Friday, January 16, 2015

4 provocative ideas on scientific communication

Living in Singapore for the past 10+ years, I’m happy to skip winter, but sometimes I really hate that the distance keeps me from participating in interesting and important events in other places. 

Yesterday was one of those days, as the National Research Council’s Roundtable on Public Interfaces of Life Sciences began a 2-day workshop ‘to explore what is known about successful models in scientific engagement with the public.’ 

The workshop focus is on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a topic I’ve worked on throughout my career, as I’ve helped plan strategic communications and equip scientists to interact with the public more effectively on these often controversial issues. The speakers are some of the most thoughtful in the science of science communications, a topic that fascinates me. One of the organizers is Sarah Davidson Evanega of Cornell University’s new Alliance forScience movement, which has blossomed over the past year. 

Happily, the event was webcast live. Trying to ignore the 13 hour time difference, I snuggled up with my Ipad for the morning plenary, only throwing in the towel after midnight when they broke for lunch. 

I’m a ‘cognitive miser’ that can’t listen and tweet at the same time, so here are four of the ideas I found most provocative:

  • There is evidence that neither the knowledge deficit model nor the public engagement model for science communication really works. All four of the morning’s speakers challenged conventional assumptions about lack of information or trust as primary causes of unscientific views and behaviors in the public. Dietram Scheufele proposed a political communication model that recognizes the socio-political context and mediated nature of science communications.  William Hallman presented “ecolacy” as a necessary skill for science communicators to have, in addition to literacy, graphicacy and numeracy.

  • A ‘polluted scientific communication environment,’ according to Dan Kahan, is when political affiliation dictates viewpoints on scientific topics, like climate change in the US. Strong interest in identifying with the group makes members susceptible to what Dan Kahan calls ‘opportunistic misinformers.’ But he argued that the scientific communication environment in the US isn’t politically polluted on all topics, using interesting examples around vaccinations.

  • Kahan also passionately warned against what he calls ‘evidence-free feral risk communications’ as a threat to public health. Those of us engaged in science communications create polarization ourselves when we neglect the significant body of work on evidence-based science communications, he said.  As one who has studied, used and taught the theories and practice of rigorous risk communications for years, I was happy to hear this exhortation! The science behind science communication is far too little known and applied.

  • Science is politicized and we must consciously conduct our communications with that in mind. Roger Pielke,Jr. offered a useful definition of politics as bargaining, negotiation and compromise in pursuit of a desired thing -- and science should of course be used for desired ends in society. Issues of science policy (decisions to be made) are ‘wicked’ because they involve uncertainty and conflicting values, and trying to pretend they are ‘tame’ only leads to stealth advocacy and hurts our credibility. If we want to swim, we’re going to have to get wet, he said!

How do these ideas apply to challenges in communicating about agriculture technology, especially GMOs? The afternoon session seemed designed to delve into that more specifically, and I’m looking forward hearing insights from others on that. For now, my top questions are these:

Are the new models robust enough to begin using them now to equip scientists and others in practical ways to interact with the public more effectively? 

What about the rest of the world, beyond the US (and Europe)? Are the socio-political dynamics of science communication similar enough in other countries to apply these new ideas? 

UPDATE (28 January):  It looks like videos of all sessions of the NAS Roundtable are now on YouTube!

Jill Kuehnert

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