Three Ways to Repair the Science/ Public Disconnect
The COVID crisis points up the dangers of distrust and misinformation — but there are remedies
By Irving Wladawsky-Berger
The Public Face of Science was launched four years ago by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to better understand the complex relationship between scientists and the American public. The initiative has now published three reports.
The first, Perceptions of Science in America, was published in 2018. It found that a majority of Americans have expressed a great deal of confidence in the scientific community, a confidence which has remained stable over the past thirty years. But, it also found that confidence in science varied based on demographics, including age, race, educational attainment, regional location, political affiliation and other characteristics. The report recommended additional research to better understand why certain topics were particularly controversial, especially climate change, vaccine safety, and genetically modified foods.
It was followed by Encountering Science in America, which was published in 2019. This second report explored the diverse and expanding range of opportunities for people to learn about science outside the classroom, including visits to science centers and museums, general news sources, online information, social media, and entertainment. It concluded that such a complex landscape calls for a multifaceted approach to the public face of science, and recommended additional research to better understand how effective communications and engagements shape the public’s interest in their understanding and support of science.
Priorities for the Future, the third and final report, was published in August of 2020. While the report doesn’t directly address the implications of Covid-19 to the Public Face of Science initiative, it does so in an accompanying document which highlights the critical role played by science in ensuring the well-being of individuals and society during the pandemic.
“[T]he experience with COVID-19 reinforces the need for continuing thoughtful work to address public access to reliable scientific content and to enhance the public’s capacity to identify and reject misinformation and disinformation (intentionally false information).”
“Recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows, as a general matter, that the public has growing confidence in science, in particular medical science, and this obviously is reassuring.” However, the polling also reveals that political ideology extends to attitudes toward medical science, “an issue on which conservative Republicans are more distrustful of the scientific consensus than are liberal Democrats. This divergence, of course, has an important impact on the implementation of policy to address the pandemic. It reinforces the importance of our recommendations to seek to understand and to close the gaps between the scientific consensus and public understanding.”
The report is organized around three key priorities. Let me summarize the findings and recommendations of each of the priorities.
- Build capacity in the scientific community
The scientific community must increase its capacity to engage with the public, as well as its appreciation and understanding of the skills required to do so. The community must also rely on expertise from a range of fields beyond science and engineering, including communications, public relations, education, and the social and behavioral sciences. To support this priority, the report recommends a number of actions, including:
- Integrate science communication and engagement competencies in STEM undergraduate and graduate programs;
- Ensure that scientific societies have the proper resources for effective communications and engagements;
- Increase the capacity to support science communications and engagements in higher education institutions;
- Designate dedicated staff to connect and support such activities across different academic disciplines; and
- Include participation in science communication activities in promotion and tenure decisions.
2. Shape the narrative around science
Discussions of science in news media, digital platforms, documentaries and entertainment have a large impact on the public perceptions of science. Not only do they raise awareness in the topic being discussed, but they also shape opinions and trust in the relevant science.
In addition, science communications must address the growing problem of misinformation and disinformation that corrupt public trust in the legitimacy of scientific results, which in the case of issues like COVID-19, can result in danger for all.
To support this priority, the report recommends:
- Address the mischaracterization of science information by carefully explaining the processes used to arrive at a scientific consensus, highlighting questions for which at present we have no answer and therefore need additional research;
- Scientific societies should develop action plans that will help them rapidly respond to major mischaracterizations and misinformation;
- Higher education institutions should develop workshops to help journalists understand key scientific advances and how they came about; and
- Journalists and editors should be provided with sources, fact sheets, resources, and access to experts on impactful scientific topics, especially those dealing with controversial subjects.
3. Develop systemic support for science engagement efforts
As discussed earlier, people generally encounter science through a diverse and growing set of experiences. Given the complexity and breadth of scientific advances, it’s important to take a systemic approach to improve the public’s understanding of the topics being discussed. This requires close coordination and resource-sharing among participating institutions and practitioners. Actions recommended for this final priority include:
- Support the development of centers, databases, and practical approaches that will help connect practitioners so they can share resources and best practices;
- Organizations involved in science communications and engagement should collaborate on areas of shared interests;
- Diversity, equity and inclusion with the broader community should be embedded in all aspects of these efforts;
- Industry, universities and government should partner with local institutions — e.g., schools, libraries, museums, science centers — to support and strengthen their science engagement efforts; and
- Increase the resources needed for assessing the outcomes and long-term impact of science communication and engagement activities.
“In the twenty-first century, science will continue to have a profound influence on people’s daily lives and well-being,” said Priorities for the Future in conclusion.
“People’s attitudes toward science and the ways in which they engage with scientific content will impact everything from their curiosity about scientific discoveries to evidence-informed decision-making to their desire to participate in science…
We are at a moment in time when the enthusiasm and support for science communication and engagement can be harnessed for greater impact through widescale efforts to build capacity. The goals and priority areas in this report offer a starting point for long-term action.”
This blog was first published November 7, here.