Last month, Media Impact Funders, in collaboration with the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the Rita Allen Foundation, presented a webinar on The Public Face of Science, a new multi-year project to explore the intersection of science and civic life, and advance our understanding of the public’s view on science. The webinar offered funders a preview of soon-to-be published research and the opportunity to hear from two advisors to the project, Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson from the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Arthur (Skip) Lupia of the University of Michigan.
Funders investing in media and journalism, civic dialogue, and science are focusing on the connections between science and civic life. The webinar was the first in a series of conversations aimed at building a network of funders who want more information about research and practice around effective science communication and engagement.
While the United States continues to grapple with pressing scientific issues such as climate change and vaccine safety, questions of truth, evidence and trust in news and information reveal a complex relationship between the public and the scientific community. But as Elizabeth Christopherson, president and CEO of the Rita Allen Foundation noted, despite this current reality, science is part of the civic DNA of our democracy. “The founders saw that America itself was a great experiment, and that we would continually test the idea that people can govern themselves based on reason and discourse, she said. “Every generation has faced new challenges to the success of this experiment. We now find ourselves investigating with urgency how to strengthen the relationship between science and public life.”
Webinar attendees were able to hear what the project researchers have uncovered so far.
Geneva Overholser, co-chair of the Public Face of Science initiative, explained the goals of the project:
- Raise awareness of how the public currently views and encounters science.
- Encourage collaborative efforts between social scientist researchers and pollsters who can answer key questions such as “how does a person’s values influence their perceptions and support of science?”.
- Identify high-impact approaches to complement or improve the science engagement and advocacy efforts taking place around the country.
John Randell, senior program director and adviser to the president at AAAS, talked about how the research will be shared with the public. The first report, “Perceptions of Science in America,” will establish the baseline of what is known about public attitudes ranging from general perceptions to the influence of demographics on views on specific issues, and is expected to be released in February 2018. The second report, due in the spring of 2018, will delve into the current landscape of informal science education experiences, which range from traditional science centers such as museums and zoos to the use of science on social media.
These first two reports provide the foundation and context for a third report, which will explore specific recommendations for how the scientific community can improve public engagement efforts with a focus on reaching rural and underserved populations. A fourth report is being considered, focusing on international perceptions and science engagement opportunities outside the U.S.
Trust and Engagement
Dr. Arthur Lupia explained that, while trust in scientific leaders has remained steady and quite high (compared to the media or congressional leadership, for example), Americans are worried about the pace of change in science and technology. That anxiety is also evident with significant segments of society questioning the motives of established institutions like colleges and universities. In addition, real questions are being raised about the public value of science.
Yet we know there is a story to tell about how science impacts people’s lives positively. It will come as no surprise that people seek out information that is most relevant to them, especially health and medical content. The most widely covered of those news articles have a “positive discovery narrative,” which means they don’t focus on crises but on how science impacts—and benefits—their lives.
Understanding how we can make content more meaningful, with strong narratives about how science increases quality of life, creates jobs and improves health, will improve trust in and personal engagement with science, says Lupia. “We need to meet people where they are instead of expecting them to come to us,” he said. The first step is understanding what people are worried about in their own lives. Only then can we connect the science to those narratives.
Climate Central recognized this when it began collaborating with local news meteorologists. Climate Central tailors weather-related content, which includes visuals and climate science that is relevant to local audiences, and is shared by a trusted source (weatherman).
Connecting with Science Outside the Classroom
Exploring science consumption and engagement, Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson explained that while the U.S. has a high level of science consumption, active science information consumers are generally more educated. Despite the significant numbers of casual, or inadvertent, science information consumers, there is good reason to believe inadvertent exposure can be powerful in shaping attitudes. Jamieson noted that we need to ensure what matters about science—its processes and discoveries—is getting through to audiences beyond the highly educated active science consumers.
Happily, science centers, national and state parks, zoos and history museums are considered to be reliable sources of scientific information. What’s more, they boast large numbers of visitors across educational, income and political backgrounds.
The importance of cultural institutions in communicating science is significant, and presents a tremendous opportunity to connect with diverse backgrounds in support of greater science engagement.
Identity and Framing
We often talk about science funding in connection with government, which launches a partisan response, depending on whether the individual is a fan or skeptic of government’s role in society. Framing debates about contested issues all too often invites unproductive discussions and a retreat to established political sides and arguments.
But bringing the conversation into neutral space and inviting people to be data analysts allows people to come to conclusions themselves. With science at the forefront of contentious debate, the researchers stress the importance of entering discussions about science with neutral framing. Doing so can engage audiences without triggering their partisan identity.
Funders interested in learning more about the latest research and practice are invited to participate in upcoming events and conversations. In a few weeks, we’ll be at the Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication III to delve deeper into issues of science communication and engagement, specifically around the National Academy of Sciences’ report, Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda. While the event is sold out, a live stream is available.
MIF and the Rita Allen Foundation will be holding further discussions in 2018. Questions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.