The Public Disengagement With Science

01/03/2018 03:41 am ET

It's been a tricky period for those in the facts industry, with politicians across the western world deriding the authority of 'experts' and trumpeting 'fake news' at anything that doesn't support their agenda.

So it's interesting to see the results of the latest public opinion survey undertaken by Research!America.  It explored the public perception of science, and the results were mildly positive, in that 67% of respondents had a positive image of science, and indeed thought that public policy should be based on the best science available.

This perception largely carried across subject areas, including medicine, education and infrastructure.  Scientists were also regarded as highly trustworthy spokespersons for science, with this finding married with ones suggesting people expect scientists to be the spokespersons for scientific issues, even when they have policy implications.

Lacking visibility

Whilst there is a desire among the public for scientists to be more visible, the sector largely fails on that front at the moment.  A whopping 81% of Americans could not name a single living scientist, with 67% unable to name an institution that conducts medical research.

"The findings related to the visibility of scientists and the scientific community have been consistent over the past decade -- woefully low -- which indicates a need for stronger engagement between scientists and the public," the researchers say. "In order for science to have a more prominent position in our national agenda, the public and their policymakers must hear more from scientists about the health and economic benefits of public and private sector research."

Communicating science

Effective communication about science is crucial in so many ways, and last year the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report dealing with the various issues, and proposing more support to help the industry better communicate its results.

The paper argues that communicators need to go beyond the ‘deficit model’, which focuses on relaying more information, towards a fuller and richer method of communication.

“Science communication is a complex task and acquired skill. There is no obvious approach to communicating effectively about science, particularly when it is a contentious issue such as climate change, stem cells, vaccines, or hydraulic fracturing,” the team say. “More research needs to be conducted to strengthen the science of science communication and work toward evidence-based practices.”

This was also the subject of a recent paper from researchers at Griffith University, Australia.  The paper highlights how challenging it can be to communicate research effectively, and the authors suggest that a visual storytelling approach could be useful.  As such, universities should provide more support in developing such skills in their researchers.

They advocate a four-step approach for researchers to take:

  1. Scoping – this stage involves exploring what the researcher needs to ensure the message is as simple as possible.  This phase will include identifying the audience and determining the visual story to tell.
  2. Development – the next phase then sees the story written and created.
  3. Release – will involve the release of the story.
  4. Review – the final stage then reviews the success of the project after a suitable timeframe has elapsed to gauge its success.

It’s an interesting approach, but perhaps we also need to actually explore how the public consume scientific content. A recent study from the Pew Research Center highlights the challenge faced when trying to ensure citizens get accurate information, especially about scientific topics.  The study found that most Americans rarely actively seek out scientific news, and instead get it by happenstance from more mainstream publications.

Interestingly, this is despite readers having a generally low opinion of those sources in terms of their accuracy and reliability.  For instance, they regard speciality sources such as museums, science magazines and scientific documentaries as having the highest likelihood of reporting science accurately, with just 28% of respondents believing the mainstream media are likely to.

The respondents reported a number of key problems with the way science is reported in the media, including:

  • Reporting findings that don’t hold up to scrutiny
  • Failing to discern between high and low quality research
  • Jumping to conclusions about how findings apply in real-life

It's clear, therefore, that ensuring greater public engagement with science is not an easy challenge to overcome, but there is a growing consensus around both the need to do so, and the means by which it can be done.

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