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Dec. 13, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

New Report Recommends Research Agenda for Effective Science Communication

 

WASHINGTON – A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine highlights the complexity of communicating about science effectively, especially when dealing with contentious issues, and proposes a research agenda to help science communicators and researchers identify effective methods.  The most widely held model of what audiences need from science communication — known as the “deficit model,” which focuses on simply conveying more information — is wrong, the report says.

 

A major research effort is needed to understand the complex factors that affect science communication – for example, the ways people process the scientific information they hear, and the individual and social factors that influence people’s trust in science and in sources of information about it.  Research is also needed to help science communicators identify the right communication approach for their particular goals, determining which approaches are effective for whom, when, and under what conditions, the report says. 

 

“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,” said committee chair Alan Leshner, chief executive officer emeritus, American Association for the Advancement of Science.  “More research needs to be conducted to strengthen the science of science communication and work toward evidence-based practices.”

 

Using the popular deficit model, it is frequently assumed that a lack of information or an incomplete understanding of science explains why people don’t accept a scientific finding or make choices consistent with the scientific evidence.  However, research shows that audiences may already understand the science but for diverse reasons don’t agree or act in ways consistent with science. People rarely make decisions based only on scientific information; they typically also take into account their own goals and interests, knowledge and skills, and values and beliefs. A focus on knowledge alone often is not enough to achieve communication goals, the report says. 

 

Particular complexities arise when communicating in the face of controversy, when conflicting beliefs, values, and interests become central to a debate.  The voices of organized interests become amplified, making it difficult for authoritative voices from science to be heard.  More also needs to be known on how to effectively convey scientific consensus as well as scientific uncertainty.

 

Engaging the public in formal dialogue about science is important for sharing information needed for a decision and for finding common ground among diverse stakeholders, the report notes. While research shows that undertaking public engagement as early as possible in a public debate and having repeated deliberations over time to build trust among diverse participants can lead to effective public participation, additional study is needed to examine ways to best effectively communicate science to the public.

 

Science communication also needs to keep pace with changes in media, the report notes.  Today, people encounter scientific information from a wide variety of media sources, including blogs, social media feeds, and podcasts.  Research is needed to understand how individuals and groups derive and evaluate information from the various media outlets, and communicators must take advantage of new opportunities and find effective approaches in this competitive and complex environment.

 

Going forward, research needs to take a systems approach, one that understands that science communication is a complex system of many interrelated parts – the content to be communicated, the communicator, the audience, and the communication channel.  Research should be focused to simulate real-world communication environments; conduct randomized controlled field experiments to assess the impact of a particular approach to communicating science on changes in understanding, perception, or use of science; and use large data sets to assess changes in response to science communication. 

 

The report also identifies some specific communication practices that need more research -- for example, how science communicators approach debunking misinformation and correcting information that is inconsistent with the weight of scientific evidence. Under most circumstances, doing so is difficult: Repeating false information can reinforce belief in that information, even if it is followed by a correction.   More study is needed to determine for whom and under what conditions the current understandings about debunking apply. Other practices that need more study include framing, which presents information in a certain light to influence what people think, believe, or do, and using narrative to explain complex issues.

 

The committee identified several areas to enhance the infrastructure of science communication research.  Researchers and practitioners of science communication should partner to translate what is learned through research into practice and develop detailed research agendas.  In addition, researchers from diverse disciplines need to work together.  New or refocused journals for science communication research and other forums would support these collaborations.  The report calls for the recruitment of more scientists, particularly in the social and behavioral sciences, to examine science communication.  Also, the mechanisms to ensure the rapid review and funding of certain science communication research are needed when issues such as the Zika virus emerge suddenly and important messages from science need to be communicated.

 

The study was sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Climate Central via the Rita Allen Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A committee roster follows.

 

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Copies of Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

 

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THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES OF SCIENCES, ENGINEERING, AND MEDICINE

Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education

 

Committee on the Science of Science Communication: A Research Agenda

 

Alan I. Leshner1 (chair)

CEO Emeritus

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Potomac, Md.

 

Dietram A. Scheufele (vice chair)

Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor

Morgridge Institute for Research

University of Wisconsin

Madison

 

Ann Bostrom

Weyerhaeuser Endowed Professor

Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance

University of Washington

Seattle

 

Wandi Bruine de Bruin

University Leadership Chair in Behavioral Decision Making

Leeds University Business School

England

 

Karen S. Cook2

Ray Lyman Wilbur Professor of Sociology

Department of Sociology

Stanford University

Stanford, Calif.

 

Thomas Dietz

Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science and Policy

Michigan State University

East Lansing

 

William K. Hallman

Professor and Chair

Department of Human Ecology

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

New Brunswick

 

Jeffrey R. Henig

Professor of Political Science and Education

Teachers College

Columbia University

New York City

 

Robert C. Hornik

Wilbur Schramm Professor of Communication and Health Policy

Annenberg School for Communication

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia

 

Andrew Maynard

Professor

School for the Future of Innovation in Society

Arizona State University

Tempe

 

Matthew Nisbet

Associate Professor of Communication Studies

College of Arts, Media, and Design

Northeastern University

Boston

 

Ellen Peters

Professor of Psychology

Department of Psychology

Ohio State University

Columbus

 

Sylvia B. Rowe

President

SR Strategy

Washington, D.C.

 

STAFF

 

Melissa K. Welch-Ross

Study Director

 

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1Member, National Academy of Medicine

2Member, National Academy of Sciences