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Scientists Could Brush Up on Communication Skills

Image: Deutsche Fotothek via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons License

Communicating complex scientific research to the public can be tricky. Alice Hill thinks scientists need to improve their communication skills so the public can better understand science.

In a recent paper, “How scientists view the public, the media and the political process,” Matthew Nisbet and John Besley present studies indicating that the lack of public education about scientific issues, combined with biased and sensational media coverage, provides the foundation for what scientists perceive as the “public’s limited scientific sophistication.”

I agree that there is a general lack of in-depth understanding about scientific issues among the general population, but who’s to blame? In reading through the results of the studies summarized in the article I could spot communication issues on multiple levels, the most interesting being the science-to-public communication gap.

Initially, I had to chuckle at the notion that scientists dislike the “emotional” public (Nisbet and Besley refer to this study). Really? Is the public “emotional” because they care? (Don’t we want people to care?) Because the results of scientific research are surprising? Because they want to ask questions? (Don’t we want the public to be involved?) Do scientists only want to speak to other robots? (Lovely, very human-like robots; no offense, please!)

It’s an unfair generalization, but according to my informal and uncontrolled study of life interactions, the scientific field can have the tendency to attract folks who like to hang out in labs and work on computers. With many exceptions, scientists are not typically gregarious, communicative, people-lovers, and I think this generalization becomes more applicable the higher the level of expertise acquired. I expect people choose career paths that suit the working environment that most closely suits their personality.

With that in mind, consider these findings from a survey of 1600 British scientists, in which 53 percent of scientists said “the main barrier to ‘greater understanding of science’ among the public was lack of education.” For scientists who reflected on their own faults, “20 percent argued for lack of communication skills by scientists and 11 percent pointed to scientists’ limited interest in public communication” as a barrier to the public’s understanding of science.”

Given these low percentages and my presumption over personality-career choice correlations, I’m prompted to consider self-awareness shortfalls on behalf of the scientists as a contributing factor to the barrier.

The article also cites a study that shows scientists realize that science needs to be simple and carefully worded in order to reach the public. Who can fault laypersons for not being experts in the same field that our renowned scientists have studied for years? My perception is that there is resistance from scientists to ‘dumb down’ their findings. Ironically, however, the process of making scientific issues accessible to non-scientific populations requires some concepts to be simplified, while others need to be addressed at a more complex scale than originally considered. As Guy Cook and his colleagues at the University of Reading in the UK note, personal values and ethical considerations not originally incorporated into research can become important aspects to address when engaging the non-scientific community.

Providing clear messages about complex topics to the general public will facilitate understanding of science, and I believe this is not an unreasonable request to ask of the scientific community. Simplification of issues, however, may not be as easy as it appears at face value. Nonetheless, the expert scientist is probably in the best place to cull her findings to basic themes and it should help her cause. By weeding through the information herself, she’ll be able to pull out the major take-home points that she knows to be relevant to public interest and policy-making. Allowing the public to do this for itself may yield much different results, if any.

I think the burden for bettering the public’s education on scientific issues lies not only in the hands of the public, but also in the hands of those who hold the information. Is it any wonder that it took a ‘celebrity’ like Al Gore, with stage skills, engaging presentation and convincing communication styles, to finally get people interested in this thing called climate change?

I believe it is the role of scientists (not politicians) to provide access to the clear and important messages that need to be disseminated in order for the public to give educated input on policy decisions. In that regard, scientific PhD programs would do well to require presentation 101 and community relations 102 to hone an undervalued but critical skill set that will round-out the suite of contributions scientists should provide to their community.

Alice is a graduate student in the Environmental Studies Program at CU Boulder, where she is studying issues surrounding the water-energy nexus. Previous work experience in the NGO, local government, education and private consulting sectors, in fields relating to engineering and river development and use, have primed her well to look at current and future water resource and hydropower issues, both domestically and abroad.

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