“Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda” NAS Event & Webcast, Tues. Jan. 10: Preview Q&A With Dietram Scheufele

The National Academies Report: “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda” is an important new contribution to the science of science communication.
“Everything we know about communicating science is changing, from the types of value-laden questions that new science raises to rapidly changing ways of disseminating and sharing information online. And a key challenge is to understand that.” —Dietram Scheufele

The NAS Committee on the Science of Science Communication, chaired by Alan Leshner, CEO Emeritus of AAAS, and vice-chaired by Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin, is hosting a public discussion on Tuesday Jan. 10 in Washington D.C. at 11 a.m. EST/8 a.m. PST to share the new report and its implications, and to offer an opportunity for questions and conversation. The event will also be webcast. You can view the webcast here, and follow along on social media with #NASEMscicomm.

Click here to download the report.

Click here to download the report.

I caught up with Dietram Scheufele in advance of Tuesday’s public launch to talk about the report in the context of current challenges for scientists and communicators. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Nancy: As a communication trainer and coach, I’m constantly thinking about how we can apply the science of science communication to our work at COMPASS and share it with the environmental scientists with whom we work. It often feels like there’s a missing connection between the #scicomm research and the questions practitioners and scientists have. I’m excited about this synthesis, which offers new grist for conversations between the social scientists studying science communication and the scientists, practitioners and organizations like COMPASS that are eager to put their findings to use.

What are you trying to achieve with the new National Academies Report, “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda”?

Dietram: It’s a quick overview of what we know, with the research that supports and illustrates that knowledge, and then it’s pointing to the areas we need to focus on next.

A big takeaway from this project is that for a long time, the academic community saw this as many separate research problems across different fields, with different facets—psychological, social, communications, engagement, and others—but there’s also a practitioner community that’s looking to researchers of the science of science communication to solve those problems.

One of the key reasons for this report is to have a two-way conversation between the researchers and practitioners. This report is a product from the research side to further that, and now we need practitioners to look at it and use it and respond to it.

Dr. Dietram Scheufele. Image by WiD / Christof Rieken; CC BY-ND 3.0.

Dr. Dietram Scheufele. Image by WiD / Christof Rieken; CC BY-ND 3.0.

I could sit here as a social scientist, and complain that people don’t take my research into account, but I think that we as social scientists don’t do a good job ourselves of communicating our work and sharing it and applying it. We’ve done a good job of slicing the problem smaller and smaller and finding limited answers, but we haven’t done as good of a job at tackling the large application questions, because those call for big complicated research designs and that’s hard. This report is pushing the research community toward that broader view, and calling for systematic approaches to these complex questions.

Everything we know about communicating science is changing, from the types of value-laden questions that new science raises to rapidly changing ways of disseminating and sharing information online. And a key challenge is to understand that.

A lot of the foundational research about science communication through journalism came from the 60s and 70s, and those things—how newspapers work, the unifying force of television across a population, the media system itself—those things aren’t necessarily true any more. The media system, if it is still a media system, is upside-down now and functions in ways that we don’t completely understand.

False beliefs are coming from comedy shows, from Breitbart, from intentional fake news, but that’s not a new problem. The new problem we see is that media has maneuvered itself into a position where it’s lost credibility. If you watch CNN coverage of the election from 16 or even just 12 years ago with academic and policy experts, it is very different from watching coverage of the election now, with all the constant back and forth among politicos who get paid to spin information in one direction or another.

There are lots of reasons why media has lost the ability to play gatekeeper for direct, credible, and verified information, but there still is an important function for traditional media to play in science news. We still need translators who can take 20 years of complex researcher and boil it down to 300 words and tell me how it works and how it affects my life; that’s how we make decisions.

Nancy. Can you tell us more about the January 10th event and the expectations for that?

Dietram: This will be the first iteration of a hopefully long back-and-forth between practitioners, researchers, and funders, where journalists, social scientists, academics and public voices can respond and give their initial reactions to the report. I don’t think that conversation will be a conclusive one—I hope it won’t be—but it will refine things that are and aren’t in the report, and identify and discuss next steps, including the third Sackler Colloquium event on the science of science communication this coming November.

Nancy: Something that I wrote about recently for Nature, is the fact that now more than ever in these turbulent times, scientists want to engage, but they want to know how best to go about it in a complex social landscape. A challenging thing for scientists to grapple with is that they are asked to make moral judgments, or answer questions that go beyond the science, and if they want to be seen as empathetic and trustworthy, they have to navigate that tricky terrain. What advice do you have for them?

Dietram: Every scientific issue that emerges has a scientific side and a political/moral/value-laden side. And separating the two is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, science communicators should separate from one another, on the other hand, the two are inextricably linked. The example I often use is vaccines. There are scientific aspects that scientists can and should provide authoritative answers on, but then there are political questions, for example ‘was Governor Brown in California right to put more limitations on the faith-based exemptions to vaccinations.’ That’s a political question that scientists will be asked to provide commentary on, but that can’t be answered scientifically. It may not be the focus of their research or a scientific question that they can answer, but they have to be ready for it, because that’s what journalists will ask about to get people interested.

There is no good or right or correct policy as far as science is concerned. That’s for society and the voters to decide. But if you can outline the political or moral question, and then provide the best available science to help people make that choice, that’s a great interview for a journalist, and provides an article that will both interest readers and enable good citizenship.

I know you teach this, Nancy—understanding the values of the audience, and the mental and emotional “bookshelves” of each individual and where new information fits for them, is essential. If I, as a scientist, cannot present what I’m trying to say in a way that allows the audience to connect to a value or a strong belief that they already have, that’s just not going to fly.

That’s why framing matters. For example, John Losey at Cornell in the 90s found that Bt corn may harm the larvae of monarch butterflies. The research was not conclusive, and one of his colleagues, Tony Shelton, was asked about it, and tried to put the technical risk into perspective by arguing that more butterflies die on the windshields of American cars every day than in a Bt cornfield.

Our response as scientists is to think through the numbers, but unless they connect with what audiences care about, communication will fail. What geneticists were trying to do, in fact, was to create a plant that required fewer pesticides and agricultural practices that would kill fewer insects. The windshield comment got nothing of that across and simply was the wrong approach or frame to use. It didn’t get across that we’re all aiming for the same goal—helping agriculture using fewer pesticides and killing fewer insects, butterflies included.

Nancy: Thanks for that. That’s a great example—we need more specific examples as scientific communicators to illustrate the points. There is a shortage of those.

Reading this report I was reminded of that—that we need more specific examples to provide context for what we teach. I was also struck by how relatively little we know versus what we need to know…there are certainly still more questions than answers in the science of science communication. But I think this report is extremely helpful in synthesizing where we are at—and where we need to go. As a leading researcher in this burgeoning field, what are you going to make a professional priority this year?

Dietram: For me personally, and as an academic enterprise, we need to shift away from a specific focus on the manageable problems and shift toward the large, unwieldy problems that are difficult to tackle, but that need solutions more than anything else. We need to think more about the long game, not the small victories in academic journals. Unless we have the courage to do this, our society will continue to struggle with complex problems that don’t have simple answers. It sounds lofty, but we don’t have many other options. Do all scientists need to be good communicators? No. Does relevant science need to be present in policy debates? Yes. We need to act on what we know, and research what we don’t know.

For scientists, the daily practice of science communication is kind of like stand-up comedy; the more often you do it, the more you get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. We have some guesses as to why some things work, and some good data about mechanisms and technologies, but there are complexities to science communication that stand-up doesn’t have. You can find yourself part of a much larger debate. How do social networks, political contexts, geographic locations, communication infrastructures, and individual and group psychologies and cognition all interact? All of these factors make up the communication environment that we’re dealing with.

From a research perspective, it’s comparatively easy to do a study of social networks on Facebook and see if you can create emotional contagion, or do election polling and figure out who is likely for or against a referendum, but it’s hard to see how those pieces interact. Different science topics and concerns also play out differently—talking about stem cell research is different from talking about climate change, is different from talking about genetically modified organisms. The report touches on many of these complexities.

It requires a step from the social science research community toward the practitioners and the field and bench scientists. We need to do research that addresses the real practical problems that we keep hearing from the scientific community and that are outlined in the report, and we need to take a scientific approach not just to the research, but to sharing and communicating that research. Getting the best possible science to reach a broad audience, not just in technical ways but in ways that address the broad concerns of a public, is something that we need to build into the norms of the field. We can only get so far if we don’t do that, and if we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our jobs as scientists.

Watch the public discussion on Tuesday, January 10th, 2017; read the report; learn more about previous Sackler Colloquia on the Science of Science Communication I and II, and read our July 2016 interview with Dietram on science communication.

With thanks to Sarah Sunu for her help transcribing and editing this conversation.