Communicating crucial science issues

Plenary sessionWhat happens when scientists take to the podium to air their views on the use of science and technology to solve society’s problems? Do they win friends or alienate the audience? Which lines of thought or action earn praise, and which earn a black eye?

At the ASTC Annual Conference’s November 1 plenary session, “Angry Public vs. Grateful Public: Mixing Politics and Science,” Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., moderated a discussion with panelists from science organizations that have faced these challenges. Speakers Susan F. Wood, formerly of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); Paul Sandifer of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and David E. Blockstein of the National Council for Science and the Environment shared their stories, both positive and negative, and discussed how lessons learned from their experiences can help science centers communicate effectively.

Wood described the roadblocks to FDA approval of over-the-counter distribution of emergency contraception in 2005 despite recommendations by agency scientists and her subsequent decision to resign from that agency. Among the reasons she said was that “it was very clear the scientific process was being ignored.” Her resignation received substantial media attention that she believes served as a teachable moment showing how the FDA should work and that controversy should not overtake science.

Sandifer followed up, restating the importance of “sticking to the science” and emphasizing the role science centers can play in communicating science in language the general public can understand. He gave as an example NOAA’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which trains scientists to better communicate their work to policy makers to help them make informed decisions. “I’m not suggesting that [science centers] advocate for something,” he said. Rather, he urged science centers to continue to present the science facts to help the public become engaged in the decision-making process.

Blockstein talked about politicians’ views of science. “Science itself,” he said, “is one of the few common beliefs among politicians—science is good…. On the other hand, science is treated as a political football.” He also pointed out that politicians like to “split the difference,” describing how they will often try to broker a compromise between scientific facts and other interests. Science centers, he said, have an opportunity to shape decisions through communicating science to the public. “I think keeping museums contemporary, as the place to learn about current issues, may be the key to the survival of museums as well as the survival of life on Earth.” All three panelists agreed that the less formal venues of science centers can “take the edge off” the discussion and promote rational discourse.

Immediately following the session, attendees clustered in smaller groups to discuss the issues raised with each other and the panelists.

About the image: Sheila Grinell introduces the panel. Photo by Christine Ruffo