Building Trust in Frequently Used Media: Where Does Science Fit Between Those Grumpy Cat Memes, the Nightly News, and Your Water Cooler?

The mean trust (± SE) members of target groups have in different sources of scientific information vs. the mean use (± SE) by each target group. The vertical dotted line signifies a group’s mean trust or use across all sources of information. Sources of science information are listed in decreasing order of trust in sources.

One of the greatest challenges for scientists is communicating results to audiences outside their own field of study. A lack of broad communication can isolate scientists from one another and, perhaps more importantly, from other audiences who could benefit from their findings such as resource managers, policy makers, and the general public. The goals of our study were to:

1) learn where audiences find information about science;

2) find out how much audiences trust their sources of science information;

3) determine how often members of different audiences discuss science with each other.

To find this out, we surveyed the general public, policy makers, resource managers, scientists, and students, and received over 400 responses with participants in 40 countries.

We found all audiences use and trust information they received from colleagues and personal experience. This suggests if individuals are able to gain experience with science through hands on activities like citizen science, they can benefit from engaging directly with science and scientists. Not surprisingly, we found peer-reviewed academic journals to be the most trusted source of science and social media the least trusted. While peer-reviewed studies represent the ‘gold standard’ of scientific information since they are vetted by experts, the challenge is ensuring academic papers can be freely accessed by those who wish to read them. Where appropriate, it is also important for authors to make their work understandable to broad audiences by presenting findings in a non-technical format.

Considering how regularly members of groups communicate with each other can also be used to highlight disconnects in the interaction. For example, while scientists feel they communicate their research well with other groups, these survey results indicated the flow of information among groups is often quite poor, suggesting a need to make changes in how scientists engage with their audiences. This suggests scientists should make a more concerted effort to interact with those interested in our results by:

1) improving access to scientific information by making research papers open access;

2) improving accessibility and understanding with plain language summaries to facilitate the communication of scientific topics to broad, general audiences;

3) building trust in social media by creating ‘verified’ scientist accounts and engaging in two-way information flow with followers;

4) finding new ways for policymakers to be engaged in scientific research;

5) engaging the public through experiential learning, such as citizen science activities, to increase their involvement in, communication with, and enthusiasm for science;

6) using graduate courses or workshops to ensure the next generation of scientists can effectively communicate with — and listen to — their diverse audiences.

Read the full paper — Communicating science: Sending the right message to the right audience by Matthew J. Wilson, Tonya L. Ramey, Michael R. Donaldson, Ryan R. Germain, and Elizabeth K. Perkin on the FACETS website.