Engaging the Scientific Community with the Public

Posted on January 3, 2012 by Grupp Global

[Delivered at the TÜBİTAK Symposium in Turkey on February 17, 2009]

A Practical Exploration of Communications in our Wired World

Good Morning. Thank you very much for the invitation to attend this conference and speak with you. I am delighted to be in Turkey again, and with you at this symposium.

Over the past 36 months, as president of IPRA, the International Public Relations Association, I had the privilege of traveling extensively on four continents meeting with men and women in business, with government leaders, public relations consultants, NGOs, academics and now scientists.

IPRA is a professional society consisting of about 1,100 senior communications professionals in nearly 100 countries.  Richard Linning, who is on this program, will be IPRA president in 2011, and my colleague and friend Ceyde Aydede from Istanbul was IPRA president in 2003.

During my travels, I found people all over the world approaching the future with a mix of optimism and some genuine apprehension.  I, for one, have been consistent in believing that the challenges we face – some of which are quite significant – are neither unprecedented nor insurmountable because of our “interconnectedness,” our “interdependence.”

Even people who disagree about the value of globalization seem to agree that a dominant characteristic of our world today is its interconnectedness.

This notion was reinforced for me because no matter where I traveled over the past three years, the U.S. Presidential election was top-of-mind and in the news. I can recall a dinner out with friends in Cairo in 2006, where people already were asking me about this fellow, “Obama” … (and finding it difficult to pronounce his name, because nobody had heard of him before).

Well, the rest of the story about Mr. Obama’s election is now history!

One news story told of 200 people cheering the Obama inauguration in an Istanbul nightclub on January 20th, but many Turkish people expressed a “wait and see” approach to the new American president.

12 – Hurryet Daily News.com, “Obama’s grand entrance is celebrated in Istanbul,” by Kristen Stevens, Jan. 22, 2009

A poll showed the percentage of Turkish people who believe President Obama will strengthen U.S. relations globally rose to 51 percent, up from 11 percent six months ago. But on issues ranging from Armenia and Cyprus to Gaza, many Turkish citizens remain skeptical that Mr. Obama’s leadership will benefit Turkey.

What we also witnessed with the inauguration is a new administration apparently committed to science as a cure for our nation’s economic and environmental problems, and a key ingredient to boost American’s reputation.

In his inauguration speech, the President said (and I quote): “…we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.”

We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality…and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” (Unquote)

By promoting science, the new president is causing excitement among researchers to share their work, communicate their enthusiasm for subjects they love, and to speak in a language that is understood by their audiences, especially policymakers and the public.

However, successful science communication requires some grasp of technique; audiences expect and deserve communication competence. It is not disrespectful to suggest that scientists can become so enthralled in their work that many forget their obligation to explain science to the broader society.

My remarks today are intended to present a protocol for science communication that serves to engage the public and improve understanding of science and technology and its role in society.

In my view, the end game of public engagement should be empowerment: creating a real and meaningful mechanism for public input to be heard far enough upstream in science and technology policy making and program development to influence decisions. It is not about making a decision among scientific elite, and then staging public events to move the public toward agreeing with that desired outcome.

Today, science communication is about empowering lay citizens to learn all they want about pending program or policy issues (not what scientists believe they need to know).

Then the public must be granted access to deliberative processes where that knowledge can be questioned, applied and incorporated with knowledge or questions obtained from outside the scientific process.

After all, public engagement is not about getting the policy you want; it’s about getting the public input you need to craft sustainable policy that enjoys public confidence. The question is, does the scientific community have the skills, motivation and moral will to communicate science in this manner?

Too few scientists are expert at providing details of their work in a language and style that non-scientists can understand.

Many – now finding themselves suddenly in the field of science communication – are learning new skills for the job.

The public has a right to know about science. This is not simply because they pay for much of it, but because science is of central importance in the modern world. It impacts people’s lives. There is popular enthusiasm for knowing the facts and theories, and curiosity about how those facts and theories are derived.

We live in a time when the scientific establishment – and people in government and the private sector that fund research – are advocating for improvements in the relationship between science and the public. This call for improvements is variously described as approval, appreciation or understanding of science by the public.

How, then, should the science and technology communities go about communicating publicly about their work?

I want to explore answers to that question in the time I have with you this morning.

Now, you might say that the business of science communication, by necessity, is becoming highly professionalized.

Scientific associations are developing centers devoted to public engagement in science, funding agencies have created mandates for collecting public input on nanotechnology and genetic research, and research institutions are hosting community meetings and science fairs to discuss their work with the public.

Perhaps that’s why a man known best in the United States for his medical journalism on CNN, Sanjay Gupta, was rumored to become surgeon general in President Obama’s administration. He is a neurosurgeon and still is doing occasional medical procedures in Atlanta at Emory University School of Medicine.

I should note that President Obama also nominated a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, to be energy secretary and a marine biologist to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A physicist at Harvard, who is an expert in the fields of energy, the environment and nuclear proliferation, was appointed as the new presidential science adviser.

Now that Mr. Obama has his science and environmental team in place, there’s great optimism for important new policy directions. Yet it will take smart and effective communication to meaningfully engage Americans, especially in the context of an overwhelming public focus on the economy.

In a poll just four weeks before the inauguration, 55 percent of Americans polled named the economy as the most important problem facing the new President, and less than 2 percent named science-related issues – gas prices/energy or greenhouse gases and global warming.

On stem cell research, the outlook is even tougher. Only a bare majority (52 percent) agreed that Obama should expand funding for embryonic stem cell research, with more than a third saying that the Administration should wait on the action rather than make the expansion immediate.

These results should not be interpreted as a public that “doesn’t value science” or respect scientists. Rather, it’s most likely a matter of the economy as a priority issue.

The science-communication solution probably rests on re-framing energy and environmental issues in terms of economic growth, technological innovation, and job creation.

Sometimes science meets the public in times of crisis. When scientists cannot agree on a solution to a scientific problem, it is no surprise that the public uses solutions based on moral or emotional considerations in order to get on with their lives.

This is exactly the response I witnessed when I worked for Dow Corning Corporation during the 1990s, where for several years I defended the science and safety behind silicone breast implants, which had been used by some two million women for over 30 years.

There was a deliberate attempt by trial lawyers to profit by fueling fears in women about an unproven link between silicone implants and systemic neurological or connective-tissue diseases.  Many of the original manufacturers, who lost billions of dollars in lawsuits, were driven out of business.

Then in 2006, the U.S. food and Drug Administration reversed its 14-year old ban on implants made of silicone and approved the device for marketing because exhaustive medical science could not find any link between the device and illness.

The press had been no help in getting to the truth. The media’s usual theme was “profit;” since companies made implants for profit; any manufacturers’ arguments about safety or science were discounted. There was seldom any mention about the lawyers’ financial gains.

And Dow Corning, the leading implant manufacturer, declared bankruptcy in 1995. The FDA re-approval of silicone implants vindicated the science, but where do shareholders or former employees go to apply for their money and jobs?

These highly charged environments push people to extreme measures, and to polarized points of view, and often result in a breakdown of both trust and communication between politicians, scientists and the publics they serve.

Social circumstances also shape the changing relationship between the scientists and the public.

Consider the impact of religious thought on science. Recently I read a fascinating interview with a Turkish-American physicist Taner Edis.

It is fair to say that Western science has been successful at what it does. Yet some Islamic thought leaders would say the price of scientific success in the West has been too high.

In other words, once science is divorced from religion, some argue that it is only a matter of time before secular values triumph, atheism becomes viable, and the world ends up with rampant materialism.

This is a dilemma for people in the Muslim world who must communicate about science in a religious society. There is a desire to advance in areas of technology that support the military and commercial strengths of the Western world, but there is also the desire to adopt modern science in a way that respects local religious culture.

So you can find Muslim thinkers who say that Western Christians made a mistake by allowing science to operate independently of religious constraints, even if that is how modern science has achieved success. I don’t have to tell you, here in Turkey, it’s difficult to negotiate between these options.

My point is simply that the times we live in – these changing times – can cause confusion about the role of science in our societies, and in particular, about the responsibilities that scientists have in communication of science to the public.

Clearly, something needs to be done to change the landscape.

In 2004 a survey about new genetic technologies among 4,000 U.S. residents, more than 40 percent said they did not trust scientists “to put society’s interest above their personal goals.”

The root of this uneasy relationship may be in the reliance that the science and technology community places in various “deficit models” of interaction with the public. As you know, the basic assumption behind these models is the linear progression from public education … to public understanding … to public support…and that this progression – if followed – inevitably cultivates a public wildly enthusiastic about research and technology.

But this model of scientific engagement with the public isn’t working well enough.

The erosion of public trust about radiation safety and pesticides began as a trickle of doubt and has grown to uprisings against emerging new technologies, from genetically altered “Frankenfoods” to concern over “grey goo” in nanotechnology.”

So how does science positively “engage” the public?

Most of my career has been spent working in companies and in industries driven by science and technology.  My job has been helping people like you communicate the complexities and results of your work to a variety of audiences.

The most successful companies carefully balanced the higher risks of complicated research by creating revenue streams – that are easier to manage and explain.

For every dollar we put into R&D, we put a dollar into acquiring and merging with organizations that gave us products already on the market or products that we could grow and develop in new markets. This aggressive approach and careful balance kept the company profitable.

Given my background in corporate communications, I can’t help but compare science communication with attempts that have been made to improve the relationship between corporations and the public – the shareholders.

For example today, in the mortgage banking and financial markets,

  • “risk has been systematically mis-priced …
  • credit has been systematically mis-sold …
  • incentive schemes were geared to promote personal greed …
  • business models of permanently rising property values failed …
  • bundles of bad debt were packaged up and sold on as time-bombs …
  • and literally everything involved in this global meltdown was made more complex, more opaque, more impenetrable, less subject to scrutiny and audit of any kind.”

Mis-communication and messages like these boldly illustrate why scientists cannot resist ceding any measurable control of the science policy agenda to non-scientists.

For the last half of the 20th century, the science community was communicating a one-way flow of information from experts to the public. Survey results demonstrate that neither public support for research nor scientific literacy increased significantly in all that time.

Writing in journal Science, Alan Leshner, CEO for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, summarized the problem eloquently:

“Simply trying to educate the public about specific science-based issues is not working…We need to move beyond what too often has been seen as a paternalistic stance. We need to engage the public in a more open and honest bi-directional dialogue about science and technology.”

Research organizations have been quite adept at putting together well-rehearsed, tightly scripted opportunities for “public input”—but without institutionalized mechanisms for reflecting the public’s input in deliberation or policy construction.

In fact, one gets the not-so-subtle impression that these engagement events are being held with the hope of staving off public dissatisfaction, or providing just enough semblance of listening to public concerns that the natives don’t get so restless they revolt.

Let me briefly identify eight key challenges that science communicators face in order to truly engage their audiences.

First, as I have already suggested, is establishing a basis for public trust.

Trust is essential for any kind of social relationship, and is particularly important to science communications.  The way to build trust is to communicate more, not less.

If the stories and theories in this speech hold any lesson above all others, it is that the key to the relationship between science and the public is trust.

Trust is established through negotiation of mutual understanding, rather than through statements of authority or of facts. Trust is hard won and easily lost.

Responsibility for building trust of the scientific community rests both with the institutions of science – like this one – and with each individual scientist and employee.

As Jack Welch, the retired chairman of General Electric, said recently: “Trust is the very foundation of effective leadership; it’s the grease of change. Leaders need to be building trust every single day. In every communication, they must … avoid complexity… just the plain, old truth, delivered the same way to every audience.”

Second, be clear about your motives.

Scientists communicating science to the public should make their motivations clear. If they don’t, the public should ask what their motivations are. I would like to believe the media have responsibilities here too.

At a minimum, independent science journalists must not allow themselves to be used to promote one or another position in a dispute over facts, implications or the value of a piece of science.

People have their own reasons for paying attention to science. Collectively, and as individuals, the public therefore have a responsibility to be explicit about their own motives for understanding science.

Third, scientists need to become comfortable talking to the media.

I know that your frustration is that the media demonstrate too little responsibility for improving the public understanding of science, and, in some cases, are actually ill-suited to the task.

Nevertheless, scientists and journalists may get along much better than we previously thought. Contrary to the perceived rift between scientists and the media, the recent study reported in the journal Science found that scientists are generally pleased with their interactions with the media.

In a poll of more of more than 1,300 biology researchers in Japan, France, Germany, the UK and U.S. about their dealings with the media, 57 percent of scientists surveyed were “mostly pleased” …

… and only 6 percent were “mostly dissatisfied” with their experiences with journalists. The survey found relatively few differences between the different countries studied.

If scientists are now more willing to talk one could argue that is because deans, research division heads, and other bosses have been telling them for some time that it’s good for getting grants and for business. That is, they need journalists more. They may not like journalists more.

The funds required to do science are great so there is a push for scientists to go beyond their normal dissemination environments, and that includes looking to media.

Although generally satisfied with their media experiences, a lack of control over content does remain a primary concern for scientists. A poll showed that nine in 10 scientists fear being misquoted, and eight in 10 cite the “unpredictability of journalists” as an important disincentive for working with the media.

To counter that uncertainty, scientists should anticipate what will be asked; develop their answers; this creates the basis for trust in the process of accurate and practiced communication between scientists, the media and the public.

Be prepared; consider answers to these basic questions before talking to any media:

  • How do you know? Are you just telling us something you believe? Or is it based on scientific research?
  • How and where did you get your data?
  • How accurate are your numbers?
  • How reproducible are your results? Have they been consistent from study to study?
  • What is your degree of certainty or uncertainty by accepted tests?
  • How can you be sure about your conclusions? Are there any possible flaws or problems in them?
  • Who disagrees with you? And why?

And today, new media, and new mediators, have complicated the picture, which leads to my fourth point about engaging the public on science.

Scientists need to master the new social media.

The new social media are powerful. Consumers feel more communal ownership of social media than they do of other distribution channels, and the public in large numbers chooses these new information sources, and tends to drop their guard when accessing them.

Social media – Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter – provide forums in which the relationship between science and the public is constructed, and the public makes moral judgments.  This is especially true among so-called “digital natives” – that much-targeted group of 20 somethings who have grown up online.

To put it simply, if we want relationships with young consumers, we need to connect with them using media and technologies to which they are accustomed.

And this is where professional public relations comes in. In all the clutter and fragmentation online, communications professionals can lead scientists into the conversations around science among consumers, mainstream media, employees, analysts, investors and bloggers.

There is no doubt about communications becoming more customized. Using digital media to reach the right person at the right time will grow ever easier – and be more expected.

And “ultimately everything will be mobile. Ultra-mobile laptops, advanced cell phones and everything in between offer opportunity for a persistent presence. In that sense, companies will become syndication organizations, channeling content into different media.”

Fifth, we need to connect with young people – who are today’s highly influential, digital savvy, major demographic group.

When it comes to science communications, young people – 17 to 25 years old – can be a difficult audience, and are sometimes overlooked. They tend to show little interest in reading, and science may well have been an unpopular subject in school.

There is no special language for communicating science to young readers. But there is a way of appealing to many of their special interests and aptitudes (which adults sometimes share) while also conveying what makes science so important to our lives — dynamic, interesting, challenging and, yes, difficult.

Nearly one in five people living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is between the ages of 15 and 24.   The number of youth in the region is unprecedented: nearly 100 million. So it is vital that this group of young decision-makers be as well informed about science as older generations.

This generation learns online. What that means is we need to speak the language of the times.  That language is short. That content is visual.  That Internet user is increasingly mobile.

Science is interesting if you succeed in showing what it’s about and how it’s done. But be aware that explanation, even if admirably clear, can be very boring. So the story has to show why it might be interesting to read, and then keep that promise.

Ultimately, you should try to communicate the pleasure of knowledge, while encouraging a questioning, and skeptical attitude.

Sixth, following closely on the need for us to master social media, is the need to surrender control.

This is one of the greatest challenges facing both scientists and corporate management for successful communication.    There are inherent risks and opportunities in the more complex and uncontrolled environment of social media.

Recently I heard Sir Martin Sorrell speak to this subject in a speech to public relations professionals in New York. Sir Martin is chairman of WPP Group, one of the largest communications and advertising conglomerates in the world.

He said – and I agree – that a willingness to surrender control is essential, because in digital and social media, there is an inverse relationship between credibility and control. The more control you keep over the message, the less credible it is. And vice versa.

This isn’t easy. This type of change in control requires humility. Some scientists and the institutions they work for instinctively understand this. Others still don’t.

Seventh, we need to promote diversity in science.

I am speaking about diversity of thought, gender, race, geography, experience, age, education.  For example, promote the growing number of women in science and technology.

Fifty years ago women earned only eight percent of the science and engineering doctorates in the United States, and by 2006 they claimed a 40 percent share.

In 1973, only 6 percent of the Ph.D. scientists employed full time in academia, business or elsewhere were women; by 2006 the number had risen to 27 percent. Over that same time frame, women’s share of full professorships in the sciences quadrupled, to about 20 percent.

That’s exciting news! Yet the stats vary sharply from field to field: 26 percent of full professors in the life sciences are women, but in physics, 6 percent.

Finally, professional ethics are most important.

All of the trends that I have spoken of so far demand that we be credible and abide by professional ethics.

The demand for strong ethics in science and in business has never been greater. Despite a continuing tendency for money rather than values to rule decision making, we all must work to a higher standard.

Consider this case reported out of Pa-tan-che-ru, India, last month.

When scientists and researchers analyzed vials of treated wastewater taken from a plant where about 90 Indian drug factories dump their residues, they were shocked. Enough of a single, powerful antibiotic was being spewed into one stream each day to treat every person in a city of 90,000.

And it wasn’t just ciprofloxacin being detected. The supposedly cleaned water was a floating medicine cabinet – a soup of 21 different active pharmaceutical ingredients.

Pharmaceutical contamination is an emerging concern worldwide. Last year, the Associated Press reported that trace concentrations of pharmaceuticals had been found in drinking water provided to at least 46 million Americans.

But the wastewater downstream from the Indian plants contained 150 times the highest levels detected in the United States.

This is absolutely the last thing you would ever want to learn when you’re talking about the rise of antibiotic bacterial resistance in the world. Who indeed has responsibility for a polluted environment when the Third World produces drugs for our well being?

We simply must work to a higher standard.

Public engagement is about agreeing up front to accommodate public input personally.  Public engagement changes people.  The public gains knowledge, shares expertise, and reflects on how much risk society is willing to accept to realize the promise of new science and emerging technologies.

Perhaps even more significant is the expectation that scientists who enter into public engagement should see their own knowledge and attitudes change, too.

This is the real mark of successful public engagement: Rather than insisting upon the public’s deeper appreciation and understanding of science, the goal of successful public engagement must also include the scientists’ deeper understanding of the publics’ preferences and values.

Together, we all achieve more.

I look forward to a healthy and continuing debate on this topic, and I would be happy to field a few questions in the time we have left.

Thank you very much.

[A footnoted copy of this original text is available upon request from Grupp Global Partners LLC. Please contact info@gruppglobal.com]


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