Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Posts Tagged ‘science communication

Science For All – Effective Science Communication and Public Engagement

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By: Agila Somasundaram, PhD

Image: By Scout [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

         In 1859, Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species, laying the foundation for the theory of evolution through natural selection. Yet more than 150 years after that discovery and despite a large volume of scientific evidence supporting it, only 33% of the American population believes that humans evolved solely through natural processes. 25% of US adults believe that a supreme being guided evolution, and 34% reject evolution completely, saying that humans and all other forms of life have co-existed forever. Similarly, only 50% of American adults believe that global climate change is mostly due to human activity, with 20% saying that there is no evidence for global warming at all. A significant fraction of the public believes that there is large disagreement among scientists on evolution and climate change (the reality being there is overwhelming scientific evidence and consensus), and questions scientists’ motivations. Public skepticism about scientific evidence and scientists extends to other areas such as vaccination and genetically-modified foods.

Public mistrust in the scientific enterprise has tremendous consequences, not only for federal science funding and the advancement of science, but also for the implementation of effective policies to improve public and global health and combat issues such as global warming. In her keynote address at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, Dr. Jane Lubchenko described the Science-Society ParadoxScientists need society, and society needs science. How then can we build public support for science, and improve public trust in scientists and scientific evidence?

Scientists need to be more actively involved in science outreach and public engagement efforts. Communicating science in its entirety, not just as sensational news, requires public understanding of science, and familiarity with the scientific process – its incremental nature, breakthrough discoveries (that don’t necessarily mean a cure), failures, and limitations alike. Who better to explain that to the public than scientists – skilled professionals who are at the center of the action? In a recent poll, more than 80% of Americans agree that scientists need to interact more with the public and policymakers. But two major hurdles need to be overcome.

Firstly, communicating science to the public is not easy. Current scientific training develops researchers to communicate science in written and oral formats largely to peers. As scientists become more specialized in their fields, technical terms and concepts (jargon) that they use frequently may be incomprehensible to non-experts (even to scientists outside their field). The scientific community would benefit tremendously from formal training in public engagement. Such training should be incorporated into early stages of professional development, including undergraduate and graduate schools. Both students and experienced scientists should be encouraged to make use of workshops and science communication opportunities offered by organizations such as AAAS, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and iBiology, to name a few. Secondly, federal funding agencies and philanthropic organizations should provide resources, and academic institutions should create avenues and incentives, for scientists to engage with the public. Both students and scientists should be allowed time away from their regular responsibilities to participate in public outreach efforts. Instead of penalizing scientists for popularizing science, scientists’ outreach efforts should be taken into consideration during promotion, grants and tenure decisions, and exceptional communicators rewarded. Trained scientist-communicators will be able to work better with their institutions’ public relations staff and science journalists to disseminate their research findings more accurately to a wider audience, and educate the public about the behind-the-scenes world of science that is rarely ever seen outside. Engaging with the public could also benefit researchers directly by increasing their scientific impact, and influence research directions to better impact society.

While increasing science outreach programs and STEM education may seem like obvious solutions, the science of science communication tells us that it is not so simple. The goals of science communication are diverse – they range from generating or sharing scientific excitement, increasing knowledge in a particular topic, understanding public’s concerns, to actually influencing people’s attitudes towards broader science policy issues. Diverse communication goals target a diverse audience, and require an assortment of communicators and communication strategies. Research has shown that simply increasing the public’s scientific knowledge does not help accomplish these various communication goals. This is because people don’t solely rely on scientific information to make decisions; they are influenced by their personal needs, experiences, values, and cultural identity, including their political, ideological or religious affiliations. People also tend to adopt shortcuts when trying to comprehend complex scientific information, and believe more in what aligns with their pre-existing notions or with the beliefs of their social groups, and what they hear repeatedly from influential figures, even if incorrect. Effective science communication requires identifying, understanding and overcoming these and other challenges.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened two meetings of scientists and science communicators, one in 2012 to gauge the state of the art of research on science communication, and another in 2013 to identify gaps in our understanding of science communication. The resulting research agenda outlines important questions requiring further research. For example, what are the best strategies to engage with the public, and how to adapt those methods for multiple groups, without directly challenging their beliefs or values? What are effective ways to communicate science to policymakers? How do we help citizens navigate through misinformation in rapidly changing internet and social media? How to assess the effectiveness of different science communication strategies? And lastly, how do we build the science communication research enterprise? Researchers studying communication in different disciplines, including the social sciences, need to come together and partner with science communicators to translate that research into practice. The third colloquium in this series will be held later this year.

Quoting Dr. Dan Kahan of Yale University, “A central aim of the science of science communication is to protect the value of what is arguably our society’s greatest asset…Modern science.” As evidence-based science communication approaches are being developed further, it is critical that scientists make scientific dialogue a priority, and make use of existing resources to effectively engage with the public – meet people where they are – and bring people a step closer to science – why each person should care – so that ‘post-truth’ doesn’t go from being merely the word of the year to a scary new way of life.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 22, 2017 at 11:27 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – February 3, 2017

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By: Eric Cheng, PhD

Source: pixabay

Trump and Science

Scientists’ Lives Upended by Trump’s Immigration Order

New executive orders have been signed by President Trumpthat suspend immigration into the United States from “terror-prone regions.” The target countries listed are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. These new immigration orders have caused chaos at U.S. airports to people from these countries, including people with a valid U.S. visa or green card who were traveling outside of the U.S. when the order was signed. It is also affecting scientists who are currently in the United States, but are visiting from the affected countries. For example:

Ehssan Nazockdast was planning to attend his sister’s wedding in Tehran in March. One hitch: The specialist on fluid dynamics at New York University in New York City is an Iranian citizen. That leaves him vulnerable under an executive order signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday that calls for the rigorous vetting of applicants for U.S. visas from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim nations, and bars the entry of any citizen from those nations for 90 days while procedures for that vetting are put in place. Nazockdast has lived in the United States for nearly a decade, has a green card, and has two young daughters with a wife who is a U.S. citizen. But now that Nazockdast is branded with a scarlet letter, he dare not leave. “I’m living in a big prison called the United States of America,” he says.

A federal judge has issued an emergency stay that halts deportations of refugees with valid U.S. entry documents. Two days after executive order was signed, John Kelly, Secretary for Homeland Security, issued a statement deeming “the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest,” which was interpreted as allowing the re-entry of green card holders. from nations covered by the order, although they could receive extra scrutiny. The Council on American-Islamic Relations still intends to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court Western District of Virginia challenging the constitutionality of what it calls the “Muslim ban.”

Over 7000 scientists of all nationalities and religions, including 43 Nobel laureates, have signed an open letter, warning that Trump’s order “significantly damages American leadership in higher education and research” and calls it “inhumane, ineffective, and un-American.” (Richard Stone and Meredith Wadman, ScienceInsider)

Science Policy

Scientists ‘Partly to Blame’ for Skepticism of Evidence in Policymaking, says AAAS CEO

In addition to access to high-quality technical experts to handle science-related global crisis, an United States president also needs to believe that scientific evidence is useful in setting government policy says American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) CEO Rush Holt. At the winter meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C., Dr. Holt remarked how scientists are partly to blame for the decreased priority of scientific evidence in U.S. policymaking.  One potential explanation for this devaluation of evidence may be due to scientists’ way of presenting evidence that is too “condescending and hierarchical. We might say, ‘Let me try to explain this to you. Maybe even you can understand this.’ And that is not very effective. So we are partly to blame,” stated Dr. Holt.

Dr. Holt believes that “reverence for evidence” has been part of the nation’s political discussion since the United States was founded, and traditionally covers both parties. The biggest challenge now will be to try and empower policymakers to think about any scientific evidence presented to them and to evaluate the validity of the conclusion based on the evidence for themselves. (Jeffery Mervis, ScienceInsider)

Public Health

Senate Finance Committee OKs Tom Price, MD, for HHS Chief

The Senate Finance Committee voted 14-0 to approve the nomination of Rep. Tom Price, MD, (R-Ga), to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). All votes were from the Republican members of the committee because 12 Democratic members boycotted the executive session to confirm Dr. Price. Although the committee normally requires at least one member from each party present to reach its quorum requirement, the rule was suspended prior to the vote. Now Dr. Price’s nomination will go before the Senate for a vote, which will only need a simple majority of 51 votes for confirmation. (Robert Lowes, Medscape)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 3, 2017 at 10:01 am

Science – It’s Not Just for Scientists!

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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.



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Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 18, 2014 at 6:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 16, 2014

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By: Jennifer Plank

photo credit: torbakhopper via photopin cc

photo credit: torbakhopper via photopin cc

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

New Guidelines Reinforce Value of Anti-HIV Pills for Prevention – Recent findings suggest that an Anti-HIV pill, Truvada, can be taken to prevent HIV. Pre-exposure prophylaxis, also called PrEP, is recommended for high risk individuals, such as homosexual men or heterosexuals in a relationship with an HIV-positive partner. However, very few high risk individuals are using PrEP and the number of new infections has not decreased. Therefore, the US Public Health Service has issued new guidelines recommending daily use by high risk individuals. Cost may be a limiting factor in Truvada use (it costs approximately $13,000/year), however, it is typically covered by insurance and assistance is available for uninsured individuals. (Jon Cohen)

Obama Administration Releases Major Climate Change ReportLast week, the Obama administration released a report detailing current and future effects of climate change. The National Climate Assessment, a collaboration of over 200 scientists, focused the affect of climate change on the United States. The NCA reported findings related to higher temperatures and increased incidence of fires, melting Alaskan glaciers and permafrost, coastline flooding, and long term agricultural problems. With this report comes renewed efforts by the Obama administration to reduce the effects of climate change. (Bryan Walsh)

Americans’ Aversion to Science Carries a High Price – Americans have many beliefs that are not founded in science including a link between vaccines and autism, the idea that taking vitamins is good for your health, fear of GMOs. Many factors, such as religion or culture, lead to these erroneous beliefs. In his opinion piece, Michael Gerson discusses the negative implications of denying science and how scientists can more adequately advocate for research. (Michael Gerson)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 16, 2014 at 3:20 pm