Thursday, July 01, 2010

New paper out: Do scientists understand the public?

I was finishing one of the Communicating Science workshops I facilitate for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and while the scientists were filling out their feedback forms, I asked them, "What did you learn today that surprised you?"

A hand shot up. "I was surprised to learn that I have to start by thinking about the audience, instead of what I want to say."  I joked on the spot that "My work here is done," but in fact, it's just beginning. Again.

Those of us who've spent decades working to bridge the communications gap between scientists and the public have a new paper to prompt discussion with scientists about communicating with public audiences.  Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, noted for its work in this area, and created by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the new paper acknowledges what most of us know--public understanding of science is historically and consistently low--and flips the question to ask, Do Scientists Understand the Public?

Unveiled this week in Washington, the paper summarizes a series of workshops in which scientists discussed controversial issues of the day, such as nuclear waste disposal, the future of the Internet and more, with an eye to why those topics create a gulf between public audiences and scientists. One reason cited in yesterday's presentation:  Scientists need to acknowledge that public angst over scientific issues often has nothing to do with the science, listen to those concerns, and learn how to respond to them.  And (no surprise to readers of don't get caught) they need to anticipate public controversies in scientific circles and prepare for them.

The 15-page paper, available for $6, is most useful as a way to frame the discussion, raise its visibility anew, and provide fuel to efforts like the Communicating Science program, where the workshops always begin with considering public audiences and understanding them.  I speak with all sorts of organizations and companies seeking to bridge this gap with training, from companies where the research group leaders say, "If they could just communicate with marketing" to universities where the development director wishes scientists could connect with, rather than confuse, potential donors of research funds. I also see hope in the hundreds of scientists who've turned up for the Communicating Science workshops.  While there are plenty of resistant scientists out there who don't want to try communicating directly with public audiences, there are plenty more who do--and who understand it's not their strong suit.
What do you think about the new report?  Will it help you make the case for public communication with scientists in your company or organization? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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