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Highlights of National Academy of Sciences’ 2017 science communication colloquium

By Rose Hendricks, PhD, University of California San Diego

Science communication, or scicomm, as it’s affectionately known by many, is gaining traction. In an era in which scientific information (both true and false) is widely available online and rapidly shared through a number of social media sites, scientists, journalists, and other practitioners have increasingly focused on improving the quantity and quality of public-facing science communications. To do so, many have looked to the interdisciplinary field focused on the science of science communication.

Last month, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) hosted its 3rd Sackler Science of Science Communication Colloquium to meet this demand. The colloquium used the recent NAS report Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda (which I’ve summarized in an earlier piece) as a framework for discussing ways to advance science communication research and practice. Here are my top three highlights from the program.

 

Shanto Iyengar on Communicating with the Public About Research on Immigration

Stanford Political Science Professor Shanto Iyengar spoke about increasing polarization in the United States between Democrats and Republicans, and showed us that understanding this trend is crucial for making progress in science communication research. As people become more polarized, they seek out more biased sources. This creates an environment ripe for misinformation to succeed – we’re poised to believe information that confirms our prior beliefs and discard information that doesn’t. How, then, can we improve the current state of science communication in an increasingly polarized society? Iyengar recommends:

  • Kinder rhetoric from high places;
  • More inter-personal contact across parties; and
  • Increased political mobilization for non-partisans

 

Evidence-based Science Communication to Policymakers (Award for Research Proposal)

The NAS provided funding for two research proposals and invited the authors to present their plans to the audience as well as to a panel of judges who provided live feedback. I was especially interested in the project presented by Elizabeth Suhay (American University) Emily Cloyd (AAAS), and Erin Nash (Durham University), which proposed a study to distill evidence-based practices for communicating science to policy makers. The researchers plan to study this topic from many angles, including through interviews with policy makers as well as science communicators, in order to provide guidance for others who hope to shape policy by through scicomm.

 

Focus on a Communication Challenge: Threats to Science’s Reputation

Princeton Professor Susan Fiske started this session by discussing the reputation of science and scientists, focusing on the crucial factor for communicator credibility – trust. She pointed out that while the public thinks of scientists as highly competent, these same people do not rate scientists as warm people relative to other professionals. In some ways, then (competence), trust in scientists is high, while in others (warmth), it is not so favorable. Kevin Finneran (editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology) continued by discussing the extent of science’s reputation problem, pointing out issues like lack of reproducibility and misconduct. Although these are worrisome, he showed that misconduct, the mortal sin of science, is actually rare. NAS President Marcia McNutt closed out the session with an exploration of solutions, focusing on a 2014 Nature paper, Journals Unite for Reproducibility and the common set of Principles and Guidelines in Reporting Preclinical Research that the journals agreed to. There’s much work to be done to maintain, and even improve, the reputation of science and of scientists, but the three speakers in this session told us that we shouldn’t despair – many signs are pointing in the right direction.

 

Room for Improvement

Over the course of the two days we heard from a lot of speakers who were male, White, and well… “experienced” scientists. These speakers (usually) had important insights, but many other people (women, people of color, and younger scientists) have lots to say, too. Many of the attendees found the minimal diversity among the speakers disheartening, and felt that it created an odd dichotomy between the speakers and the audience, who seemed to be much more diverse.

I also felt that too much of the program was centered on the expert speakers, with very little space for audience members to connect with each other and share their ideas and experiences. Given the diversity of the audience, I suspect we could have learned about many interesting science communication initiatives, challenges, and goals if there had been a forum (like a digital poster session) designed for this purpose.

But all in all, I’m already looking forward to the next Science of Science Communication Colloquium, which I’m confident will include many new voices into enthusiastic to science communication practice and research.

 

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Rose Hendricks is a PhD Candidate in Cognitive Science at UC San Diego. Her research is focused on the way that metaphor shapes the way we perceive and reason about the world. She writes about cognitive science, science communication, and PhD life at rosehendricks.com. Follow Rose on Twitter.

 

 


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