The Voice of Epidemiology


    Web EpiMonitor

► Home ► About ► News ► Job Bank Events ► Resources ► Contact
National Academy Releases Report on Effective Science Communication

“Science and technology are embedded in virtually every aspect of modern life.”

As a society, we are frequently faced with decisions that can and should be guided by sound, scientific information, and yet all too often, the scientific community’s message is lost or worse still, overshadowed by misinformation. A new report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine entitled, Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda seeks to change this paradigm.

Compiled by a multidisciplinary committee chaired by Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer Emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the report reviews the existing research on effective science communication and lays out a research agenda to continue to improve science communication specifically in the face of controversy. Dr. Leshner explained in a press release, “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. More research needs to be conducted to strengthen the science of science communication and work toward evidence-based practices.”

Five Goals for Communicating Science

Noting that the most effective methods for communicating science will depend on the end goal, the committee identified five goals for scientific communication. This diverse set of goals needs diverse communication strategies, and the committee believes that a major research effort is necessary to identify effective approaches.

Share the findings and excitement of science
Increase appreciation for science as a useful way of understanding and navigating the modern world
Increase knowledge and understanding of the science related to a specific issue
Influence people's opinions, behavior, and policy preferences
Engage with diverse groups so that their perspectives about science related to important social issues can be considered in seeking solutions to societal problems that affect everyone

The Deficit of the “Deficit Model”

One key finding of the report centers around mounting evidence that the widely held “deficit model” of scientific communication is wrong. In this model, it is assumed that skepticism or disbelief of scientific fact stems from a lack of scientific understanding. The research suggests, however, that individuals may fully understand the science on an issue, but still act in a dismissive manner. They choose instead to behave in a way that is consistent with their own knowledge, needs and/or values. As a result, increasing scientific knowledge in the public alone will not solve the existing communication problems. Additionally, because scientific communication is complicated and consists of many dynamic, interrelated elements, the authors of the report stress that a systems approach is necessary to guide research to develop a deep understanding and advance scientific communication.

Building a Coherent Science Communication Research Enterprise

The report identifies four keys to building a science communication research enterprise.

Form partnerships to translate what is learned through communication research into practice and to develop detailed research agendas for testing hypotheses
Build bridges across the diverse disciplines that study aspects of science communication and controversies
Recruit new scientists, particularly those with social and behavioral science backgrounds
Have mechanisms for the rapid review and funding of certain science communication research

Scientific Controversy and the Media Environment

Already inherently complicated, scientific communication becomes even more nuanced in the face of scientific controversy. Scientific controversies have three key features: 1) they typically involve conflicts of beliefs, values and interests that overshadow a need for basic knowledge, 2) public uncertainty is bred from the communication of different, at times contradictory messages, and 3) the loudest voices are not always the ones backed by scientific truth. To address these three features, the report calls for research into communicating science effectively across diverse social issues and science-related controversies, research into the development of large-scale processes for understanding the public’s response to perceived uncertainty, and research into how to correct scientific misinformation. All this must happen in a complicated, vacillating media environment where differentiation between accurate and inaccurate scientific information is difficult.

Future Directions

“Most people do not pay attention to science regularly.” Instead, their scientific interest is motivated by the sudden need to make a decision (i.e. Should I vaccinate my children?). This decision can be influenced by the complex nature of scientific information and how individuals process that information (i.e. Do I truly understand the risks around vaccinating or not vaccinating my children?) as well as through social influences. Additional research is needed to understand whether and how these factors relate to best practices for science communication. We must also improve our understanding of the role of science communication in influencing policy makers and how to best formally engage a diverse public. In the end, the committee calls for commitment from both science communicators and and scientists to aid progress. “The need to communicate science effectively - for the sake of the public, policy makers, and the science community itself - lends urgency to the implementation of the research agenda proposed.”

Read the full report here:

Reader Comments:
Have a thought or comment on this story ?  Fill out the information below and we'll post it on this page once it's been reviewed by our editors.

  Name:        Phone:   



      ©  2011 The Epidemiology Monitor

Privacy  Terms of Use  Sitemap

Digital Smart Tools, LLC