By Alan I. Leshner
From ASTC Dimensions
We in the scientific community, including both scientists and science centers, are living, as Charles Dickens would say, in “the best of times and the worst of times.”
The scientific enterprise has never been more productive, as scientific advances are coming at an almost incredible pace. For their part, science centers have evolved into tremendously important local and national resources through which millions of citizens, young and old, are exposed to cutting-edge science in personally meaningful ways.
On the other hand, public knowledge about science, despite ongoing efforts by the education community, remains consistently low. Indicators from recent surveys and assessment tools such as the U.S. National Science Board’s 2010 Science & Engineering Indicators and a 2009 Pew Research Center–American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) survey demonstrate that the public is interested in science, but uncertain of its relevance to their everyday lives.
At the same time, we are experiencing a level of tension between science and the rest of society that is unprecedented, at least in my scientific lifetime. Some of that tension derives from an abutment of scientific advances onto issues of core human values. One such example is the conflict between embryonic stem cell research and some religious beliefs about when life begins. Other sources of tension derive from the conflict between scientific discoveries and political or economic expedience. The most publicized current example concerns the question of how to deal with the impact of human behaviors on the climate.
The traditional response of the scientific community is to see this kind of tension as reflecting a lack of appreciation or a misinterpretation by the public. Scientists then often try to mount public understanding or education campaigns designed to “enlighten” the populace, either about science in general or specific issues in particular.
In recent years, however, I’ve become increasingly interested in a different approach to communicating with the public. This considers how the scientific and science education communities might better engage with members of the public on their terms—specifically, how do we build a more productive, constructive dialogue with members of society on how, why, and when science affects them? How can we more meaningfully include the public? They are, after all, whom we purport that science is meant to serve.
At AAAS, we’ve been exploring “public engagement with science” as a method and a practice in our work. Sample activities include viewing AAAS’s public events and programs through a public engagement lens, developing partnerships with likeminded organizations and agencies to create public engagement frameworks and activities, and providing training for scientists to better communicate and engage with the public, through workshops and online resources.
Public engagement is a long-term approach of many science centers, and the rest of the scientific community is beginning to catch on to the idea. I believe that although active facilitation of public dialogue is challenging, it also provides great opportunities for science centers and the broader scientific community to work together to address their goals. A critical question, then, is how best to organize and implement a collaboration that on the surface seems obviously advantageous to both parties, but in practice appears difficult to put into place.
Opportunities and challenges for public engagement
Only relatively recently have large numbers of scientists wanted to engage more directly and openly with the broader public. Some of this increased interest in public engagement results from a generational change: Younger scientists seem much more interested than their mentors in ensuring that their work is both relevant to societal needs and understood by the public. In order to recognize the efforts of individual scientists, AAAS has recently launched an Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. Another stimulus to scientists’ interest in public engagement has been the development of policies by some research funding agencies, like NSF and NASA, requiring that supported research projects include “broader impacts” such as public education and engagement activities.
A major problem in mounting more public engagement programs, of course, is that scientists typically lack expertise in public communication and engagement, an issue made worse by the fact that they often see their own work as too esoteric for the general public to comprehend. Moreover, there are too few opportunities within the scientific enterprise for scientists to use public engagement skills even when they do have them.
Scientists also have minimal “glocal” communication skills. One of the core lessons of public engagement is that, fundamentally, people are only interested in things that affect them personally or locally. Therefore, one needs to take global or general issues and make them locally meaningful, or “glocalize” them. This transition is often difficult for scientists who spend much of their time working on scientific questions with minimal public involvement.
Collaborations between scientists and science centers
As experts both at public communication and engagement and at glocalization, science centers are ideally positioned to collaborate with scientists in public engagement efforts. Communication and engagement are core science center activities; that is what they do. And science centers know that the most effective exhibits and programs are those that become personally meaningful to the audience. Good science centers fill a critical role in their communities as places for individuals to seek out information about science on topics and in formats that interest them personally—such as an interactive exhibit on DNA and medicine, an IMAX movie about ocean pollution, or a civil engineer’s talk about local bridges.
Great science centers choose to take this a step further by also serving as a gathering place, where scientists, educators, and the public together can forge discussions on current topics in science that incorporate high public interest and local relevance. Such topics might include the effects of climate change in local communities, the implications of stem cell research, and what science can (and cannot) tell us about the world and ourselves. Many science centers have a diverse array of public outreach and engagement activities, and therefore provide excellent venues through which scientists can enter into dialogue with the broader public. For their part, scientists can contribute their knowledge and expertise to improve the quality of science center programs; to provide examples of living, breathing scientists; and to help encourage dialogue between the public and the scientific community.
This increased collaborative role between science centers and scientists may still be evolving, but there is ample need for it in today’s climate: an increasing public appetite for science, a shrinking science news media, and politicization of science in the public realm. In fact, all science-based institutions—research universities and organizations, science centers, and scientific societies—have a significant role to play, not only in informing the general public, but also in identifying diverse and far-reaching opportunities for scientists and the public to engage with one another.
Alan I. Leshner is CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of Science. This article is based on his presentation at the 2010 ASTC Annual Conference. AAAS’s tools for helping scientists and engineers communicate with the public are available online.
About the image: Lamar Blackwell (left), graduate student in cell biology at the University of California, Irvine, and Anika Bissahoyo, director of sponsored programs at Bradley University, work on their public communication skills during a Communicating Science workshop at the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting. Photo by Tiffany Lohwater/AAAS