Historically, philanthropic organizations have engaged in a wide range of activities to advance engagement with science and evidence-based policy, observed Elizabeth Christopherson, president and chief executive officer of the Rita Allen Foundation, who moderated the session
on the role of philanthropy in science communication. As described in The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication (Jamieson et al., 2017), philanthropists and foundations have
- Promoted engagement to expand public understanding and acceptance of science;
- Conducted, commissioned, or supported research to inform policy questions;
- Catalyzed and brokered dialogue among scientists, policy makers, and other key stakeholders;
- Assessed the impact of science engagement and policy-influencing efforts; and
- Built new fields of inquiry relevant to policy formation.
The Rita Allen Foundation has supported biomedical research scientists at early stages of their careers, which provides them with greater flexibility to pursue high-risk ideas. It is also investing in innovative projects that improve the quality and accessibility of information related to science and civics. “We believe that aware, informed, and engaged citizens are vital assets for solving most critical problems in our communities,” said Christopherson. The foundation has been working to connect research to practice and preparing the next generation of leaders, Christopherson said.
Connecting with an audience means choosing an audience with which to communicate and then understanding that audience, said John Burris, president of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. For example, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund has recently supported the production of two whimsically illustrated middle school books that appeal both to students and to parents. Such projects, by eliciting the intellectual curiosity of students, might lead them to pursue science, to become supporters of science, or simply to understand science better, Burris observed.
In addition to supporting biomedical research, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund supports the communication of scientists among themselves, which can improve both their science and the science of others. For example, it has worked with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute on a book titled Making the Right Moves (Burroughs Wellcome Fund and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 2006), which was designed in part to help scientists communicate with each other and with the public. Another way of emphasizing science communication has been to build and promote communication among its grantees. For example, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund brings in
award applicants to meet with a committee to describe their results and proposals. The committee then recommends which of these applicants should be funded. “It’s an expensive and time-consuming process, but in fact is extraordinarily important in our decision making,” said Burris. As K–12 and higher education have moved away from speech classes and other opportunities for students to develop communication skills, future scientists have fewer opportunities to develop the skills they will need in their professions. Instead of speaking at meetings, young scientists present at poster sessions, where they speak to just one or a handful of people at a time. “It’s important that you’re able to get up in front of people and speak about your science,” Burris said. For the same reason, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund asks its grantees to participate as much as possible in public events such as science festivals.
Philanthropies have many opportunities to try new approaches and models that in turn can be translated and scaled up, Burris noted. They can be nimbler, with less bureaucracy and fewer barriers to getting things done. Philanthropies also need to be comfortable with failure, he added. Failure can be a success if it shows that something does not work. “It’s very difficult for program officers to embrace failure as a success, but in fact it is,” he said.
Burris suggested experiments where science communicators try something different, followed by an evaluation to determine whether that new approach was effective. He also pointed out, however, that evaluation is “the toughest nut, in many ways, to crack.” Measures need to reflect success rather than simply measuring things that are measurable. “We can count the number of publications. We can measure [the] number of grants. We can measure the number of speeches. [But] it’s extraordinarily difficult to see what impact something has had.”
As part of its work on communication, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund has developed an active social media presence, including accounts with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. “We have found, interestingly enough, that Twitter is far and away the communication and social media of choice. It’s most obvious among science teachers. When we have a meeting, and when teachers are communicating among themselves, they use Twitter,” Burris said.
When funding for basic research in the natural sciences began to decline over the past decade, one need that immediately became apparent was for advice to philanthropists on how to support science effectively. The Science Philanthropy Alliance was formed in 2013 to meet that need, said the organization’s president, Marc Kastner. Since then, its member
organizations have grown from 6 to 21, many of which have science communication as part of their missions.
A ScienceCounts survey sponsored by the Alliance members has shown that the public appreciates science but does not give it a high priority. This survey also has shown that fear, as a motivating force, does not work well with the public (though, Kastner added, fear does work well with the federal government in motivating support of basic research). With the public, hope is a more effective motivating force. For example, the widespread fascination of the public with the 2017 solar eclipse and the recent discovery of gravitational waves are examples of how scientific discoveries can excite the public.
The Alliance has commissioned what it calls “science to society stories,” which describe how science has led to technologies and therapies that have improved people’s lives. It has also sought to demonstrate to philanthropists the kinds of differences they can make through support of basic research. For example, “we have one philanthropist who really wants to excite the public about ocean exploration—that’s his primary motivation,” said Kastner.
Burris, Christopherson, and Kastner all agree that philanthropic organizations can learn from each other and then disseminate what they have learned. “The federal government is very conservative,” observed Kastner. Philanthropies can take more risks and make decisions more quickly. Philanthropic organizations can also amplify potential solutions to wicked problems by working together to share best practices, collaborate on projects, and invest in research, experimentation, and evaluation, said Christopherson. As Burris said, “It’s great that we as foundations are in a position to try experiments. If you give us a good one, that would be something that to me would make sense to fund.”