Archive for July 2014
By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.
Science, technology, engineering and math, i.e. STEM, topics permeate everyone’s daily lives, not just the people who work in STEM-related fields. Therefore, it is imperative to have effective science communication; informed discourse between the people who conduct the research and those whose lives are impacted by the research. The importance of childhood vaccines, the impact of climate change and the implications of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are just a few recent science-related topics captured in national and international headlines. There has been a push in recent years, as evidenced by articles published in scientific journals like PNAS and Cell1-3, to understand the science of science communication. The goal of these studies is facilitating more effective communication between scientists and the general public.
In the age of the Internet, information can travel across the world in the blink of an eye. Yet, there are several challenges influencing the quality of science-related discussions1. First, a recent survey conducted by the National Science Foundation indicates that one third (33%) of respondents did not correctly grasp the concept of probability, and only 18% of respondents could correctly describe the components of a scientific study. Second, the rapid pace at which scientific advances are made further compounds the difficulty the general public has in keeping up with the potential dangers or policy implications of the findings. Finally, the general public is now more likely to turn to the Internet for information about scientific issues, rather than more traditional outlets, such as newspapers and television, which, in the past, were key sources for disseminating science-related news.
One naïve answer to these challenges is for scientists to put more effort into conveying knowledge to the general public (e.g. more museum exhibits or STEM-related web sites). However, this ignores the growing body of research that highlights it is not necessarily what scientists are saying that needs to change, it is how the topics are discussed that needs improving2. A 2013 PNAS article highlights certain tasks that will, if accomplished, address this shortcoming in science communication3. First, the science relevant to the discussion or decision being made must be identified. Then, the scientist(s) needs to understand what the gaps in knowledge are in order to develop communication tools that address those gaps. Finally, there needs to be a way to evaluate the effectiveness of the communication, with the idea of retooling the discussion to meet any unaddressed needs.
There are numerous resources available to scientists to help accomplish the tasks outlined above, and facilitate more productive communication with the general public. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offers traveling workshops to assist scientists with communicating complex concepts to general audiences. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, at Stony Brook University, takes the unique approach of offering improvisation workshops, among several other programs, to help scientists become more confident public speakers. Carl Safina succinctly summarizes the importance of communicating science in a 2012 article for American Physical Society News, “If scientists decide not to engage, less-informed policy makers, pressured by less-objective advocates, will make decisions anyway. They’ll often do so without the benefit of the best advice they might have gotten, or without anyone arguing on behalf of the facts.4” So please, scientists, go forth and communicate!
1. Scheufele, D. A. Communicating science in social settings. 2013 PNAS. Vol. 110, p. 14040
2. Cormick, C. and Romanach, L. M. Segmentation studies provide insights to better understanding attitudes towards science and technology. 2014 Cell. Vol. 32, p. 114.
3. Fischhoff, B. The sciences of science communication. 2013 PNAS. Vol. 111, p. 14033.
4. Safina, C. Why communicate science? 2012 APS News. Vol. 21. http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/201210/backpage.cfm