The Public Disengagement With Science

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

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.

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The capabilities are enormous, a little bit of research can pay off quite a bit in the long run.
Paul D’ Addario, retinitis pigmentosa patient