Among Scientists, More Consensus for Public Engagement. But What’s the End Goal?

For some years now, voices in the scientific and journalism communities have been asking scientists to expend more energy reaching out to the public.

The contention that scientists communicate poorly with non-academics isn’t new. But judging anecdotally by the frequency the message now appears in print—and the high profile venues broaching the subject—there seems to be a consensus building that scientists need to do a better job engaging with those outside of their academic circles.

It’s a commendable sentiment. As I’ve argued myself, it’s ultimately the responsibility of those with accumulated knowledge to share it—and when there are misconceptions, scientists ought to try to persuade others that their perspective best conforms to reality.

Like any successful call to action, though, the call for better scientific communication needs a framework laying out not just the means, but also the ends. In general, discussions on the subject tend to gravitate toward the former. Articles abound with tips to improve communication skills (e.g., at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Scientific American, National Geographic, and even at Forbes). They generally revolve around practical advice, like “avoiding jargon” when talking about research. This kind of advice is certainly valuable, since being a better scientific communicator is tremendously beneficial, professionally and personally. However, what’s often missing is the big-picture stuff. In other words, a clear and explicit vision of science communication’s end game.

This matters a great deal, because the nature of any goal will inherently shape the strategies needed to achieve it.

For example, one of the commonly offered aims of public engagement is promoting scientific literacy. This is typically defined as having a broadly informed citizenry with the skills to flourish in a modern society:

“Science and technology play important roles in the nature and quality of our lives, so it is not surprising that as a society, we are increasingly challenged by problems that have a scientific component….Scientists must communicate about science with public audiences in order for members of the public to make informed decisions about the complex issues that face us in our technologically advanced society.” (EC Shugart, VR Racaniello, mBIO, Dec. 22, 2015)

Having a scientifically literate public is certainly desirable in and of itself. As the above quote suggests, understanding the science that drives modern goods and services—be they medical innovations, agricultural products, or computing technologies, to name just a few—is immensely useful for day-to-day living. Not to mention that being able to critically assess evidence is an empowering skill that translates to every aspect of one’s personal and professional life.

Viewed from this perspective, certain communication strategies make a lot of sense—improving the pedagogical techniques of K-12 STEM educators, inviting scientists to public venues like community centers (or bars) to talk science, or even simply conversing with friends and family about one’s research or about hot-button issues like climate change. When broad science literacy is the goal, these kinds of approaches are probably a good way to go—and they may be reasonably effective in building a sound understanding of science among non-scientists, especially as it relates to their own lives.

Scientific Literacy versus Political Influence

Worthy as this aspiration is, it isn’t necessarily the only goal of public engagement. In fact, I submit that for a good number of scientists, it’s not even the primary goal. In many cases, the end game appears to be overtly political in nature.

What’s the evidence for this?

For one, a recent uptick in “scientists must communicate”-themed articles came closely on the heels of the 2016 election. The conspicuous timing alone suggests a political undercurrent at work. But more pointedly, there now seems to be a running theme among science communicators that writers and scientists need to steel themselves to push back against the coming administration and against an anti-science political uprising. Here’s the sentiment put succinctly:

“Scientists of all stripes are failing miserably at one of the most important parts of our job—communication. On November 8, 2016, millions of Americans elected a man who denies human-caused climate change, and, in doing so, they voted against facts and against science.” (DR Smith, EMBO Press, Dec. 28, 2016)

And again:

“As more than one leading climate scientist has noted in the wake of the election, it falls to the expert scientific community—with virtual unanimity in accepting the reality, human cause, and urgency of addressing the climate problem—to communicate these facts to the people about to take power and to the public who are their constituency. The question is, how do we do that in the face of disdain for evidence and attacks on evidence-based thinking that have permeated so much of recent politics?” (PA Hanle, Scientific American, Jan. 10, 2017)

The subtext is that scientific literacy (or more accurately, illiteracy) was a significant contributing factor to the recent electoral outcome—and that it’s the job of scientists to help reverse the country’s political fortunes. So, when many scientists argue for better communication with the public, it appears that what they really want to see is a precipitous change in voting behavior—and more precisely, voting behavior in line with their own political preferences.

This is a far cry from the more generic desire to disperse scientific knowledge; wielding political influence over voters is very different from teaching them about science. Let’s set aside (for now) the question of whether it’s wise or appropriate for scientists to engage in undisguised political advocacy. If scientists intend to set their sights on voter influence as an overarching goal, then they’re going to need a distinct set of strategies specifically molded with that end in mind.

Scientists as Political Orators

I plan to give the subject much fuller treatment in a later post, but here are some random thoughts on strategic considerations that science writers should consider when treading into politics (in no particular order):

  • Scientists make up a relatively small fraction of the population, so in order to achieve large-scale political influence local community interaction won’t be enough; they will have to communicate on a much larger scale, and will likely have to engage in media venues far outside of their comfort zone
  • If not done carefully, politically-tinged communication runs the risk of damaging a scientist’s credibility, through the loss of perceived objectivity
  • Communicators shouldn’t assume that simply informing the public of the science that surrounds a political issue will have the intended effect of swaying voters. This notion is rooted in the knowledge deficit model, which probably doesn’t reflect reality

All of this is not meant to dissuade direct public engagement in the service of affecting political change. What it does mean is that scientists need to think strategically when stepping into the universe of political opinion-making, and find productive ways to achieve their ends.

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