Science and technology are embedded in virtually every aspect of modern life. For this reason, people increasingly face the need to integrate information from science with their personal values and other considerations as they make important life decisions, such as those about medical care, the safety of foods, and a changing climate. The practice of science always involves some degree of uncertainty, and as a human endeavor, it is inevitably subject to occasional errors and to the potential influence of personal values, biases, and professional interests. Nonetheless, science helps explain and predict the world using a unique, rule-governed process to produce factual knowledge, and in the long run, the practices and norms of science result in a robust base of knowledge.
Many believe the scientific community has a duty to engage with society to disseminate this knowledge and provide a return on society’s investment in the science enterprise (Dewey, 1927; Lubchenco, 1998). Society in general expects scientists to help solve its major problems (such as maintaining people’s health or safeguarding national security) and to discover ways of improving quality of life, expanding economic opportunities, and informing decisions. Yet communicating science effectively does not come easily; it is an acquired skill.
Any communication involves a communicator, an audience, and channels of communication that are often bidirectional, all situated in a particular social context. Many envision “science communication” as a scientist giving information to another individual, such as a member of Congress or of the media, about a scientific topic. Most science communication, however, is more dynamic and takes place in a much more complex context
involving individuals, groups, and organizations that are both the communicators of and audiences for science. These contextual elements pose challenges for effective science communication. So, too, does the very nature of science. The methods scientists use to understand the world are unlike the ways people typically think on a day-to-day basis. The results of science also can be insufficient, ambiguous, or uncertain, and scientific conclusions can change over time as new findings emerge. These inherent characteristics of science can create barriers to communication and understanding.
Other barriers to effective science communication may stem in part from the audience for the information. These barriers include a lack of familiarity with science in general or with the scientific findings and issues related to a particular decision. Faced with making sense of a vast amount of complex information that is often quantitative and can at times appear contradictory, some people—including scientists in areas outside their expertise—often use shortcuts (as discussed in more depth in Chapter 2). People may rely, for example, on a quick assessment of whether the information fits with what they already know and believe about the subject. Or they may decline to engage, instead relying on someone else’s evaluation of the information. In many cases, people protect their personal or economic interests, beliefs, and values from information that appears to conflict with them (as discussed in detail in Chapter 3). Although scientists may feel compelled to follow what science is saying about an issue, the rest of the public may feel freer to disregard or even distort that information.
Audiences for science sometimes are blamed when science communication appears to have failed (“the public does not care”; “they were too uneducated to understand”). However, communicators themselves can introduce barriers to effective communication. For example, they may fail to identify clear and feasible goals for their communication, including what information people need to know. At the same time, communicators tend to overestimate what most people know about a subject (Nickerson, 1999), as well as to overrate the effectiveness of their efforts (Chang et al., 2010).
Navigating these and other challenges is a skill—one that many communicators have lacked opportunities to learn. Few scientists, for example, have had formal training in science communication, although a variety of programs for such training exist (e.g., the Leopold Leadership Program; see also Neeley et al., 2015) and are becoming the focus of research (Besley et al., 2016). Moreover, many journalists, institutional public information officers, advocates, and others who communicate science in the course of their work lack training either in science or in the communication of science per se (Dunwoody et al., 2009). And science must compete for attention in a complex and fast-changing media environment that can be difficult to penetrate (an issue discussed further in Chapter 4).
This study was undertaken in this context to respond to the expressed needs of both those who communicate science and those who study how to communicate it; the statement of task for the study is presented in Box 1-1. This report offers a research agenda for science communication practitioners and researchers seeking to apply research related to science communication and build an evidence base useful for making decisions about how to communicate science most effectively.1 Of particular concern to the study sponsors are gaps in knowledge about effective science communication when science related to contentious issues is involved in public controversy (science-related controversy). Prominent examples of such issues include the reality and nature of climate change, how society can meet its energy needs, the importance and safety of childhood vaccination, how
to prevent obesity, and issues of food safety (such as disagreements about the risks, or lack thereof, posed by genetically modified foods or chemical additives in food and water).
For the purposes of this report, “science communication” is defined as the exchange of information and viewpoints about science to achieve a goal or objective such as fostering greater understanding of science and scientific methods or gaining greater insight into diverse public views and concerns about the science related to a contentious issue. Consistent with its charge, the committee considered the research literature from a wide range of disciplines to examine similarities and differences in the factors associated with communicating science related to contentious issues.
From this review of the salient literature, the committee identified a set of factors that make effective science communication particularly challenging; ways to deal with those challenges are the focus of the research agenda proposed in this report. A “challenge” is defined here as a major and complex barrier to effective communication that, while difficult to overcome, could be addressed by filling current gaps in knowledge about the nature of the challenge and how it can be overcome. Taken together, the gaps in knowledge related to these challenges offer a road map to guide future research and help improve the quality and effectiveness of science communication.
Each chapter in this report focuses on
- a specific challenge or set of challenges and their importance for effective science communication;
- what is known from research about the conditions that affect peoples’ understanding, perception, and use of science; and
- needs for research and innovation.
A large body of research and scholarship has examined the factors—psychological, political, societal, cultural, economic, moral, media-related, and institutional—that influence science communication. However, much of this scholarship touches on a single issue area (nuclear energy, for example, or genetically modified organisms). This report differs from most previous analyses in that it represents an attempt to distill key findings about communicating science across many issues and academic disciplines. It is intended to provide an integrated understanding of the challenges of communicating science and the factors that influence people’s understanding, perception, and use of science that relates to contentious issues.
To keep its review of the relevant literature manageable, the committee focused mainly on past or current disputes involving science related to contentious issues that include climate change, stem cells, nanotechnology, vaccines, hydraulic fracturing, genetically modified organisms, nuclear energy, obesity, education policy, and the teaching of evolution and climate
change in K-12 schools. These topics involve many shared elements of science-related controversy, yet also are sufficiently diverse to inform an examination of the personal, economic, political, social, and cultural influences entailed in communication, all of which science communicators need to understand.
In addition to examining studies related to the above specific contentious issues, the report draws on research in a range of related disciplines (such as health communication, environmental communication, risk communication, political science, marketing, social marketing, mass communication, and journalism) to elucidate influences on the way people encounter and make sense of science, both as individuals and as members of social groups and organizations (such as governments, advocacy groups, and religious communities). The committee also gathered information from people who may be characterized as “science communication practitioners”—professionals who communicate about science, including scientists themselves, but do not conduct research on science communication.
The committee did not assume that findings from studies of other forms of communication would transfer automatically to communicating science. Science offers a unique way of understanding the world, and so knowledge about communication in other domains may not translate entirely to communicating science, especially when science is involved in controversy. It also cannot be assumed that the literature on decision making per se will necessarily generalize to communicating science for decision making. Another consideration is that the goals of communication studied in other disciplines may or may not be consistent with the goals of some science communicators. For example, some fields, such as marketing and public relations, offer insights into several aspects of science communication—for example, understanding audiences—but the goals of marketing and public relations professionals may differ from those of many science communicators.
This report could not be and is not a comprehensive review of the scholarship on science communication. Instead, it synthesizes the most essential points (for which key sources are provided as examples), focusing primarily on issues and outcomes specified in the committee’s statement of task (Box 1-1): the understanding, perception, acceptance, and use of science relating to topics that are often contentious. The report also does not directly address topics in formal science education, such as effective teaching methods or curricula related to communicating science, or informal science education.2 Moreover, to identify the challenges of communicating
2 Two National Academies reports address informal science learning and communication: Effective Chemistry Communication in Informal Environments (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016a) and Learning Science in Informal Environments (National Research Council, 2009).
and gaps in knowledge about the factors that affect people’s understanding, perception, and use of science, the committee considered a wide range of science communication contexts, such as policy making, journalism, and communications that affect individual and public health. However, the report does not analyze each such context in detail. And while many topics related to the communication of science are important, not all are amenable to empirical study, and such topics are excluded from this report. For example, the important question of what knowledge from science is ready to communicate and worth communicating outside of the scientific community involves ethical, practical, institutional, and academic cultural considerations that may not be addressable through a research agenda.
As is emphasized throughout this report, the science of science communication is an emergent field. The studies that make up the literature in this field are fragmented, issue-specific, and anchored in different disciplines, and often address the specific topic of science communication only obliquely. The committee reviewed those studies to gather suggestions on how to advance knowledge about effective science communication; those suggestions, however, are more tentative and speculative than those that would emerge from a mature and integrated field. The report ends with some ideas on how such integration might be accomplished in the future.
It is important to note as well that an assumption underlying the charge to the committee is that communicating science will have an effect on people’s behavior and decisions. Although some research supports this assumption (e.g., Brewer et al., 2016), the evidence is not as rich as it needs to be. The impact of science communication on different types of decisions, in different contexts, is an empirical question worthy of substantial additional research. While the committee believes the scientific community has an obligation to communicate the results of its work to the rest of society, we emphasize that science alone is never a sufficient basis for resolving public debate about contentious issues. Moreover, the people concerned in a given science-related controversy hold many different opinions about the social, economic, moral, and ethical implications of an action, and these opinions all must be weighed in decisions about that issue (Yankelovich, 1991).
Finally, in addressing its charge to identify research with the potential to improve science communication, the committee took a broad view and did not interpret a lack of action consistent with science as necessarily resulting from a problem with science communication. How people define the problem of science communication will differ depending on their perspective. There may not be a science communication problem from the perspective of the audience if they understand the science and consider it in their decisions (i.e., use it), but behave in a manner inconsistent with the best available scientific evidence. For the communicator, this outcome may be considered a problem or a failure of science communication, depending on whether the goals of
the communicator are to inform or persuade. Taking all these caveats into account, the committee believes the various disciplines that have studied aspects of science communication offer insights into its challenges. Moreover, these insights are ready to be advanced and to be integrated into a more coherent approach to communicating science for the benefit of society. It is the committee’s hope that the research agenda proposed in this report will guide the field of science communication research, serving to assist science communicators and scientists whose work pertains to important societal issues. Their collective expertise will be needed to develop and test science-informed approaches to communicating science.
Science is communicated by the scientific community (individual scientists, universities, and scientific associations), the media, advocacy organizations, think tanks, corporations, nonprofit research organizations, health professionals, and government agencies. Individuals also communicate science from their own perspectives as amateurs in their roles as science enthusiasts, issue advocates, or political commentators using social media, the web, and other venues.
The most effective approach for communicating science will depend on the goal of the communication. The committee identified five broad and overlapping goals for science communication, each of which places quite different demands on the knowledge and skills of science communicators and their audiences and calls for its own distinct approach. These goals encompass a wide range of reasons for communicating, from informing audiences to motivating the actions of individuals, groups, or societies. The goals may be end points in themselves or objectives serving a larger goal that is the communicator’s reason for communicating science.
First, the goal of science communication may be simply to share the findings and excitement of science. Many scientists wish to share their passion and intellectual excitement, believing that understanding of their work will enrich the lives of their fellow citizens. And since science typically is publicly supported, scientists may feel obliged to tell the public about the benefits for which it has paid.
A second goal of science communication may be to increase appreciation for science as a useful way of understanding and navigating the modern world. Although not fully tested, this goal assumes that people who have more knowledge about and are more comfortable with science, who have a
general store of science-related information, and who value science and its role in accruing knowledge will be more willing and able to use scientific information (knowledge from science and how it is produced) in their decision making. Thus communicators may seek to increase people’s general knowledge of science and of how it can improve quality of life and help in making decisions, and to expand the base of relevant information used routinely by the public—whether government officials, business leaders, or individual citizens. Integrating this knowledge with values and other relevant considerations can result in more informed decisions.
A third goal may be to increase knowledge and understanding of science related to a specific issue that requires a decision. In this case, communicators may seek to inform or educate people about the relevant facts from science, how those facts were derived, and what they mean for the decision. Communicators may seek to bring attention to a neglected issue or neglected aspects of an issue, or may wish to improve the quality of discourse on an issue—for example, through improved media coverage of the relevant science.
A fourth goal of science communication can be to influence people’s opinions, behavior, and policy preferences when the weight of evidence clearly shows that some choices have consequences for public health, public safety, or some other societal concern. Communicators have, for example, worked to make people aware of the benefits of exercise, the dangers of smoking, and the importance of controlling one’s blood pressure. In such cases, communicators may feel compelled both to inform people about scientific findings and to persuade people to change their behavior or make a particular policy choice. Communicators also may seek to influence public opinion—for example, on the benefits or risks of a medical procedure or technology—so as to rally support for a specific policy.
A fifth goal of science communication is to engage with diverse groups so their perspectives about science (particularly on contentious issues) can be considered in seeking solutions to societal problems that affect everyone. This goal sometimes is met through the formal process of public engagement, often invoked for societal decisions that are difficult scientifically, morally, and politically. Many modern technologies, such as human gene editing with CRISPR/Cas9 (a technology that makes it easy to target any DNA sequence for alteration), are characterized by (1) high levels of scientific, technological, and societal complexity that those without relevant expertise (including scientists working outside those areas of expertise) have difficulty understanding; (2) rapid translation (“bench to bedside”) or transition from laboratory work to applications; and (3) a host of moral, ethical, political, and societal implications that surround the application and practice of science (e.g., prenatal gene modifications in human embryos) (Scheufele, 2014). The need to address all these complexities has
The committee believes that while scientists have a duty to speak about their work, they have an equal duty to listen to the public so as to strengthen the quality of public discourse and increase the perceived and actual relevance of science to society. This kind of two-way public engagement may lead to insights about the problems that particular communities, or society as a whole, view as worth solving (Dietz, 2013a). It also can clarify what information society needs and wants from scientists. Science is influenced by the various professional and personal interests of scientists, their values and goals, and by various outside forces, such as political and industry concerns. For these and other practical or scientific reasons, such as limitations in the available scientific methods, science may not meet society’s needs for information or speak to everyone’s concerns. At a minimum, however, the public expects emerging science and technologies such as CRISPR to be discussed beyond the scientific community and monitored in a socially responsible way. Science communication as public engagement—by which we mean any communication between scientists and nonscientists, not just the formal process of public engagement—gives all stakeholders opportunities to discuss the potential risks, benefits, and consequences of a technology before it is developed or deployed3; can motivate attention to issues important to the public good; and ideally encourages civic participation and expression of views by all the diverse groups that are concerned with an issue.
Communication between scientists and the public can, of course, lead to controversy, but not all controversy around science is undesirable. No important societal decision is made solely on the basis of scientific evidence; such decisions also are made on the basis of facts, values, and understandings derived from other sources, such as personal or professional experience. Further, different people and communities are likely to weigh scientific input differently in accordance with their differing interests, experiences, and values. The process of public engagement can help build and sustain trust among stakeholders and aid in finding common ground through the negotiation of necessary trade-offs among divergent values, preferences, and needs (Sarewitz, 2015). How best to engage the public under different circumstances and on different issues is an important empirical question (as described in Chapter 3) that merits additional research. What is known now, though, is that public engagement often is essential for acceptable decisions about science-related controversies. It is clear as well that even
3 For the purposes of this report, “stakeholders” are defined as individuals or groups with an interest in or concern regarding an issue.
when an issue does not involve a widely known controversy, science communication is more effective when scientists are willing and able to listen carefully and respectfully to different points of view.4
The decision to communicate science always involves an ethical component. Choices about what scientific evidence to communicate and when, how, and to whom are a reflection of values. This fact becomes especially salient when the science pertains to an individual decision or policy choice that is contentious.
The extent to which science communication should go beyond science to influence decisions (as in the fourth goal described above) has been and will continue to be debated (Ratner and Riis, 2014; Scheufele, 2007). In this debate, it is useful to distinguish between science communication per se and other types of communication that build on scientific evidence to influence behavior.
Science communication conveys scientific findings and methods and helps people assess how that information applies to a particular issue or situation. The debate centers on whether it is also appropriate for scientists to communicate science in order to persuade people to support a particular policy option or engage in a particular behavior. Doing so can involve bringing into the communication individual or societal values that lie outside the strict domain of science. Scientists disagree about where to draw the line in using science for this kind of persuasion.
Other types of communication may be designed to persuade but not depend solely on the underlying science that is the basis for the message. Examples are public health campaigns aimed at persuading teenagers to avoid smoking or binge drinking (Farrelly et al., 2009; Goldstein et al., 2008; Wakefield et al., 2003, 2010). These communications may convey the negative consequences of the targeted behaviors using emotional appeals, appeals to social norms, or other means shown to be effective in motivating behavior change, but may exclude or selectively present information from the underlying science.
As research in the field of science communication moves forward, it will
4 This point has been made by many observers and is incorporated in recommendations made in National Academies reports on issues as varied as risk assessment, environmental assessment and decision making, climate change research, and gene drives (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016b; National Research Council, 1996, 2008; see also as an example Rosa et al., 2010).
be important to better understand and clarify these issues of the ethics of science communication and to promote ethical practices.5
One model of science communication—the “deficit model”—is widely held, simple on the surface, and appealing, but frequently does not hold. This model depicts nonscientists simply as not yet informed about what science has to say on a topic. In this model, “the science” of an important question is settled, and stands immutable and clear to the experts; the task of communication is simply to explain the facts to the public. However, real-life science communication rarely if ever operates in this way.
First, although people do at times lack information from science that could be beneficial, the science on an issue by its very nature is seldom completely settled, and scientific “facts” not only are complex but also can often be interpreted in more than one way. Effective science communication conveys both complexity and nuance, and does so in a way that is understood by and useful to the audience to which it is directed.
Second, science communication often is not direct from scientist to audience, but mediated by organizations, media, or other actors (who often select the audience themselves). This is part of the challenge of communicating science in the midst of controversy, when many competing voices are seeking to use the science for conflicting ends. Further, the way people interpret the information coming from various sources will be affected by such factors as their trust in the source, their existing knowledge of science, and their beliefs.
Third, although people may need to have more information or to have information presented more clearly, a focus on knowledge alone often is not sufficient for achieving communication goals. The deficit model is particularly insufficient when people may need to decide whether to take an action and what action to take. The model assumes that if an audience fails to act in a manner that some consider to be consistent with the scientific evidence, either the communication needs to be better crafted or delivered, or the audience is at fault for not knowing enough about the science or not being sufficiently appreciative. As noted earlier, however, people do not make decisions based solely on scientific information, but take values and other considerations into account. Thus it cannot be assumed that audiences that fail to act in accordance with the scientific evidence need more information, a better understanding of the information, or a greater appreciation of its
scientific value. Effective science communication is aimed at helping people understand the science relevant to a decision and showing its relevance while recognizing that other factors will affect their actions.
Finally, the deficit model assumes that if a message about scientific information is well crafted for one audience, it should meet the needs of other audiences as well. In fact, effective science communication is affected by the context and requires engagement with different audiences in different places at different times, taking account of what they want to know and already know, understand, and believe.
Chapter 2 of this report describes factors that contribute to the complexity of communicating scientific information and that need to be better understood regardless of whether the science pertains to an issue that is contentious in the public sphere. These factors include challenges inherent to scientific content, the individuals and groups that are the audiences for science communication, characteristics of the communicator, and the approaches used to communicate science.
When the science to be communicated relates to a public controversy, a better understanding of the factors discussed in Chapter 2 is insufficient for understanding the challenges of science communication. Chapter 3 briefly describes conditions that can cause science-related controversies to arise, and identifies factors that need to be better understood for effective communication of science related to contentious societal issues.
Chapter 4 identifies factors in the communication environment, such as those related to science journalism, the Internet, and social media, that are rapidly changing and affecting the way people seek or encounter information. These changes present both challenges and opportunities for communicators of science, whether they be individual scientists or organizations inside or outside the scientific community. The factors discussed in this chapter relate to communicating science regardless of whether the scientific information pertains to a contentious societal issue, although the discussion notes those that are especially relevant to science-related controversy.
Each of the above chapters contains questions for research surrounding the challenges of science communication. Chapter 5 summarizes these questions and describes a set of conceptual and methodological issues that need attention if an evidence base for communicating science is to be built. It also describes the committee’s observations regarding needs for translational research, including forming partnerships between researchers and science communicators and building capacity to implement the proposed research agenda.