To save the planet, teach public engagement
Read the full article on Elsevier.
A recent film called Don’t Look Up effectively skewered pretty much everyone involved in a looming public disaster. With a comet about to destroy Earth, scientists assumed that once they described what was about to happen, complete with data and sincerity, everyone — including policymakers and journalists — would be concerned and launch into action.
That’s not what happened: the scientists communicated poorly to the public, using the same language they would if they were talking to their peers. And there wasn’t any listening going on by those scientists, nor by policymakers, journalists and, by extension, the public. Everyone looked bad.
The movie is an interesting thought experiment for scientists and academia writ large on how not to respond to a grand challenge. One major takeaway is the scientists’ failure to understand the motivations of others, including skeptical policymakers who found the timing bad (no need to rock the public boat for something as improbable as a comet destroying the planet). Another is the scientists’ inability to handle interrogation from self-promoting journalists and influencers who wanted to sensationalize the story beyond rationality.
To avoid situations like this, academia must become proficient at engaging effectively with stakeholders to inform public responses to existential challenges. More broadly stated, university leaders must take action to ensure they are doing all they can, at every level, to serve the public interest.
Skepticism is foundational
Communication during the COVID-19 pandemic remains an ongoing global challenge. Historically, the science community has only rarely been in the spotlight in “real time,” tasked with communicating rapidly evolving, life-or-death research in a way that translates well to headlines and social media. A big missed opportunity the last few years: we failed to meet the public where they were, answering questions that had been asked instead of those we thought should have been asked, and we failed to stress upfront the way science evolves.
As knowledge accumulates, advice may change to accommodate new knowledge. In other words, we were not only neglecting to convey the essence of science, but we weren’t humble. And ironically, we blamed non-scientists for being skeptical. Skepticism is valued in academia — it advances knowledge; a good place to meet skepticism among the public is to embrace it: “You’re talking like a scientist; we have that in common!”
Humility and common ground encourage skepticism to flourish into curiosity, not harden into intransigence.
The divisiveness of our present culture — including the lightning rod that “science” has become — is not a problem with an immediate solution. It has taken years of fracturing, mistrust, misunderstanding, miscommunication, and missed communication to reach our present moment. And it will take years to establish structures and patterns to build a new, wiser, more vibrant, more inclusive, more connected culture throughout academia. It would be a terrible mistake if we don’t take what we’ve learned from the last few years and change things going forward. Let’s start now.
Academia must adapt
Academia has a vital role to play in building a healthier culture and a healthier future, not least because it is training the next generations to find the solutions to what ails us. But academia itself is facing declining public confidence. As recently reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the percentage of Americans who say colleges and universities are having a positive impact on the country declined from 69% in 2020 to 55% in 2022.
The COVID-19 pandemic made an already concerning situation worse. But as identified in a 2022 global survey of researchers conducted by Economist Impact and supported by Elsevier as part of the Confidence in Research initiative, researchers want more science in the public square: 79% of US researchers who responded agree the pandemic increased the importance of science bodies and individual researchers explaining findings to the public, while 59% would like more opportunities to engage with policymakers, and 57% want communications training. The report notes similar responses around the globe.
Driven in part by student demand for better support and recognition in public engagement, as well as better training, more and more academic leaders are promoting just that. However, efforts are scattershot to date, and few have concrete suggestions for addressing the limitations on this activity imposed by the academic promotion and tenure structure. Historically, universities and colleges did not — and still do not — value public engagement by their faculty, staff or students. Having an office of public relations or government relations, as vital as these are, is not the same thing.
For academic institutions to “walk the talk” of their missions, meet the moment, and have a growing positive impact on culture (and enjoy the accompanying growth in public perception), they must educate individuals with the skills needed to communicate and adapt in a rapidly changing world. They need to ensure they are training “civic scientists.”
(Note that it is not only scientists who must learn to be more responsive to civil society — everyone in academia should strive to do so — and be trained, recognized, and rewarded for doing so! Though framed in terms of STEM, which is Research!America’s mission, the recommendations here are largely applicable across academia.)
What is civic science?
It’s helpful to clarify the terms “civic science” or “civic scientist.” Neal Lane, PhD, while serving as director of the National Science Foundation, used the term “civic scientist” in a 1996 lecture before an international assembly at the National Academy of Sciences. He said:
In the past several months, I have spoken to many groups of my colleague scientists here in America about a new, additional role that, I believe, scientists must play in society. I termed this role the ‘civic scientist’ — civic meaning concerning or affecting the community or the people. In this new capacity, scientists step beyond their campuses, laboratories, ministries, and institutes and into the center of their communities to engage in active dialogue with their fellow citizens.
He further articulated that “to engage in dialogue is to listen as well as to speak,” declaring that:
… while there is great need for the public to have a better understanding of science, and we should promote this in every way possible, there is as great a need for scientists to have a better understanding of the public.
Civic science is centered on ending the traditional, unidirectional and thoroughly debunked “deficit model” — wherein scientists see their charge as filling in the gaps in the knowledge of non-scientists. Rather, effective public engagement is about relationship building and explicitly changing the balance of power, saying and conveying to the non-science-trained individual, “I work for you.” The concept of earning and delivering on public confidence and expectation is typically embedded in the mission statements of universities. The question for academic leaders is: “How can you improve the track record of delivering on that mission?”
What civic science isn’t: public relations, press offices, government relations, or one-off “community programs.” These are all necessary and important functions, but not the same as preparing everyone in a university or college to understand the public context in which they work and become proficient in engaging with it. (For those in leadership who fear that faculty or students will “deliver the wrong message,” responsible training is the best way to obviate that concern. In addition, it is well to move beyond the patriarchal approach.)
A systemic solution
As a jump-start for real and lasting change, Research!America recommends requiring PhD students to receive training to enable them to engage effectively with the public. Participation in a Public Context course would enable students to demonstrate accountability to the public by expanding skill sets when it comes to connecting to meet societal expectations. Course components would include development of communication skills and an understanding of the roles and expectations of policymakers, government agencies, academia, industry, patient groups and other NGOs, families and small businesses, and additional components of society that together comprise the “public context” in which every academic institution functions.
Well-grounded in existing scholarship and poised to broaden it, training will help to ensure new generations of graduate students become increasingly visible and more comfortable in the broader community and better equipped to convey the value of their education and their future careers in service to the public interest. This in turn will increase trust in and support for the academic enterprise, including driving stronger interest in STEM careers, setting the stage for faster (and smarter) responses to threats, and building stronger local and national economies.
Academia is training a generation that cares deeply about the social impact of their lives, and there is clear evidence many PhD-level students are ready and willing to be trained in public engagement. Microgrant programs such as those offered by Research!America and the National Science Policy Network have grown in popularity, enabling groups of PhD students to develop and participate in outreach initiatives benefiting their local communities. And there is an appetite for much more. As Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, the world-renowned vaccine biologist from the Baylor College of Medicine, has said, “I would love to see [an] initiative that builds in public engagement science training for PhDs. … If you build it, they will come.”
While Research!America is focused on the American academic experience, the recommendation — and sense of urgency — for teaching public engagement is very much a global imperative.
Challenge to leaders
This is a pivotal moment of urgency in modernizing academia’s connection to the community. If you are a leader in an academic institution, take a moment to ask yourself: Are we building the skills for students and faculty to engage with community, listen, and ensure academia is meeting public expectations? Is the promotion and tenure system poised to recognize and reward that engagement?
What are you measuring? What is your mission statement? Are these well-linked? Have you looked at your mission through the lens of public engagement? Of student expectations? Are you doing enough to ensure every student is equipped with the skills needed to engage the public?
What if …
Going back to the thought experiment of Don’t Look Up (spoiler alert: in the movie, Earth is destroyed), it would have been an entirely different story if the scientists portrayed had utilized the tools and training of a robust public engagement program. Instead of speaking in jargon with boundless certainty, they would have listened and shared what they knew with humility, promising frequent updates in plain language.
We don’t need the fiction of an imminent comet crash to understand the stakes. We face the immediate existential challenges of rapidly emerging diseases, antimicrobial resistance, climate change, food and water insecurity, and energy crises, to name a few — which require science, policy, and communities working hand in hand to solve. It is no small thing to say: training academics in public engagement may save the world.