As science and technology have become increasingly embedded in every aspect of modern life, recognition of the need for effective communication of science to the public and policy makers has grown. As reviewed in this report, a moderate body of scientific literature is available to inform efforts to communicate science, but many unanswered questions remain. This chapter summarizes the major challenges for science communication and needs for research identified throughout the report, with the aim of providing a potential research agenda for both funders and scientists.
A widespread assumption in both the scientific and science communication communities is that communicating science well will affect public understanding of and attitudes about societal issues. However, this assumption has not been tested extensively, and it needs to be. Measurement of the effectiveness of science communication is discussed in more detail later in this chapter.
A research effort also is needed in which researchers and practitioners of science communication form partnerships to translate what has been learned through research into practice and develop research agendas for testing realistic and pragmatic hypotheses about how best to communicate science. Models for organizing such translational research include the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and initiatives of the National Science Foundation that encourage partnerships between university researchers and professionals working in education or industry. Such an effort also could inform training for science communicators.
The committee’s task was to review research related to science communication in order to develop a research agenda for the future; thus, the committee was composed mainly of scientists. We engaged a wide range of science of communication practitioners at different points in the study process, including through public committee meetings, email, and telephone discussions and as expert reviewers of the draft report. In public meetings, we also gathered insights from policy makers, who are an important audience for science communication. Our hope is that the agenda described in this report will stimulate discussion among science communicators, researchers, and research funders focused on establishing priorities for research and practice and identifying ways of implementing the ideas put forth in this report.
The first section of this chapter describes general conceptual and methodological issues that need attention if an evidence base for communicating science is to be built. This report could not be, and is not, a comprehensive review of the scholarship on science communication. As the report shows, however, it is clear that the literatures relevant to communicating science are diverse, disconnected, and at different stages of development. For some topics, research has accumulated such that certain things are known, at least in a particular context for communicating science or for a specific issue. In other cases, the evidence is more indirect. Often the research was performed for reasons other than to inform science communication, and its relevance to that topic is inferred. These insights need to be tested systematically for their relevance to science communication.
In some areas, especially such emerging topics as the roles of social media and social networks, the research base consists of a single or a few studies. Although the studies described herein may be compelling and suggest ideas for practice, it is important not to overgeneralize from their findings. These studies need to be replicated and extended to provide greater certainty about their results and whether they apply to different audiences and circumstances. Two National Academy of Sciences Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia on the Science of Science Communication that resulted in two special issues of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Fischhoff and Scheufele, 2013, 2014), as well as the convening of this committee, point to the readiness of science communicators and researchers from diverse fields to address this need and work toward science-informed approaches to science communication.
The second section of this chapter presents major unsettled questions surrounding the challenges of effective science communication. These questions are stated at a general level and organized around the major challenges the committee identified. For each, we present examples of more specific questions that, if pursued, would enable science communicators to be more effective in their work. We do not specify, in each case, all of the
important questions that would be important to pursue. Rather, researchers need to use their technical expertise and partner with professional science communicators and audiences to identify the most useful detailed questions and feasible methods for addressing each of the major challenges specific to a domain of interest. Such partnerships might involve researchers and science communicators and experts from related communication fields working within government, boundary organizations, university press offices, media, and industry.
The third section of the chapter suggests ways of building the research capacity needed to implement the proposed research agenda. These suggestions for infrastructure center primarily on the need to attract researchers from diverse disciplines to the study of science communication, but there are additional needs as well. Throughout, we offer brief observations on ways in which this research agenda might be used.
General conceptual and methodological issues that need to be investigated to build the research base on the science of science communication include developing methods for aligning goals with the right communication approach; using a systems approach to guide research on science communication; assessing the effectiveness of science communication; and conducting comparisons across diverse national, international, and cultural contexts.
As described in Chapter 1, people communicate science for diverse reasons. One goal of science communication is simply to share the findings and excitement of science. A second goal may be to increase appreciation for science as a useful way of understanding and navigating the modern world. A third goal may be to increase knowledge and understanding of science related to a specific issue that requires a decision. A fourth goal may be to influence people’s opinions, behavior, and policy preferences—for example, when the weight of evidence clearly shows that some choices have consequences for public health, public safety, or some other societal concern. And a fifth goal is to engage with diverse groups so that their perspectives about science related to important social issues can be considered in seeking solutions to societal problems that affect everyone. A major research effort is needed to help align approaches to science communication with particular goals.
Science communication often is undertaken to achieve a larger end, one that goes beyond discussions of the science itself. Examples include increas-
ing vaccination levels or encouraging a particular policy choice around climate change. It is possible that means other than simply communicating the science may be more effective at accomplishing such goals. The important questions to pursue include, How much does science communication matter to the achievement of end goals relative to everything else that matters? and How do various ways of communicating scientific information augment or alter the ways in which science is weighted or used in decision making?
Science communication occurs within a complex system whose elements include the content to be communicated, the format in which it is communicated, the diverse organizations and individuals who are also communicating science, the various audiences, the channels of communication, the political and societal realities within which the communication takes place, and the many other sources from which audiences may find additional and perhaps conflicting or inaccurate scientific information. Each of these elements itself is complex, and each interacts with the others in complex and largely unknown ways. Moreover, this system is dynamic and ever-changing, and has unique characteristics depending on the type of science that is being communicated. People’s understandings and opinions about science in general and its relevance to specific issues change over time. Political environments and levels of media attention change. And so does the involvement of interest and advocacy groups, regulators, and many other stakeholders.
Research to date suggests that, although each element of the system within which science communication takes place can be studied and to some degree understood individually, research on communicating science is most effective when the various elements are considered as an integrated whole, and thus when a systems approach is taken. A systems approach is typically defined as an “iterative learning process in which one takes a broad, holistic, long-term, perspective of the world and examines the linkages and interactions among its elements” (Institute of Medicine, 2010, p. 74).
A systems approach could help researchers and communicators in science communication consider interactions among the various elements of such communication and the context in which they occur in the real world over time, and go beyond studying each element at one point in time, in isolation. Such a holistic understanding could guide communication efforts that would take the complexity of the system into account (i.e., the level at which the communication should be targeted, who should be involved in
the communication, what types of content need to be communicated and how, and even whether there should be any communication at all).
Effective communication about stem cell research, for instance, is difficult without a systems approach. While communication needs to take into account the psychological and cognitive factors that shape attitudes and decisions among individuals, those attitudes and decisions do not develop in isolation. Instead they often are shaped by group-level influences, such as churches or other community groups with unique communication channels and mechanisms of influence (Matei and Ball-Rokeach, 2003). The communication environment surrounding stem cell research is heavily influenced by competing voices and pressures from various stakeholders at the societal level, including political actors, religious groups, and regulatory and funding agencies. Any effort to communicate about stem cell research without taking into account the dynamics within and across these different levels of influence is therefore bound to be less effective than it otherwise would be. And the same dynamics manifest themselves for many contentious issues, including childhood vaccinations and genetically modified organisms. (See Rice and Foote [2001, Chapter 8], for an illustration of a systems-based evaluation planning model for health communication.)
Some of the elements outlined above and their influences will not be predictable or direct, but it should be possible to document enough about them to develop models of how communicating science in certain ways for particular reasons takes place within a larger system of influences. Other fields have used this general approach to advance knowledge and achieve important outcomes (see Institute of Medicine, 2010, Chapter 4). The building and testing of such models can serve as the basis for research using field experiments to test approaches to communicating science in complex communication environments. Following this path will require a robust understanding of both the individual elements of the system and how they interact. At a minimum, researchers focusing at any level of analysis need to be acutely aware of the broader context in which communication efforts are undertaken. More important, however, a systems approach requires that researchers understand empirically the interactions among different elements of the system over time and across and within levels of analysis—individual, group, community, and societal.
This work ideally would begin with in-depth, comprehensive reviews of the evidence related to each of the elements that research indicates could be important to communicating in a particular context to achieve specific goals and how these elements may interrelate, as well as identification of specific gaps in knowledge. These reviews could be used to develop initial hypotheses about how the various elements operate both individually and in their interactions to influence people’s responses to particular types of science communication intended to achieve certain goals in specific con-
texts. Explanatory models of the influences of science communication on individual decisions, for instance, need to specify such elements as the type of decision being made, the factors likely to influence that decision, and when and in what forms scientific information is likely to be useful or not.
Other fields, such as public health and political science, have drawn on such systems thinking. In health communication, for example, systems thinking enables an integrated perspective on how individuals respond to competing messages within a complex and dynamic social and political environment, and how those messages propagate through and evolve in interpersonal networks and other social groups. Research on science communication has paid comparatively little attention to approaches based on systems thinking. Given the complexities and multilevel nature of the problems faced by the science communication community, the committee advocates a renewed focus on such approaches for the study of science communication and an empirical research program aimed at informing these efforts. Examples of major questions a systems approach could be used to answer include the following:
- How do the various elements involved in communicating science at the individual, group, community, and societal levels interact to affect how people understand, perceive, and use science?
- How do different types of audiences respond to various attempts to communicate science amid science-related controversy depending on the nature of the controversy; the type of decision to be made; the state of the relevant science (e.g., whether emerging or well developed); and the types of values, beliefs, and organized interests involved.
Most research on science communication conducted to date is descriptive and correlational, and relatively little of the existing research can enable confident statements about causality. This limitation is not unique to research on science communication, but characterizes much of the study of communication more generally (Fischhoff, 2013). It is especially important to investigate questions about science communication using multiple methods. For example, surveys of representative samples of the population allow for broad generalization, but unless changes in individuals are tracked over time, drawing strong causal inferences on the basis of survey results can be challenging. In contrast, controlled experiments allow for strong conclusions about causality, but even in the case of field experiments and certainly in the case of laboratory experiments, the degree to which they can be generalized to a wider public is uncertain. Thus, strong conclusions
emerge from triangulating across multiple methods. Moreover, the nature of some of the questions posed in this report—particularly those that relate to effects on policy and on groups as opposed to individuals—makes them unlikely subjects for the kinds of randomized designs that are considered the gold standard for determining causality. Therefore, it will be important to use a combination of methods that over time will allow strong inferences to be drawn about how audiences respond to various approaches to communicating science. Substantially more research is needed to determine which approaches are effective for whom, when, and under what conditions. This knowledge should yield general, evidence-based principles for how to communicate science effectively and how to adapt science communication to particular audiences and contexts to achieve specific goals. Research focused in the following ways would be especially informative:
- Both one-time and longitudinal cross-sectional surveys using representative samples can provide information about people’s understanding, perception, and use of science that can be generalized to the larger population, as well as an understanding of how those measures change over time.
- Randomized controlled field experiments can be used to assess the impact of a particular approach to communicating on changes in people’s understanding, perception, or use of science, or any other important outcomes.
- Research needs to simulate to the extent possible the conditions of real-world communication environments.
- Effectiveness research that includes in-depth description of the contexts in which the science communication being investigated occurs can support inferences about other conditions to which the findings might apply.
- Studies in science communication frequently use convenience samples, such as undergraduate students or Mechanical Turk Service samples. It is important to select samples carefully so that findings can be generalized across segments of the population who are the intended audiences for the communication.
- Better measures of the quality and effectiveness of science communication are needed, keeping in mind that whether such an effort is effective depends on the goals of the communicator and that the communicator and the target audiences may define successful communication differently (e.g., when the audience seeks information from science, but the communicator seeks also to persuade).
- Analyses of large datasets such as those derived from social media and other emerging online communication platforms could be useful for collecting information needed to assess changes in people’s
understandings and perceptions of science related to social issues. These changes might be useful for predicting changes in related behaviors or decisions.
Finally efforts are needed, perhaps in the form of registries, to aggregate findings from effectiveness research and catalog studies according to key dimensions so that approaches used for this research and the evidence produced can be shared more easily, serving as a foundation for future work. Developing such tools would enable building an evidence base that would identify key factors that affect science communication and the elements of various approaches to communicating that may generalize across topics or be specific to certain types of circumstances. At present, moreover, it is challenging to find all that is known from research related to science communication. Efforts also are needed, therefore, to help researchers access and utilize relevant research across disciplines. Registries such as those that exist in the health sciences for original studies, research reviews, and research protocols could help with this task.
Analysis and comparison of diverse national, international, and cultural contexts can yield important insights into science-related controversies and emerging issues that are global in scope. Some issues, for example, are highly contentious in some places but not others, and contexts differ in how issues have been framed and in the success with which science communication has been used. Comparing contexts can provide insights into a broad range of factors that cannot be gained from analysis within a single context (McCright et al., 2016, e.g., see Arnold et al., 2016; Gaskell et al., 2000). Comparing approaches to communicating science across contexts also can help identify overarching principles that hold across contexts and those that are specific to controversies at the local, national, and international levels. At the same time, however, it bears noting that these kinds of cross-context studies are among those that pose particular challenges for experimental research designs.
Major challenges for practice and research in science communication include understanding the converging influences on science communication; engaging formally with the public about science; understanding the special complexities of communicating science in the face of public controversy; and communicating science in a complex, dynamic, and competitive com-
munication media environment. Following are the committee’s conclusions about the factors relating to each of these challenges that need to be understood.
Most people do not pay attention to science regularly, although they encounter and benefit from it in their everyday lives. They seek to make sense of it only when it is important to a decision they must make as individuals or in the context of institutions in which they have a role—as consumers, patients, parents, voters, or policy makers.
Research to date has pointed to a number of factors that make it challenging to communicate science effectively to diverse audiences regardless of whether the science relates to a public controversy:
- Some challenges stem from the complex nature of scientific information, such as the uncertainties inherent to science, and the ways in which people process such information. People, for example, often are unsettled by the ambiguity of science, and tend to have difficulty understanding scientific uncertainty and probability. Uncertainty has a number of sources, including ambiguity about the weight of evidence, uncertainty about future outcomes arising from probabilistic evidence (risk), and uncertainty about the degree to which scientific evidence applies to a particular context or has personal significance. Continued research can resolve some uncertainty by providing additional information, but in other cases, and especially with complex problems involving science, uncertainty will persist.
- As discussed in Chapter 2, people in general use shortcuts to make sense of large amounts of complex scientific information. They hold a variety of beliefs and values that shape their interpretations of new information and that, while usually adaptive for navigating a complex world, can lead to inaccuracies in their interpretation of scientific information, especially when uncertainty is involved.
- Also as noted in Chapter 2, people have a strong tendency to confirm their existing ways of thinking, a tendency that makes a decision or attitude resistant to change.
- In science communication, as with other types of communication, the audience decides whether the sources of information or the institutions they represent are trustworthy. People use this assessment in deciding what information is worth their attention, and often what to think about that information.
- People’s opinions and decisions also are affected by a variety of social influences—social networks, norms, group memberships, and loyalties.
Further study is needed to determine the extent to which each of the above factors matters to communicating science in particular contexts to achieve specific goals. Research also is needed to determine the importance of these factors relative to others (discussed in Chapter 3) that come into play when science is involved in controversy.
Many of the decisions to be made about societal issues occur at the level of policy. Information about the impact of science communication on policy decisions, however, is sparse. One reason for this gap is that in a complex policy-making environment, it is difficult to know whether a particular communication affects a decision. Important questions, perhaps more feasible to address, are, How is scientific information accessed, encountered, understood, shared, and discussed by policy makers in formal policy processes? How can science communication affect these processes? and How are these processes affected by science communication when the science is involved in public controversy?
Think tanks, scientific associations, evidence-based clearinghouses, government agencies, industry groups, and nonprofit organizations all play an organized role in aggregating, translating, and interpreting such information for use by policy makers, the media, and the broader public. Research is needed on the conditions for success in the efforts of diverse types of organizations to communicate science. For example, what effects do boundary organizations have on the quality or outcomes of policy discussions of science-related issues?
The purpose of formal public engagement aimed at bringing the general public into discussions with scientists about important science-related issues is to facilitate the exchange of information, knowledge, perspectives, and preferences among groups that differ in expertise, power, and values (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016b) and to find common ground (see the detailed discussion in Chapter 2). This type of dialogue with the public is especially important when the science is emerging and has uncertain implications for society or when the science is involved in public controversy (discussed in Chapter 3 and below).
As noted in Chapter 3, formal public engagement is difficult to do well. That chapter presents principles for public engagement derived mainly from the literatures on environmental assessment and decision making, and most
of this evidence was derived from public engagement activity at the local and regional levels. As public engagement is undertaken on such diverse issues as gene editing, climate change mitigation, biomedical research, and health policy, two critical research questions can be identified: What are the particular structures and processes for public engagement that enable science to be communicated effectively? To what degree do these approaches generalize or need to be tailored according to the diversity of the participants, the decisions to be made, and the nature of the topic?
The involvement of science in public controversy makes the already complex task of science communication even more so. Science-related controversies take many different forms and arise for diverse reasons, as described in Chapter 3. Although this report has identified features of science-related controversy that make communicating science especially challenging, more needs to be understood about the origins and dynamics of these controversies if science communication is to be more effective. The following are examples of questions to pursue:
- What factors contribute to the emergence of science-related controversies? To what extent do these controversies originate with the scientific community as opposed to broader political, economic, or social arenas?
- Why do some controversies involving science gain traction and persist while others do not?
- How do people’s perceptions about science change over time as science-related controversy evolves, and why? What are the factors (individual, social, contextual) that affect the extent to which perceptions about scientific information will become contentious and perhaps polarized?
- How much does the cause of a science-related controversy matter to the approaches that will be effective in communicating science related to that issue? Are there categories of causes of science-related controversy that communicating science can help address? Which approaches to communicating science related to contentious issues are effective, and which are not?
- The organizations and individuals that communicate science related to controversy are diverse, and they have various reasons for communicating. How do the different messages from various sources interact to affect peoples’ responses to scientific information over time?
- How do public controversies involving science resolve? Under what conditions does the communication of scientific information have an impact on the resolution of a debate by changing people’s understanding or opinions?
Science-related controversies defy easy typology. Nonetheless, as described in Chapter 3, the committee concludes that science-related controversies have three features about which more needs to be known: (1) conflicts over beliefs, values, and interests are central to the debate, rather than simply a need for knowledge from science; (2) the public perceives uncertainty either in the science, in its implications, or as a result of communicators saying different and sometimes contradictory things in the public sphere; and (3) the voices of organized interests and influential individuals are amplified in public discourse and impede making the state of the scientific evidence clearly known.
Each of these features is discussed in turn below, and major questions that need to be addressed by research to develop effective approaches to communicating science are identified. In general, it will be important for research to determine whether the answers to these questions differ by issue (e.g., climate change versus vaccination); by the scale of the controversy (e.g., local versus national versus international); by the nature of the decision-making institution (e.g., Congress versus executive agencies versus the courts; local versus state versus national government versus private-sector organizations); and according to differences in audiences’ beliefs, values, world views, levels of trust, and mental models.
As discussed previously, across many different science-related controversies, audiences and individuals with differing beliefs, values, and interests may respond in quite different ways to the same scientific information. In some circumstances, continuing to communicate what is known from science can lead people to believe misinformation about science more strongly, making it even more difficult to communicate for a better understanding of scientific information. When conflicts over beliefs, values, and interests are central to people’s decisions, how can science be communicated effectively? In these contexts, how much of an effect can science communication have, for whom, and in what circumstances?
Communicating science effectively in contexts of conflict requires that the audience perceive science and scientists as trustworthy and credible. What factors affect trust in and the credibility of scientists and scientific information when science is involved in controversy? In such cases, what are the effects of science communicators being open about their own values
and preferences? How might efforts to persuade people to adopt scientifically supported positions affect their perceptions of scientists? What are the best strategies for communicating science related to controversial issues in the face of distrust of the science or of the scientific community?
Public engagement is one approach for addressing conflicts over beliefs, values, and interests related to science. Yet given that best practices in public engagement suggest engaging with stakeholders early on, an important unanswered question is, To what extent and in what ways can communicating science in formal public participation processes be effective once an issue has become controversial?
Finally, public engagement in discussions about controversial science-related issues has in many cases resulted in a set of principles for structuring such discourse to achieve particular outcomes. Much of this research, however, has focused on environmental assessment and decision making. What are the elements of effective structures and processes for communicating science effectively in public forums across a range of social issues (e.g., biomedical research, health policy, gene editing, education policy) and types of controversies? Audiences from the same group or community may be internally diverse in their values, interests, and experiences. How do the characteristics of groups or communities affect their responses to science communication and different approaches to their engagement?
As discussed in Chapter 2, communicating scientific uncertainty is a substantial challenge in all instances of science communication. Amid controversy, however, uncertainty about risks and other aspects of the science can be particularly problematic, as described in Chapter 3. This uncertainty can easily be mischaracterized, exploited, or exaggerated to serve particular interests. Research on how to communicate scientific certainty or consensus effectively in science-related controversy is just emerging, and thus important questions remain, including the following:
- What are effective ways of communicating scientific consensus and talking about degrees or types of uncertainty about scientific information in cases of science-related controversy?
- Progress is beginning to be made toward understanding the different ways in which people respond to attempts to communicate scientific information amid controversy. However, there is a need to develop detailed approaches to understanding audiences’ responses to uncertainties about science in cases of science-related controversy that could be implemented on a large scale.
Science communication may take into account the beliefs and values of varied audiences and communicate well about where the weight of scientific evidence lies, but still be ignored or disregarded in discussions concerning contentious issues. High stakes, conflicting interests, uncertainty, and concerns about risk and its consequences can expand the number and diversity of people and organizations that are attempting to communicate about science, as well as the number of parties who use scientific information (whether appropriately or not). In this kind of context, misinformation about science can make it difficult for an authoritative voice from science to be heard. Research is especially needed in the following areas:
- Misinformation about science stems from misunderstanding as well as deliberate efforts to misconstrue the science. Debunking such misinformation is difficult. Research is beginning to suggest some strategies to this end and for whom they may work. Yet a better understanding of effective strategies for correcting misinformation is needed.
- What are effective ways of framing scientific information in science-related controversies? How much does framing of an issue matter, and when is it best done?
- Opinion leaders are important voices in the community, but working with them to convey scientific information may also pose a risk to the credibility of scientists. How do different types of opinion leaders affect people’s understanding of scientific information and its use in their decision making?
As described in Chapter 4, science communication takes place today in a complex and rapidly changing media environment. More than ever, many voices are competing for the attention of various audiences on all topics, including science. Patterns of news use are changing, and with them structures in commercial journalism. These developments are especially dramatic for science news. At the same time, new ways of communicating are constantly emerging online, with lower costs for dissemination, new modalities and reach, and fewer central gatekeepers setting frames and agendas. These new forms of communication entail new challenges and offer new opportunities for drawing attention to and shaping people’s opinions about science related to contentious issues.
The way changes in media affect people’s engagement with scientific
information related to social issues is an emerging area of research. The research to date has focused on several themes: how individual preferences and other characteristics of audiences shape the selection of media, media sources, and science content online; how social interactions and norms of online communities affect people’s engagement with and views of scientific information; and how media create and spread misinformation or accurate scientific information. Research is needed to understand how individuals and decision-making bodies derive and evaluate information from various media sources. Such research will need to keep pace with change in the media landscape, devise more comprehensive models of news and social media, and yield more information about news-sharing networks. Major questions for future research in this area include the following:
- How can accurate information about the state of the science be heard among many competing messages and sources of information? Given that the news people seek and encounter online is increasingly tailored to their preferences, how can science be communicated to ensure that people encounter and have access to information when they need it?
- Are some forms of media better than others at promoting awareness or understanding of or informing public opinion about scientific information, and for whom? For example, how do these effects vary according to characteristics of the audience, such as their values, group affiliations and loyalties, tendency to “think like a scientist” about scientific information, and various demographic characteristics?
- How can science communicators reach audiences that face barriers to accessing and using scientific information, such as those with lower levels of education and income?
- Much of the scientific information Americans receive through media still originates from traditional journalism. Journalistic decisions about what to cover, how to convey different perspectives, how much and how long to cover an issue, and how stories are framed can affect the public’s perception of science, the issues that should be of concern to them and on the public agenda, and how they judge the credibility of scientific information and the scientific enterprise. For these reasons, it is important to understand and track over time how science is covered in the media in order to determine how the media are affecting people’s perceptions, understanding, and use of science in a dynamic communication environment. Relatively more is known about journalistic decisions and their effects with respect to traditional news coverage, but how do
these decisions operate and affect audiences for scientific information in rapidly changing online environments?
- Social media and science blogs increasingly are being used to spread both accurate information and misinformation from science. More research is needed to determine effective approaches for communicating science on social media platforms and through blogs.
- Social networks are the web of connections and relationships that people have with others—connections that vary in strength and that provide a means for social influence. People’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors can be affected through networks that include opinion leaders. While this has long been the case, it is likely that social media affect the assembly and effects of these networks. Future research needs to examine the effects of changes in media on how people understand and perceive science through social media and other social networks. Such tools as social network analysis could be explored for documenting the flow of information and sentiments in social networks and assessing their effects.
The following are additional examples of questions to be addressed by research to gain a better understanding of the complex and changing media environment:
- What impact do social media have on people’s understandings and perceptions of science and their use of scientific information in making decisions? How do the features of social media that limit exposure to diverse sources of information and perspectives (such as filter bubbles and echo chambers and curated Facebook feeds) influence people’s perceptions of science and their ability to access, understand, and use scientific information for decision making? What are the implications for how scientific information is best communicated?
- What role can digital technologies play in presenting scientific information more effectively? New software, for example has facilitated the development of interactive graphical depictions of information that can be diffused online. How can such graphics be used more effectively, for whom are they helpful, and under what circumstances?
The following are examples of additional questions to be answered about the challenges of science communication, whether on contentious issues or not:
- What aspects of science literacy matter to effective science communication? How do characteristics of individuals, such as skill with numbers (numeracy) or prior knowledge of science, affect their processing of scientific information? How do the effects of these individual differences vary depending on how scientific information is presented, such as the use of different visual presentations?
- How important to effective science communication is people’s understanding of the nature and processes of science? Does understanding the nature of science actually translate into the use of scientific information in decision making or other aspects of life? Does having some ability to “think like a scientist” about scientific information affect people’s responses to such information or their use of it when making decisions? Is it important, for example, to have certain understandings about scientific methods, to have certain competencies in decision making using science, or to be able to interpret information about probabilities? Are these understandings and competencies more and less important under particular circumstances, such as amid science-related controversy?
- Many assume that having knowledge about the science related to an issue will affect people’s attitudes on the issue. What specific types of knowledge about science might affect attitudes on an issue? Are some types of attitudes important to address first so that audiences are open to understanding the science and considering it for a decision? Do previously held attitudes or knowledge related to the science predict personal decisions or policy choices, and under what circumstances?
- Research on framing confirms that how an issue is cast can affect public attitudes and behaviors with respect to that issue, but findings on the effects of framing on specific attitudes or other measures of support for particular positions related to social issues are mixed. What role does framing play in shaping people’s understanding of scientific information?
- How can science communication reach and be tailored to meet the needs and concerns of audiences that vary by race, ethnicity, language status, income, and education level and that may respond differently to science as a result of differences in their norms, beliefs, or experiences?
- What factors influence audience perceptions of trust in science and scientific information? How does trust vary depending on the communicator, the goals for communication (e.g., informational versus persuasive), and the communication context? How does trust change as the science on an issue is communicated over time?
- Which types of science communicators are most effective in what settings? In what circumstances is it important for scientists versus others to serve as the communicators?
- What are the core competencies of an effective science communicator, depending on the goals for communicating, the setting, and the target audiences?
- To what extent are the opinions of different audiences influenced by perceived problems within the scientific community, such as limits on the reproducibility of research findings, scientific fraud, or conflicts of interest.
As discussed in Chapter 1, a productive but relatively small and evolving community of researchers now studies science communication, but research capacity needs to grow and research methods to evolve if real progress is to be made. Some of that growth can be promoted through infusions of funding, but there are other needs as well. For example, researchers and practicing science communicators need opportunities for the regular exchange and synthesis of information and ideas so as to keep the research agenda current and useful. The varied disciplines that study science communication and science-related controversies need opportunities and mechanisms for working together to develop more unified theories, concepts, and definitions of the factors that matter to communicating science and their influences. Science communication needs to be studied in real-life contexts, where it occurs, using methods that can directly address practical issues of how best to communicate science information. If science communicators are to find research useful, they need to work with researchers to develop specific research questions that are guided by scientific theories and knowledge and that address the communicators’ goals and concerns.
New or refocused journals for research on science communication and professional meetings and other forums would support practice-driven research collaborations even more than existing journals currently do, with publications being tailored more explicitly to interdisciplinary audiences outside the field of science communication. Progress will require that these activities not be supported in isolation or be ad hoc, but designed strategically and sustained for long enough to build a coherent community and a base of scientific knowledge that can be useful for science communication practice.
To enable full exploration of the complex phenomena whose understanding will provide an appropriate knowledge base for effective science communication, more scientists need to be recruited to this field from neigh-
boring disciplines, particularly the social and behavioral sciences. Again, more active engagement of the diverse professionals and organizations that communicate science for different reasons and in different contexts is needed. Ideally, this research agenda would be pursued by researchers working with different types of boundary organizations, issue networks, agencies, media organizations, and other entities that communicate science.
One of the challenges of conducting research on science communication is the long delays between proposing projects and their being funded. Mechanisms for ensuring rapid review and funding of such research are sorely needed, particularly when issues, such as the Zika virus, emerge suddenly, and important messages from science need to be communicated. Not all barriers to accelerating such research concern funding. Institutional structures and regulatory policies also can make timely research difficult. One example is the requirement to obtain approval by the Office of Management and Budget for gathering data from the public under the Paperwork Reduction Act. In addition, new mechanisms for research collaborations could be developed following such models as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s program on Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments or extension models of land grant institutions that have supported partnerships between communities of researchers and decision makers for the design and conduct of research aimed at solving complex practical problems. As described in Chapter 2, private foundations also have funded partnerships between researchers and policy makers to close the gap between research and people’s use of research results. Such partnerships recognize the need to go beyond the simple model of communication described in Chapter 1 to produce knowledge that is useful and communicate it to those who make or influence decisions.
Finally, science communication researchers at all career levels may need additional training to develop the methodological and professional expertise necessary to carry out the research agenda proposed in this report. Alternatively, they could be encouraged to work in teams including other partners with the necessary expertise. Similar efforts at training or fostering collaboration among researchers with diverse methodological expertise have been undertaken successfully by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and by the National Institutes of Health when they have seen a need to build the capacity of the research community to respond to requests for proposals. Training efforts have included offering or sponsoring courses or workshops and supporting enhancements to doctoral or postdoctoral training programs.
As science has come to touch the everyday lives and decisions of individuals and institutions and as more people are attempting to communicate about science, science has become part of public discourse as never before. The need to communicate science effectively—for the sake of the public, policy makers, and the science community itself—lends urgency to the implementation of the research agenda proposed herein. This agenda will be implemented only if the institutions that communicate science and public and private funders of research become committed to strengthening the science of science communication and working toward evidence-based practices. It is the committee’s hope that this report will stimulate that commitment.