What motivates chemists to communicate with members of the public? A 2012 analysis of surveys of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Royal Society of Chemistry members revealed that “[i]n terms of perceptions and motivations, a deficit model view that a lack of public knowledge [of science] is harmful, a personal commitment to the public good, and feelings of personal efficacy and professional obligation are among the strongest predictors of seeing outreach as important and participating in engagement activities” (Besley et al., 2012). Matlin, Mehta, and Hopf argued in a recent editorial in Science that “[c]hemists must continue to improve their conversations with the public” to support a goal of continuing support of chemistry as “the great enabler” (Matlin et al., 2015). As part of the landscape study commissioned by the committee, Grunwald Associates interviewed chemists who were involved in various education and communication activities. These individuals noted many personal and professional motivations and goals for engaging in communication; one chemist stated, “Personally I’ve made it my mission to change attitudes towards chemistry.” The chemists also often noted that they developed the communication activities to fulfill funding requirements, such as the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Broader Impacts criterion.
- increase public appreciation of and excitement for chemistry as a source of knowledge about the world,
- develop scientifically informed consumers (i.e., consumers will be able to use chemistry information to make decisions or solve problems),
1 Goals are statements of what the communication activity intends to accomplish and are not measurable. Intended outcomes, the development of which is discussed in Chapter 5, are specific to a given activity and should be measurable.
- empower informed citizen participation in democratic processes, and
- encourage workforce development in the chemical sciences.
The following sections briefly examine each of these goals. Though these goals are specific to the chemists interviewed in the landscape study, they accord with some of the motivations for engagement found in surveys of scientists in general (Besley, 2013; Besley et al., 2012). These four goals, however, are only a subset of possible goals for science communication (see Chapter 4).
Goal 1: Increase Public Appreciation of and Excitement for Chemistry as a Source of Knowledge About the World
“Everyone deserves to share in the excitement and personal fulfillment that can come from understanding and learning about the natural world.” (NRC, 1996, p. 1)
One commonly cited reason for engaging in chemistry communication with the public is that it serves a personal and intellectual need, “broadly framed as knowledge for the sake of knowing more about the world and how it works, addressing human curiosity in ways that go beyond instrumental needs for practical knowledge” (NSB, 2012, pp. 7-27). Many of the interviewed chemists feel that chemistry is a fascinating and powerful tool for understanding and affecting the world. They want to share their appreciation for the field as a way of knowing more about the world and creating new areas of knowledge for others. This is highlighted in two quotes from members of the American Chemical Society (ACS) who reflected on the question “Why are you proud to be a chemist?”2
The most rewarding aspect of chemistry is the possibility it gives for us to exert our creativity. The synthesis of a new compound or the improvement in an existing technology requires a lot of creativity. I am proud to be a chemist because I know that chemistry can help humankind solve many of our problems, such as global warming, diseases, energy, and many others.
—Claudio J. A. Mota, ACS Member
I don’t know of many disciplines that open up the world the way chemistry does because it touches everything. I would be hard pressed to think of something where chemistry isn’t playing a role in the advances that we benefit from today—from breakthroughs in medicine, to nutrition, to more sustainable energy sources, to personal care products, to biodegradable packaging, and so on.
—Mary Carmen Gasco-Buisson, ACS Member
2 See https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/volunteer/chemambassadors/aboutchemistry/why-im-proud-to-be-achemist.html [accessed September 8, 2015] for additional information.
Many of the interviewed chemists feel a desire to share their excitement and understanding with others and choose informal settings to do so. However, there is only anecdotal evidence that communicating chemistry in informal settings can generate excitement. But, there is evidence that experience with chemistry before formal study can improve confidence and consequently understanding of chemical concepts (Fadigan and Hammrich, 2004; NRC, 2007). Thus, chemists sharing their excitement can increase the understanding of chemistry.
“Everyone needs to use scientific information to make choices that arise every day.” (NRC, 1996, p. 1)
A second purpose of communicating chemistry is the development of scientifically informed consumers. Scientific “knowledge facilitates decision-making in everyday life, particularly when [science and technology] intersects with citizens’ work, home, and leisure activities” (NSB, 2012, pp. 7-27). Chemistry, as is commonly stated, is “the central science,” and chemists are keenly aware of its relevance in day-to-day decision making with regard to products and services. To nonexperts, however, chemistry is complex and abstract; it is difficult to understand because molecules and their interactions cannot be directly observed. Its relevance to daily life is unclear. Some individuals identify with one of two extremes, either “all chemicals are harmful” or “everything is made of chemicals so there is nothing to worry about” (e.g., Glynn et al., 2007; Nieswandt, 2007). One reason for these disconnects is that it requires a conceptual leap to understand how such small things as atoms and molecules can cause large changes in properties or behavior (Brunsell, 2011; Hartings and Fahy, 2011; NRC, 2011). As one LinkedIn commenter stated in the landscape study, “the notion that all chemistry happens in a lab somewhere, rather than on your dinner plate, or in the sky, or in your car or your body every day” is “a tough nut to crack.” However, individuals do not necessarily require an understanding of molecular-level processes to appreciate how chemistry can support decision making. As will be discussed, engaging in communication with the public in informal environments provides opportunities to showcase real-world examples of chemistry and to increase public awareness of chemistry’s roles in various aspects of society.
“Everyone needs to be able to engage intelligently in public discourse and debate about important issues that involve science and technology.” (NRC, 1996, p. 1)
“Public knowledge about [science and technology] facilitates civic engagement with science, particularly when technologies raise emerging issues that intersect science and society.” (NSB, 2012, pp. 7-27)
A third purpose for communicating chemistry to different publics is to support a scientifically engaged citizenry. The ability “to assess how a product or system will affect individuals, society, and the environment . . . is particularly important today because the human use of technology has become so widespread that it can result in positive or negative consequences, and it is so complex that it can be difficult to predict” (ITEA, 2007, p. 133). This goal is of particular interest to chemists because the impacts of chemistry that gain the widest public attention are the negative effects of oil spills, lead poisoning, nuclear fallout, and other health and environmental disasters (Gregory and Miller, 1998; Hartings and Fahy, 2011), and in a 2000 survey by the ACS, the chemical industry was ranked the least favorable of 10 science-related industries (NSB, 2002). Engagement by chemists with the public can create the trust needed to navigate difficult and important topics. As noted by Alan Leshner, the former Chief Executive Officer of AAAS, “We need to engage the public in a more open and honest bidirectional dialogue about [chemistry] and [its] products, including not only their benefits but also their limits, perils, and pitfalls. We need to respect the public’s perspective and concerns even when we do not fully share them, and we need to develop a partnership that can respond to them” (Leshner, 2003). In other words, sharing chemistry can empower publics to make informed decisions.
“More and more jobs demand advanced skills, requiring that people be able to learn, reason, think creatively, make decisions, and solve problems. An understanding of science and the processes of science contributes in an essential way to these skills.” (NRC, 1996, p. 1)
Workforce development is a strong driver of formal education in any field, and chemistry is no exception. Unfortunately, formal education in chemistry, though certainly able to attract and engage some students, also leads to anxiety and avoidance of the subject in many high school and college students (Nieswandt, 2007). As discussed in a prior section, experience with chemistry before formal study can promote confidence, which may reduce the effects of negative associations with chemistry. Informal experiences also have the potential to provide real-world context, to increase relevance, and to engage children at a young age before they encounter chemistry in school. As noted in the 2009 National Research Council (NRC) report Learning Science in Informal Environments, “Anderson et al. (2002) found that, for children, experiences that were embedded in familiar sociocultural contexts of the child’s world, such as play, story, and familiar objects, acted as powerful mediators and supported children’s recollections and reflections about their activities” (NRC, 2009, p. 156). When science (chemistry) satisfies a child’s proclivity to play, the science becomes more relevant; such experiences cast the subject in a positive light and reduce future anxiety.
When chemists engage in communication, they can present themselves as role models
for people considering careers in the sciences; they can support a sense of belonging, which in turn supports the development of an identity as a scientist. For students who belong to a group underrepresented in science, role models can be especially important in establishing an identity within a particular field (Baker, 1992; Fort et al., 1993).
Popular role models, both fictional and nonfictional, also attract young people to the sciences. Television shows and movies present role models in medicine, law enforcement, military fields, and more recently forensic science. The so-called CSI effect is credited with increasing enrollment in forensic science programs across the country (Jackson, 2009; Smallwood, 2002).
Given the impact that the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had on forensic science, one might ask, “Who are the popular role models for chemistry?” In 2013, Breaking Bad, a television series that won 10 primetime Emmy Awards and a Guinness World Records citing for the highest-rated TV series of all time, featured a high school chemistry teacher who began producing and selling methamphetamine to secure his family’s financial future in anticipation of his death from inoperable lung cancer.3 Although this character’s care for his family is admirable, his use of chemistry for criminal purposes makes him a poor role model. Other shows, such as the recent documentary Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius, provide real-world examples of excellence in chemistry. Unfortunately, there are few popular chemist role models on a national or international scale. Therefore, chemists everywhere can help address this need by serving as role models on a local level.
As discussed below, chemists themselves contribute in at least three ways to learning chemistry in informal environments: as sources of content, as sources of credibility, and as bridge builders with other groups.
Chemists play an important role in chemistry content for informal environments. Providing chemistry content can be challenging. In science museums, for example, unsupervised, hands-on activities demonstrating physics principles are easier to provide cleanly and safely than activities for chemistry: balls, pendulums, springs, and mirrors that people can interact with (unstaffed) to learn about physics are easier to set up and safer than are the acids, bases, flames, and explosions of chemistry. Engaging, concrete, active, and interactive demonstrations of chemistry require live presenters. Those presenters need to know chemistry, which can
3 For a deeper discussion about the representations of chemistry and chemists in popular culture, see “The Chemist as Anti-hero: Walter White and Sherlock Holmes as Case Studies” (Fahy, 2013) and “Making the Science of TV Crystal Meth Clear” (Nelson and Lettkeman, 2013).
be accomplished by having presenters who are chemists themselves or who were trained by chemists.
The need for chemists as presenters is greater when the goal is public understanding of current research (Field and Powell, 2001). Even among informal science educators who know chemistry, few are probably up to date with current research. Chemists can thus support communication in informal environments by providing content on both chemistry fundamentals and current chemistry research.
In general, Americans rank scientists as more credible sources of scientific information than most others who might provide such information, such as the news media and regulatory agencies (see Figures 2-1, 2-2, and 2-3). Data show that scientists rank above medical
doctors, industrial scientists, consumer organizations, and regulatory agencies, and far above religious organizations, the news media, the White House, and Congress, as a source trusted to tell the truth about nanotechnology (Figure 2-1). Data from the Pew Research Center indicate that scientists are generally considered to have a positive influence on society (Figure 2-2). The NSF’s biennial Science and Engineering Indicators series shows that the public thinks scientists who are specialists in a scientific field understand both the science and the public issues related to that field better than elected officials, business leaders, or religious leaders. The public also has high confidence in the leadership of the science community, much higher than for government, industry, or the media (Figure 2-3).
Because chemists interact with scientists and engineers across a wide range of disciplines and sectors—from university research to industry to medicine to environmental engineering, among others—they have the opportunity, perhaps even a responsibility, to serve as bridge builders between those groups and from those groups to a range of publics. Pollster and analyst Daniel Yankelovich argued in 2003 that “top flight working scientists . . . can provide a depth of expertise that is sorely lacking in the generalists’ discussions of scientific issues [and] they can also help their scientific colleagues understand the importance of nonscientific perspectives to their own work and the future of their field.”
Occasions for the bridge builder role are increasing as science communication and public engagement activities increase. In particular, activities that focus on “dialogue” or have a “participatory democracy” approach are designed to connect scientists and publics. The bridges allow a two-way exchange of information and ideas, which is beneficial to both parties. As noted in the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) report Many Experts, Many Audiences (McCallie et al., 2009) in the participation model, publics4 and scientists both benefit from listening to and learning from one another—they engage in mutual learning. The CAISE report’s model assumes that both members of the public and scientists have expertise, valuable perspectives, and knowledge to contribute to the development of science and to its application in society (Burns et al., 2003; Kerr et al., 2007; Leshner, 2003). The mutual respect inherent in the participation model is a key element for building trust among different groups; trust is key to building bridges and is necessary for the “partnership” that Leshner talked about between science and the public.
Chemists benefit from participating in informal science learning and communication activities. They learn about social science disciplines that can improve their communication practices and about participants who attend the activities. Enhanced learning in these areas leads to other benefits, such as professional development, discussed below. There are also tangible benefits such as strengthening research grant applications.
Informal science education and science communication are social science disciplines that may be unfamiliar to many chemists. However, chemists who participate in such activi-
4 The term “publics” refers to the multiple communities that exist within the general public. These communities can be described by role (students, policy makers, etc.), age group, interest area, goal for participation, or some other factor that highlights a meaningful shared perspective or approach within a given context.
ties have the opportunity to learn about these disciplines’ evidence-based principles and their approaches to communication (see Chapter 4).
Informal science education focuses on learner-motivated activities outside of school settings that are based on the learner’s interests and can take place throughout life (McCallie et al., 2009; NRC, 2009). Despite the word “education,” informal science education is more than the one-way transmission of knowledge from a scientist to a member of the public in an informal setting. Informal science education scholars are increasingly exploring engagement models (two-way, mutual learning experiences) between scientists and the public (Baram-Tsabari and Osborne, 2015; McCallie et al., 2009). Organizations and publications concerned with informal science education have proliferated over the past 50 years (NRC, 2009). Education research organizations, which usually focus on schools, have added special-interest groups devoted to informal learning and informal science. Numerous peer-reviewed journals have added special editions (or sections) on informal science learning, and new journals have arisen. In addition, with the rise of the Internet, research on and evaluations of informal science learning environments that used to be hidden in the gray literature have become more available through websites (such as www.informalscience.org); NSF has published a framework for assessing the impact of these environments (Friedman, 2008).
The focus of science communication is primarily engagement; learning is only one of many possible goals (see Chapter 4). Building trust, developing an awareness or appreciation of science in everyday life, acquiring information through media stories on Internet sites, and developing identity (all without an expectation of knowledge gain) are other possible goals. Science communication, previously called public understanding of science, formed as a formal discipline in the 1980s (Brossard and Lewenstein, 2010). Researchers in this area endeavor to act as bridges between the communication sciences and the physical and life sciences. Science communication research is expected to continue to expand rapidly in coming years.
Recent projects have demonstrated what physical and life scientists (including chemists) can learn from participating in informal science education activities. One such activity is the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net), “a national community of researchers and informal science educators dedicated to fostering public awareness, engagement, and understanding of nanoscale science, engineering, and technology” (NISE Net, 2014) funded by NSF and led by 14 museums and universities across the United States. University-affiliated individuals who participate in NISE Net noted multiple benefits of participation. They value providing nanoscience learning activities to interested individuals, but they also recognize that participating provides them with valuable professional development; for some, this was the greatest benefit of participation. The professional benefits identified include an expansion of career focus, an improved ability to communicate about science research, and increased understanding of the pedagogical concepts drawn from the informal science community (Ewing, 2009; Goss and Kollmann, 2009; Kollmann, 2009; St. John et al., 2009).
The idea that learning techniques of informal science education is valuable for the university-affiliated individuals who participate in these activities appears repeatedly in evaluations of the activities. For example, the Portal to the Public project, which pairs university-affiliated individuals with science museums, found similar results: The scientists indicated that they both enjoyed and valued the basic communication training they received and learning new techniques for engaging with the public (Schatz and Russell, 2008). Similarly, an evaluation of the Current Science and Technology project at the Museum of Science in Boston revealed that
even though participating scientists did not receive professional development [training] as a part of their involvement, they thought that this could be a valuable aspect of participation if it helped them think about how to best present their research to the public (Storksdieck et al., 2006). These findings all highlight the importance of providing professional development to university-affiliated individuals not only because it may improve their ability to present science content to the public, but also because university-affiliated individuals value the chance to learn about how to best provide informal education learning experiences. (Reich et al., 2011, pp. 54-55)
Collaborative science communication activities need not be on a large scale for benefits to accrue. A 2014 project examined the impact of communication activities run by the chemistry department at Rhodes University in South Africa. The researchers determined that an activity in which undergraduate students reached out to local teachers to provide them with content-related support benefited both the teachers (who reported tangible improvements in their approaches to working with students) and the undergraduate students (who expressed a change in their perception of themselves as science communicators; Sewry at al., 2014).
Informal science education organizations have developed knowledge about and skills for engaging the public in learning about science, and scientists appreciate the value of that knowledge and those skills:
We live in a short-attention-span world, and although science is engaging by itself, scientists may not be the best candidates to come up with attention-grabbing ideas. Science museums are highly skilled at capturing the attention of young people. They do it all the time and do it well.
—Ainissa Ramirez, Yale University (Alpert, 2013, p. 16)
The science community, particularly professional societies, has taken note of the benefits of communication training. For example, the ACS’s Office of Public Affairs Expert Training Initiative teaches chemists how to participate in effective interviews for print and electronic media and offers support in writing editorials and making presentations to local, state, and national governments. Media training includes how to effectively give interviews. Chem-
ists learn how body language impacts their message. They learn to determine how prepared (or unprepared) their interviewer is on the topic and how best to give an even-handed and accurate response to questions that are emotionally charged. Practice interviews, which are critiqued by media experts, help chemists understand how they are perceived by the public. NSF holds training sessions entitled “Becoming the Messenger” to achieve a similar goal; this training involves both the message and the delivery. AAAS, through its Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, offers Communicating Science Workshops. COMPASS, a boundary organization, provides training on public engagement and building networks between scientists and publics, such as policy makers. Training sessions with experts in science communication of science, as well as support from professional societies’ media offices during a media “internship,” are the support that chemists need to learn these new skills. As a result of this training, chemists are sharing their chemistry stories in ways that better match the questions raised by the public and engaging in a more personable and responsive manner.
Key elements of public engagement are mutual learning and respect. Thus, these kinds of communication activities provide opportunities for chemists to listen to and learn about public perspectives on issues of mutual concern and to learn what the public (or a segment of the public) thinks about chemistry. The benefits to chemists of such dialogue were noted in interviews conducted by Inverness Research Associates in 2009 with scientists engaged in NISE Net public communication activities. The benefits included learning how to better communicate their own scientific interests to the public, fulfilling the Broader Impacts requirements of their NSF grants, and “learning from the public—getting a chance to hear their questions, issues, and concerns regarding nanoscience.” A sample of scientists’ comments includes the following (St. John et al., 2009):
- “Every time I’ve seen a scientist engaged with the public, they get a better understanding of their own research and its contact with society, and how their research actually impacts people and the environment.” (p. 14)
- A benefit of this work is “just understanding what the concerns are of the general public, what they know, and what they don’t know.” (p. 10)
- “Engaging with the public is very motivating for graduate students and post-docs, and it helps them stay focused on why they are doing their research and how it benefits society.” (p. 10)
At the first conference of the Society for the Study of Nanoscience and Emerging Technologies, Troy Benn and Carlos Perez, graduate students from Arizona State University (ASU), presented demonstrations they had created to engage and encourage kids and adults
to consider the societal or environmental implications of a nanoscience project. ASU faculty members Jamey Wetmore and Ira Bennet encourage students to create such demonstrations. They have found that the questions raised by the public during engagement activities lead the students to consider their work in new ways and extend the students’ awareness of the potential societal implications of nanoscience.
Participation in communication activities aids chemists applying for grants from NSF and other federal funding agencies. Many of these agencies now require or encourage development of or participation in communication activities that convey the societal relevance of research. Communicating chemistry in informal environments meets several of these requirements. “Outreach can provide connections with informal science education colleagues and open up avenues for collaboration that will address Broader Impacts requirements for proposals to the National Science Foundation and other agencies” (Crone, 2006, p. 2).
The benefits to chemists engaging in public communication (described previously) are clear, but there are challenges to achieving them. One critical element is the culture within the field. Chemists “do not actively work on communicating their research in ways that are approachable to non-specialists” (Hartings and Fahy, 2011), and, though opportunities to engage with the public have existed for years, such engagement has not been strongly encouraged until recently. A survey on scientists’ motivations for engaging with the public revealed that chemists were the least likely to participate in activities designed to communicate with the public (Besley et al., 2012). However, initiatives such as NSF’s Broader Impacts criterion and the push for outreach during the International Year of Chemistry 2011 (IYC 2011) have resulted in increased consideration of effective practices.
Velden and Lagoze (2009) posited that chemistry lags behind other sciences in the adoption of new communication and collaboration technologies (such as open access, preprint services, and science blogs) and identified contributing factors. These included chemistry’s focus on creation, with limited emphasis on the development of theory; its large number of small research areas; its dependence on lab-based, rather than digital or computer-based, research; its diversity of research cultures; its proprietary nature, with industry incentives for secrecy; and the industry-academy imbalance, in which industry is more a consumer of than a contributor to research. Some of the factors that challenge communication within the field mirror the challenges of communicating chemistry to the public—such as chemistry’s complexity, which leads to a perceived lack of disciplinary unity, and the fact that it is “messy.”
Chemistry’s central role in science has led to the topic being incorporated in a wide range of science research; some have characterized this wide incorporation as a lack of disciplinary unity. Chemistry includes a range of unifying ideas such as the atomic-molecular basis of matter, the concepts of equilibrium and reactions, or that quantum mechanics explains chemical bonding. And, the field of chemistry has dramatically progressed: from developing a fundamental understanding of the nature of matter, to (emerging from the industrial revolution) applying chemistry in industry, to developing tools that support the field. However, there is no sweeping explanatory theory like evolution in the biological sciences that creates a unifying narrative for chemistry or what it means to be a chemist (Hartings and Fahy, 2011; NRC, 2011).
Adding to the confusion is the tremendous overlap of chemistry with other fields of science. Many scientists doing chemistry do not think of themselves as chemists (NRC, 2011). For example, a 2009 editorial in Nature Chemistry addressed that year’s Nobel Prize in chemistry, awarded to scientists studying the structure and function of the ribosome, which many consider a topic of biology. The editorial wrestled with the ideas behind disciplinary distinctions, a recurring theme in discussing chemistry in the context of the communication of science (Questioning “chemistry,” 2009). The journal resumed the discussion in 2011, discussing goals and aspirations at the start of IYC 2011 (Chemistry’s year, 2011). That editorial cautioned of the danger that chemistry becomes so diffuse across different areas that it loses its identity. One example of the impact of this diffusion is portrayals of chemistry in the media, where it is frequently organized by its application (NRC, 2011). Although this organization makes sense as a response to the abstract nature of chemistry (cited above), it raises the issue of how chemists, with their collective focus so diffuse, will know that chemistry matters.
The fact that chemistry experiments and demonstrations are often messy and potentially dangerous (or thought to be so) is cited by many informal science educators, especially those working in museums and other informal settings, as a challenge in chemistry communication (Keneally, 2014). The challenge of including chemistry in science museums is not new. In a 1990 Association of Science-Technology Centers survey of science museums and science centers, 28 percent of science museums reported no chemistry activities and less than 30 percent reported chemistry exhibits (Zare, 1996). More recently, Silberman noted that chemistry continues to be one of the least represented disciplines in science museums (Silberman et al., 2004).
The benefits to the public and to the field of chemistry merit continued communication and engagement in spite of the challenges. We can draw on the expertise of the fields of informal science learning, science communication, and chemistry education to provide guidance to those who are actively developing and implementing communication activities. Chapter 4 provides an overview of the relevant research in these fields that supports the framework described in Chapter 6.
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