13.07.09

Eight steps to better Science Communication

 

In this month's Nature Biotechnology, Dr. Matthew Nisbet sums up a problematic situation:

  • "During the past several decades, science has become more bureaucratic,
    problem-based, and dependent on private funding. Public surveys point
    to a high trust in scientists, especially those affiliated with
    universities, but the trust level decreases when it comes to scientists
    affiliated with corporations or industries," Nisbet said. "Factor in
    changes in the media landscape that have created audience fragmentation
    and ever fewer quality sources of science news, and it is clear that
    changes in science communication are needed to better engage the public
    on science-related issues."

 

(Fwiw, that quote's from his own press release, not the original article. UPDATE: Free PDF link is working again - thanks to Matt for the update)

 

Frankly, I'd be surprised if most people in Ireland know which research is publicly funded, and which is privately funded.  Anyway, in many cases, it's both!  With public-private partnerships common at the big universities, I can't help but think that the distinction between publicly and privately funded research is-- for lack of a better word-- academic, from a public perception point of view.

 

[Side note-- if you're a superfan of the Scheufele-Nisbet Nature-crew, you can watch the first half of Nisbet's talk called “What’s Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions” at UW-Madison by clicking here.]

 

Anyway, the article is interesting, aspirational, and if nothing else, prescriptive regarding how to improve the situation.  I also think that the Science Gallery is doing some of these 8 steps already.  Do you have any good examples of Irish institutions/ organisations already fulfilling these steps?   So what ARE the eight steps to rock-hard abs better science communication?

 

1. Scientists and science organizations should pursue a trust- and dialogue-based relationship with the public.
More forums, conferences, and other public dialog initiatives should be
held. The goal is not to persuade or to sell the public on the
importance of science, but to "democratize" public input about
scientific issues so that members of the public can meaningfully
participate in science-related decision making.

 

2. Scientists and science organizations need to recognize the importance of framing science-related issues.
Science communication efforts need to be based on careful audience
research. In this regard, different frames of reference should be
identified and tested that better communicate the nature and relevance
of scientific issues across a diversity of audiences. This research on
framing can be used to structure dialogue and to move public discourse
beyond polarized arguments and entrenched positions.

 

3. Graduate students at science institutions should be
taught the social and political contexts of science and how to
communicate with the media and numerous publics.
Graduate
students are the future spokespeople and decision makers and need to
understand the significance of research in the field of science
communication. These programs should include specialized electives for
doctoral students but also new interdisciplinary degree programs that
combine scientific training with course work in communication, ethics,
and policy.

 

4. Factors that facilitate media hype and errors should be recognized and addressed. Researchers
should resist the temptation to describe their studies using hyperbolic
metaphors and terminology, such as "ground breaking," and remain true
to the significance of a study. Research funding and methodological
details need to be included in media coverage so that the public may
better assess credibility. Short term gains in media publicity should
not be valued over longer term relationship building with journalists,
decision-makers, and the public.

 

5. Science communication initiatives should investigate new
forms of digital media and film, moving beyond traditional popular
science outlets such as the science beat at newspapers, science
magazines, and TV programs such as PBS NOVA.
This includes
finding ways online to create opportunities for incidental exposure
among key audiences not actively seeking news, information, and
science-related content

 

6. Scientific organizations need to track science-related
media coverage (whether news, entertainment, etc.) to be aware of the
numerous cultural contexts through which the public interprets science.

National newscasts, talk radio, blockbuster films, entertainment TV,
and late night comedy provide broader audiences with alternative
messages about science topics and can be important outlets for science
communication.

 

7. Journalism schools and news organizations should develop
a science policy beat to address the gap between journalists covering
science and those covering politics.
Developing such a beat
and training journalists to understand both science and policy would
provide important background for science policy debates.

 

8. New models of journalism--whether foundation, university, or government supported--are needed. The
for-profit journalism business model is failing and specialty
journalists, such as science journalists, are losing their jobs. In
addition, new media formats offer another avenue for public
participation, as user generated content can enhance professionally
produced content.

 

 

 

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