus on communication activities.
Global activities during the IYC 2011 included collecting data about water quality from around the world onto one shared site. Various nations supported activities relevant to their communities. An archive of the activities hosted over the year and reported to IUPAC is at
Efforts within the chemistry community to promote communication with the public are mirrored by a focus on communication in the science community as a whole. From the conferences and training workshops of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to the recent formation of the Science of Science Communication program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, to the rise in the number and popularity of science festivals and cafés, communication with the public is a topic of conversation and interest in many segments of the scientific community. This push to communicate is also reflected in the number of recent activities, reports, and events that highlight the importance of scientists engaging in communication. Box 1-4 contains a list of some recent publications of the Academies in this regard.
As described in Chapter 2, there are a number of reasons that individual scientists, including chemists, choose to communicate with the public. One reason worth noting (for U.S. scientists) is the NSF Broader Impacts criterion, which requires that research proposals include “the potential of the proposed activity to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of . . . societal outcomes.” A potential outcome listed as an example in the NSF grant-proposal guide is “increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology” (NSF, 2013), which is a powerful incentive for academic chemists and other scientists to include communication as a component of their professional work.
Chemists face three challenges to communicating: public perceptions of chemistry are unclear, the quantity and accessibility of chemistry-related content suitable for informal set-
tings are low, and there is no cohesive, science-based guidance for designing and evaluating chemistry communication activities.
During the nineteenth century, chemists generally enjoyed public support because of advances in medicine, color dyes, and other materials (Hartings and Fahy, 2011). However, public perceptions of chemistry eroded during the twentieth century. The use of chemical weapons during the world wars, the 1984 methyl isocyanate gas leak from an industrial complex in Bhopal, India, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico are examples of large-scale incidents that may have contributed to public distrust of chemistry. Some scholars suggest that “chemophobia,” described as both anxiety about
chemistry as an academic subject and a fear of chemicals, has increased (Eddy, 2000; Hartings and Fahy, 2011). A recent survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) indicates that chemists’ concerns about public chemophobia are unfounded in the United Kingdom (RSC, 2015). A 2002 telephone survey conducted in the United States, however, suggests that the chemical industry is viewed least favorably in comparison with 10 other industries, including pharmaceutical, agricultural, and medical, but that members of the public have a positive view of chemistry as a profession (NSB, 2002). Comprehensive studies on public perceptions of chemistry and the prevalence of chemophobia have not yet been done in the United States. The lack of understanding of these public perceptions and attitudes toward chemistry makes it difficult to design participant-centered chemistry communication activities.
Most members of the public only interact with chemistry in school and might not think of it much or appreciate its relevance in society. One survey shows that public understanding and attentiveness is lower for chemistry than for some other scientific fields, even though the majority of respondents felt that chemicals make everyday life better (NSB, 2002). This lack of interest extends to the sharing of articles: A recent survey of social media sharing habits indicated that articles written by chemists were the least shared articles of any in the disciplines evaluated (Figure 1-1). Although chemistry is embedded in topics that receive greater visibility, the field itself is not often discussed. This pattern is reflected in the number of news items and social media mentions related to announcements of Nobel Prizes in chemistry compared with those in physics and in medicine or physiology.
Before entering school and after graduating, most people primarily encounter science in informal environments, such as museums, news media, Internet websites, and videos. Americans spend approximately 95 percent of their lives outside of classrooms; hence, informal learning activities can reach people over a much greater percentage of their lifetimes than can formal schooling (Falk and Dierking, 2010; NRC, 2009).
Increasing and improving public exposure to chemistry in informal settings can raise awareness and understanding of chemistry. Two examples that are popular are Sam Kean’s 2011 best-selling book, The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, and Deborah Blum’s blog Elemental.4 However, even people who avidly seek out science in informal settings are less likely to interact with chemistry content than with the content of other science disciplines (NRC, 2011; Zare, 1996). Increasing the materials available and the opportunities to learn about chemistry in informal settings is insufficient in itself.
An important but underused resource for improving approaches to science communication is research in the social sciences on chemical education, on informal science learning, on marketing, and on the science of science communication. There is a rich history of research on chemistry education in the classroom, but little guidance has been provided for chemists who wish to engage in communication with the public in informal environments. Professional organizations (such as the ACS) and the public information offices of research institutions have long facilitated media coverage of chemistry, removing the responsibility from chemists. However, museums, science centers, and related organizations have engaged in activities to support informal science learning for many decades, and the past decade has yielded important advances in formalizing relevant theory, research, and data collection efforts.
An example is the formation of the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) in 2007 by NSF and the Association of Science-Technology Centers, to foster
a community for sharing research on informal science learning. In 2009, CAISE published a report titled Many Experts, Many Audiences: Public Engagement with Science and Informal Science Education that reviewed practices that foster public awareness and participation. Also in 2009, the NRC publication Learning Science in Informal Environments reviewed the literature, identified six strands of learning, and provided a common framework for future research.
Principles of effective science communication have developed during the past 30 years (Brossard and Lewenstein, 2010). Events such as the 2013 and 2014 Sackler Colloquia on The Science of Science Communication and the 2013 meeting on the Evolving Culture of Science Engagement have expanded research in the discipline and translated that research into effective strategies for public engagement with science (Fischhoff, 2013; Kaiser et al., 2013; NRC, 2014; Scheufele, 2013). The January 2014 special issue of Public Understanding of Science provided a series of papers examining the past two decades of public engagement activities and research (Bauer, 2014).5 Science communication is also the subject of long-running and ongoing work by many professional social science organizations, including the Risk Communication group of the Society for Risk Analysis, the Environmental Communication group of the International Communication Association, and the Science, Health, Environment and Risk group of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Advances in those fields of study are instructive for forming frameworks that aid the chemistry community in the design, implementation, and evaluation of public communication activities.
Each advance in informal science learning and science communication adds perspective, but none have yet provided a comprehensive conceptual approach for communicating chemistry. The value of social science research in addressing public communication problems is being examined for science as well as chemistry (Baram-Tsabari and Osborne, 2015), but the discussion is relatively new. These social science research areas provide insight for the present study, but their application to challenges specific to chemistry has not been considered before now.
One area of social science research that the committee considered was the work of citizen science. Given the variations in definition of that term in the community and the literature, the committee chose not to include it as a separate category in its review, although some related activities are included under the heading of informal science learning activities.
The report is organized into two sections. Part A includes six chapters in which the theoretical and evidentiary underpinnings of informal learning, science communication, and chemistry education are presented. Chapter 1 is an introduction. In Chapter 2 the value proposition for chemists and science organizations to communicate with members of the public is discussed. The personal and professional drivers that support a chemist’s decision to develop
or support communication activities are also described in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 synthesizes the results of a landscape study on goals and activities of chemistry communication in the United States and presents case studies to illustrate methods for characterizing such activities. Chapter 4 describes goals, challenges, and key principles for informal learning, science communication, and chemistry education. Chapter 5 focuses on evaluation, including an overview of current research related to evaluation of informal science learning. Chapter 6 lays out the committee’s framework for the design of effective communication activities, based on the evidence presented in the previous chapter. Chapter 6 also describes key areas for future research to support the development and implementation of chemistry communication activities and lists the committee’s recommendations.
Part B, Communicating Chemistry: A Framework for Sharing Science, is a user-friendly guide to the framework for designing chemistry communication activities. The goal of this guide is to help chemists improve the design and evaluation of their communication activities in informal environments.
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