Effective science communication requires collaborations among diverse groups, said Frank Sesno, director of The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, who moderated the first day of the colloquium. Subject-matter experts, social scientists, experts in eliciting and addressing audience needs, and practitioners who understand the interfaces of science, society, and storytelling all have roles to play. Collaborations can attract new researchers, institutions, and funders to the study of science communication while fostering sustainable institutional commitments to science communication research. Collaboration is a key ingredient, Sesno said, in providing “the scientific basis for effective science communication.”
Laurie Weingart, interim provost and Richard M. and Margaret S. Cyert Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, built on this theme by observing that communicating science effectively requires working across boundaries, whether within or among research teams, institutions, or audiences. Weingart has investigated interdisciplinary design teams, product development teams, project teams, research teams, and intensive care unit teams, and she drew on this work in addressing two broad questions:
- How does interdisciplinarity influence our ability to successfully work together?
- What can we do to bridge our differences and most effectively communicate with one another?
Interdisciplinary collaborations are challenging, she noted. People have different functional areas, expertise, past experiences, cultures, and affiliations, which the research literature refers to as different “thought worlds.” Because people perceive and interpret situations differently, they arrive at different solutions. These diverse approaches can lead to better solutions to problems, Weingart observed, but they can also result in difficulties understanding one another, communicating with one another, and reaching agreements. If not managed appropriately, these difficulties can lead to ineffective collaboration and conflict.
As an example of a perceptual gap, Weingart cited the nurses and physicians in an intensive care unit. Nurses have the goal of symptom management, such as trying to help a patient experience less pain. Physicians are focused on treatment of the disease, with a goal of reducing reliance on a respirator. These two goals result in different definitions of improvement. “Is this about comfort? Is it about reliance on a respirator? This will lead to disagreements. It will lead to mixed messages to the family about what should be done and how this person should be treated, and it can affect the quality of coordination and decision making,” Weingart noted.
Perceptual gaps can be bridged through cognitive integration, Weingart said, which relies on developing an understanding of another person’s perspective. This can involve understanding a person’s use of language, ways of reasoning, preferences and priorities, constraints, goals, and objectives. “The idea is that I don’t have to know what you know, but I have to understand how you come at a problem so we can work together.”
Perceptual gaps can also be bridged through affective integration, said Weingart. Trust can be gained through experience or reputation so that a person is willing to rely on or be vulnerable to someone else. Respect can
be based on one’s expertise, role, or status. Being liked can occur through on-the-job interaction, sharing friends, or socializing. These three factors do not always covary, Weingart pointed out. A person could trust someone else but not respect that person, or vice versa. A person could trust or respect someone else without liking that person. Liking may seem less necessary, Weingart added, but “it’s difficult to get your work done if you don’t want to be in the same room with other people.”
When interdisciplinary collaborations have difficulties, they can generate conflict, but is conflict good or bad for teams? Research shows that conflict will surface disagreements and can spur innovation. At the same time, conflict can disrupt productivity and the ability to listen to one another. The type of conflict is one factor in determining outcomes. Is it conflict about the task itself, or is it about the relationships among group members? Another factor is whether conflict is managed collaboratively or competitively. “There’s isn’t an easy answer. We used to think that task conflict was good, and relationships conflict was bad,” Weingart said. But the literature has demonstrated more nuanced effects, depending on how conflict is expressed and managed. “Conflict management matters, and we need to understand this dynamic better.”
Weingart identified two dimensions in the expression of conflict. One is the directness of the conflict: how explicit are the opposing positions that are being conveyed? The other is the intensity of the conflict: what is the degree of force with which opposition is being conveyed? These two factors can vary independently, yielding four general categories of conflict expression. When conflict is expressed with high directness and high intensity, arguments ensue, which may cause people to quit listening to each other. Conflicts expressed with high intensity and low directness often take the form of undermining others, whether through complaints, backstabbing, or teasing. With low directness and low intensity, people may disguise or avoid conflict, which can lead to uncertainty and stress. With high directness and low intensity, they are more likely to discuss the issues. “With this approach, you can get a sense of debate being a dominant communication style for conflict,” said Weingart. “You’re avoiding conflict spirals, increasing information, and decreasing emotion. . . . It also increases the positive emotion in terms of energy and excitement.” For these reasons, conflicts expressed with low intensity and high directness are most likely to result in high-quality agreements.
At Arizona State University, David Guston has been director of the large National Science Foundation–funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society and is currently director of the School for the Future of Innovation
in Society. Both of these organizations have had a great deal of internal diversity—of the 34 people with Ph.D.s at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, for example, 28 were from different disciplines. From these experiences, Guston has concluded that managing interdisciplinarity is about building relationships. In this way, work at the centers has been able to take advantage of not just individual faculty members’ skills and talents but also their interactions among themselves and with others.
Interdisciplinary science communication can take many forms, Guston observed. Books, video, audio, or games can all facilitate two-way interactions. Informal and out-of-school education can provide a venue for science communication. The fine and performing arts are another way of conveying scientific information, as is policy programming and community engagement. However, all of these approaches require policies, academic leaders, and colleagues who value these activities.
Guston cited a study of sustainability science (Cash et al., 2003) that identified three key issues for science communication: saliency, credibility, and legitimacy. Saliency relates to relevance. “Is the research framing done in a way that is relevant to the decision makers? Does it have their questions in mind?” Credibility relates to whether the information can be trusted. “Does it come from an esteemed and respected [source]?” Legitimacy relates to whether the communicated information represents something that is politically or sociologically legitimate to its recipients. “Can they understand the array of interests behind it? Can they see that some consideration of political nuance and sensitivity was put into the structuring of the research?”
Effective communication systems often involve what Guston termed boundary organizations (Guston, 2000). Boundary organizations straddle the political institutions that make public policy decisions and the scientific institutions that gather and disseminate empirical evidence. These boundary organizations have opportunities and incentives to use boundary objects, such as patents, that are valued on either side of the boundary. Boundary organizations also involve participation of actors on both sides of the boundary as well as mediating professionals. This reflects the fact that engagement is a bidirectional process in which people from both sides engage with each other in a protected space, with assistance from individuals who are skilled at communication and collaboration. Finally, boundary organizations have distinct lines of accountability to each side. Some of their work is recognized as important to scientific organizations, and some of their work is recognized as important by political organizations. “Boundary organizations give both producers and consumers of research an opportunity to construct the boundary, to construct how their domain differs or is similar to the other enterprise, in ways that are favor-
able to their own perspective. Therefore, these things may persist over time,” Guston concluded.
In thinking about barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration, Kathleen Tierney, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, introduced the concept of hierarchies of credibility, which was developed by sociologist Howard Becker in the 1960s. This concept refers to the taken-for-granted assumption that those with high status have the right to define how things really are, while those of lower rank have incomplete information or are misinformed. These hierarchies of credibility in science pose tough communication challenges, said Tierney. Scientific disciplines have different levels of prestige, with disciplines like mathematics and physics at the top of the hierarchy and other disciplines trailing behind. Even within disciplines, some subdisciplines have more prestige and have attracted more attention and respect than others. Applied research and basic research affect perceived levels of prestige, as does the ranking of an academic institution. “And of course all that is overlaid across the pervasive significance of gender and of race when team members are communicating with one another,” she said.
As an example of collaborative research on science communication and associated evaluation efforts, Tierney briefly described a collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) program on Science Application for Risk Reduction (SAFRR) and the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center. The SAFRR program has created scenarios of future disasters with accompanying materials, such as videos and animations, to try to communicate to stakeholders and the general public what to expect in the event of a disaster. One of these was called the Great Southern California ShakeOut, which was based on a scenario for a major earthquake on the southern part of the San Andreas Fault. ARkStorm dealt with a massive flood in the northern California Delta caused by an atmospheric river, while Haywired centered on a scenario for an earthquake on the Hayward Fault in the San Francisco Bay Area. Development of these scenarios, which was an “extremely labor-intensive” process, according to Tierney, involved people from a variety of disciplines, including economics, public health, geology, and engineering.
After the ARkStorm scenario, USGS brought in social scientists from the Natural Hazards Center to evaluate a scenario involving a tsunami striking coastal California. Tierney and her colleagues at the center first developed a logic model that posed such questions to the scientists as, “What are the components of the communication strategies that you’re going to be using? What are the outcomes that you expect from these
strategies?” According to Tierney, “it was incredibly hard to get agreement among the scientists on why exactly they were doing this form of communication.” The researchers then conducted online surveys with stakeholders involved with the development of the scenario, including personnel at the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Francisco, representatives of the California Department of Transportation, and emergency managers. The survey asked
- Was the scenario development process credible?
- Did stakeholders feel engaged in the process?
- Did their understanding of tsunamis and potential impacts increase?
- Did they seek out additional information after meetings?
- Did they pass on what they had learned to others?
- How useful and applicable was the information provided in the scenario?
Another aspect of the project involved the production of a public service video. In a pretest/posttest design, the video, which was a collaboration between USGS and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, was evaluated through focus groups that answered questions before seeing the film, after seeing the film, and 4 weeks later on three topics: tsunami characteristics, tsunami warning signs, and self-protective actions. Questions were both close ended and open ended, with opportunities for feedback.
Many viewers, including young people, thought the video was most appropriate for younger viewers. Some people who had relatives in areas that had been affected by tsunamis did not think the humor in the video was appropriate. There were no differences between people who saw the video once and people who saw it three times. But there were differences between people of different ethnic groups and educational levels.