The need to communicate the results of scientific research to the public has never been greater, but effective science communication is complex and must be learned, said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in the first session of the third Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication. Today’s media environment is fragmented and
polarized. Communicators increasingly use social media that have fewer gatekeepers to establish facts. The news cycle is fast paced, with many voices competing for attention.
Leshner chaired the committee that produced the 2017 report Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda, which served as a framework for the colloquium (NASEM, 2017a). He began by laying out five crosscutting themes from the report.
The first involves the need to align strategy with goals. These goals may be sharing the findings and excitement of science, increasing appreciation for science, increasing knowledge of a specific issue, influencing opinions or behaviors, or considering public perspectives and finding common ground. The key, said Leshner, is to establish goals and develop strategies to accomplish those goals.
The second theme is the need to tailor messages to specific audiences, including the general public, scientists, media, advocacy groups, corporations, nonprofit research organizations, health professionals, government agencies, science enthusiasts, policy makers, political commentators, and individual activists. “This is the biggest mistake that I see people make,” said Leshner. “They talk about what they want to talk about, not what people want to hear.”
The third theme is that communicating science is particularly difficult because scientific information is complex and often uncertain. Scientists may take uncertainty as a fact of life, Leshner observed, but members of the public can react to it by saying, “If you’re not really sure what you’re talking about, then maybe I can do whatever I want.”
The fourth theme is that the deficit model of science communication is, for the most part, wrong. This model holds that people would make choices more consistent with the scientific evidence if they were provided with more information through “better” science communication. But people rarely make decisions based only on scientific information, Leshner pointed out. “People draw on their own beliefs about the world. They use their own analogies, metaphors, and prior experiences.” Scientists lose their credibility with other scientists if they ignore science, but members of the public can disregard, deny, or distort findings with few immediate consequences.
The fifth and final theme Leshner cited is that the framing of an issue is critical. Science communicators cannot simply state facts the way they want to state them. They need to consider how to frame those facts so that specific audiences will be receptive to the issues they embody.
Leshner urged science communicators to “go glocal.” Communicators need to take a global issue and make it meaningful at the local or the personal level, he said. He also emphasized the necessity of public engagement, which involves considering not only style and content but the intent
of a conversation. Converting a monologue to a dialogue requires communicating with the public rather than to the public. Most scientists are not prepared to listen to and respect public concerns, but they can learn to do it. “Engagement is an acquired skill, as is communication more broadly,” he said.
Leshner concluded by highlighting some of the research questions posed by the report. With regard to the complexities of communicating science, a major question is
- What are the important individual and social factors that shape the effectiveness of science communication for different audiences, and how do they interact in various contexts?
In the area of engaging formally with the public, important research questions include
- What structures and processes for public engagement are most effective?
- To what degree do these approaches need to be tailored to the diversity of the participants, the decisions to be made, and the nature of the topic?
In the special case of policy-maker audiences, important research questions are
- How is scientific information used by policy makers in formal policy processes?
- How can science communication affect policy processes?
- Does it matter who the communicator is?
When public controversy adds to the complexity, researchers need to ask
- How can science be communicated effectively amid conflicts over beliefs and values?
- What are effective ways of communicating scientific consensus, as well as degrees or types of uncertainty?
Finally, in a complex and competitive media environment, questions to answer include
- How can competing messages and sources of information be better understood?
- How can social media platforms, online games, and blogs be used?
- Are some forms of media better than others for achieving certain science communication goals?
Building the science communication enterprise will require researcher-practitioner partnerships, interdisciplinary work and dialogue, recruiting more researchers from neighboring disciplines, randomized controlled trials, and the use of big data, Leshner said. As more becomes known about what works in science communication, communicators need to know about and use the results of this research. “Let me end with a request,” Leshner concluded. “Let’s see if we can have science replace intuition and common sense about what works in science communication.”
According to Baruch Fischhoff, Howard Heinz University Professor in the Institute for Politics and Strategy and the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, building the capacity to do the kind of research called for in Communicating Science Effectively requires five components:
- Coordination, and
The two previous Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia on the Science of Science Communication (Fischhoff, 2013; NAS, 2014) highlighted the science developed to date, as have other reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Fischhoff said. Improving Risk Communication (NRC, 1989) built on the work of formal and informal science educators to point to different and more effective ways of communicating. Toward Environmental Justice: Research, Education, and Health Policy Needs (IOM, 1999) called for two-way communication with the populations concerned with environmental justice. The workshop proceedings Building Communication Capacity to Counter Infectious Disease Threats (NASEM, 2017b) examined the capacity to communicate effectively about infectious diseases. Another workshop summary, Potential Risks and Benefits of Gain-of-Function Research (IOM and NRC, 2015), looked at the communications required to build awareness of pathogens with pandemic potential. The
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has sought to characterize and communicate uncertainty in developing the benefit-risk frameworks it employs, as in the workshop summary Characterizing and Communicating Uncertainty in the Assessment of Benefits and Risks of Pharmaceutical Products (IOM, 2014). Intelligence Analysis for Tomorrow: Advances from the Behavioral and Social Sciences (NRC, 2011), which was written by a committee led by Fischhoff, included guidance on how to communicate intelligence analysis.
The second capacity-building requirement, awareness of the need for communication science, would seem self-evident, but it is not, Fischhoff observed. People overestimate how well they understand others, and vice versa. As a result, they unwittingly communicate poorly and then blame their audiences. “Somehow or other, we need to swim upstream against the assumption that people don’t need this research,” he said. To heighten awareness of this need, the report of the Risk Communication Advisory Committee that Fischhoff chaired for FDA (Fischhoff et al., 2011) briefly summarized the science, pointed out the implications of that science, and showed how to evaluate science communication for no money at all, for a little money, or for an amount of money commensurate with the personal, organizational, and political stakes riding on effective communication.
The third necessity for research on science communication is proper staffing with people who have the full suite of requisite expertise. That means subject-matter specialists who can provide accuracy, decision scientists who can ensure relevance, behavioral scientists who can enhance comprehensibility, and practitioners who can guide execution. All opinions are welcome, said Fischhoff, because anyone can have an insight on a topic, but authority needs to be invested in those who know the most. “You don’t want your psychologists rewriting things for greater comprehensibility and getting the science wrong,” he said. “And you don’t want scientists taking a communication opportunity as a teachable moment to talk about their own research.”
Research capacity requires coordination to allow for collaboration among the people who have these forms of expertise, Fischhoff continued. As an example of internal coordination, he pointed to a project led by Diana Rhoten and Denise Caruso at the Hybrid Vigor Institute that studied multidisciplinary centers to see how well they were working (Rhoten, 2003). That project used network analysis to study the transfer of information within centers. Similarly, as an example of external coordination, FDA has studied the communication principles involved in communicating risk (Fischhoff, 2015).
The final capacity-building requirement is to provide incentives for people to stay the course in collaborative, multidisciplinary research. Incentives for scientists must include rewards for both publishing in top
journals and demonstrating the usefulness of their research. Fischhoff said that he has had the good fortune throughout his career to work at institutions that have had incentives for scientists to apply their findings to practical problems. This entails both applied basic science, which evaluates accepted science in applied contexts, and basic applied science, which pursues fundamental topics arising in applied contexts. In either case, basic science and applied science “need one another,” he said.
During the question-and-answer session, Leshner and Fischhoff elaborated on two key points: the role of uncertainty in science communication, and the incentives that exist in science to communicate research results.
The public tends not to hear the caveats and clauses in science communication, observed Leshner. When he was director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, he often described addiction as “a brain disease expressed in behavioral ways and in a social context.” But “nobody ever heard the clauses,” he pointed out. “All they ever heard was that addiction is a brain disease. You have to find a way to couch or explain what you’re talking about in a way that they can grasp.”
Fischhoff observed that people would love to have certainty if it exists, “but we live with uncertainty all the time, and the question is how do you present it in a way that people feel is more honest.” Researchers have studied how to express uncertainty in ways that people will understand, which provides a foundation for applications. If communicators promise but cannot deliver certainty, people will feel betrayed. “You need to test those messages, because they’re not immediately obvious,” he said.
Spurred by a question from the audience, both Leshner and Fischhoff pointed to the lack of incentives within the scientific community to engage in science communication. But Leshner expressed the opinion that the situation is slowly changing. “Young scientists get it,” he said. “They do understand, and they want to do it. . . . As graduate education evolves, we will, more and more, see young scientists educated in how to effectively communicate, and it will roll into the incentive system.”
Fischhoff was somewhat less optimistic. “It would take a brave junior person to risk their promotion and tenure process to devote time to this,” he said. Instead, the incentive structure needs to change within science to enable all scientists to contribute to the commons of public understanding and good will. At the same time, all scientists need access to the research on how to best communicate their science.