Erica Palma Kimmerling, ASTC’s Senior Advisor for Science Engagement Policy and Partnerships contributed to this post. In her previous role as the Hellman Fellow for Science and Technology Policy at the American Academy for the Arts, Erica’s primary work was the Public Face of Science project.
In 2016, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences launched The Public Face of Science project—an effort to better understand the complex and evolving relationship between science and society, and examine how trust in science is shaped by individual experiences, beliefs, and engagement with science.
Last week’s blog post explored insights from the initiative’s first two publications, Perceptions of Science in America and Encountering Science in America. On August 18, the Academy released the third and final report in the series, The Public Face of Science in America: Priorities for the Future. (Free printed copies of the publication are available on request through a link on the publication page.)
Priorities for the Future outlines a series of critical factors, goals, and actions that have the potential to strengthen the connections between science and society. The report identifies three priority areas for change that can shape attitudes toward science and people’s experience with it:
- Building capacity for effective science communication and engagement in the scientific community
- Shaping the narrative around science
- Developing systemic support for science engagement efforts
There are many stakeholders that can act to make progress on these priorities, and the report names roles that these groups can play based on their capacity for impact.
A Role for Our Community Within the Science Engagement Landscape
Priority 3—which calls for systemic support for science engagement—speaks directly to institutions like science and technology centers and museums, natural history museums, children’s museums, nature centers, aquariums, planetariums, zoos, botanical gardens, and other STEM learning organizations.
This section of the report provides helpful definitions and framing that the ASTC community can use to better articulate our strengths and role within the science engagement landscape, while making the case for support and collaboration to a wider variety of funders and partners seeking to grow or start new public engagement and communication initiatives.
In the report, science and technology centers and museums are considered venues for science engagement: organizations that provide the “infrastructure that make science communication and engagement possible.” The report also provides an important reminder to consider that the staff of these institutions are professional practitioners of science engagement “who have expertise in science communication, engagement, and pedagogy,” along with knowledge of evaluation metrics and methodologies that can assess participant impacts. These frames can help ASTC members change misperceptions of science centers and museums, such that they only serve K-12 audiences or are simply venues for family entertainment rather than learning and engagement.
Additionally, the work of the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) is featured prominently, specifically its recent studies on the overlap between the fields of informal science education and science communication and the CAISE Broadening Participation Task Force (CAISE is housed at ASTC). The report also highlights the Leaders in Science and Technology Engagement Networks, or LISTEN Network, which connects and supports perspectives from across the science-engagement ecosystem (ASTC provides backbone support for the LISTEN Network).
Partnerships with Scientists and Higher Education
Priority 1 addresses the need to build capacity for effective science communication and engagement within the scientific community, noting that, at the moment, the burden of learning and understanding best practices for science communication and engagement typically falls on individual scientists.
The report primarily calls on higher education institutions (in their roles as educators and employers of scientists) and scientific societies to do this work instead. However, science and technology centers and museums can make important contributions as well. For example, the report cites the Portal to the Public (PoP) Network as an effective training program for university-level scientists. The PoP model was developed by science centers and museums, and the majority of its members are informal science institutions.
Here are a few examples of “inroads” with scientists or higher education institutions that the ASTC community might use to begin or grow partnerships:
- Individual scientists—including university-affiliated scientists, graduate students, and scientists employed in the private sector or in Federal labs—might be encouraged to think more expansively about the sites where they do public engagement, or which entities they look to for communication and engagement training.
- ASTC members can connect with these scientists through local chapters of professional scientific societies, university research centers or departments, Federal research labs, local industry, etc. (The Saint Louis Science Center goes a wonderful job of clearly explaining what it can offer scientists and researchers.)
- There are also national networks of STEM professionals and researchers who already have a strong interest in public engagement such as the IF/THEN Ambassadors®, who are a diverse group of women STEM professionals posed to conduct outreach with girls.
- Universities and colleges might consider refreshing or developing new engagement and communication courses and training for their undergraduate or graduate STEM students. Some higher education institutions are critically examining their relationships with the surrounding communities or seeking to expand their definitions of public engagement, like the University of Michigan. Institutions doing this work may be open to increased partnerships with science centers and museums. (See, for example, the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History’s offerings for university faculty and students.)
- Funders who typically support scientific research and technology development may be interested in beginning or increasing support for public engagement and communication activities.
Finally, don’t miss the report’s appendices, as they contain useful resources that can help in communicating with and co-developing programming with scientists—including Appendix A: Foundational Skills for Science Communication and Appendix B: Resources on Science Engagement.
Although the report was written before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Academy provides additional content and context that speaks to the current moment through the following resources:
- The opening letter of Priorities for the Future from David Oxtoby, president of the Academy, acknowledges the impact of recent revenue losses and budget cuts on the field of science engagement and states that “for those with the power and capacity to support the institutions and organizations that provide access to science, now is the time to act.”
- A statement from David Oxtoby and Richard Meserve, the chair of the Public Face of Science project, outlines relevant takeaways from all three project reports that are relevant for the current science communication environment.
- An upcoming discussion on September 16, “Earning Trust in the Age of the Pandemic,” will explore the public’s multifaceted perception of vaccine safety, and the importance of creating and sustaining public trust. The discussion is hosted by the American Academy and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.