US: Communication between scientists and the public

A US initiative has tried to find ways to improve communication between scientists and the public, especially about issues that worry people deeply.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences project considered how scientists engage with the public, and how their mutual understanding could be improved.

It brought together more than 50 scientists, engineers, public policy experts, lawyers, ethicists and journalists for workshops on four areas of public concern.

They were the siting of nuclear waste repositories; the spread of personal genetic information; the next generation of the internet; and the risks and benefits of emerging energy technologies.

The workshops organisers concluded that both scientists and the public share a responsibility for the divide.

They say scientists and technical experts sometimes assume that others will agree their work serves the public good.

And the public can react viscerally and along ideological lines to science issues - but they can also raise important issues that deserve consideration.

The researchers say scientific issues require an 'anticipatory approach'. They suggest gathering a diverse group of stakeholders - research scientists, social scientists, public engagement experts, and skilled communicators - to collaborate early to identify potential scientific controversies and the best way to address likely public concerns.

They say the communication solutions differ significantly depending on whether a scientific issue has been around for a long time or is relatively new.

In the case of longstanding controversies, social scientists may have researched public views and that information can inform communication strategies.

For emerging technologies, there will be less reliable analysis available of public attitudes.

Science journalist Chris Mooney has reviewed the workshops' findings in a paper, Do Scientists Understand the Public?

Mooney said scientists and the public often have "very different perceptions of risk, and very different ways of bestowing their trust and judging the credibility of information sources".

"Perhaps scientists are misunderstanding the public... due to their own quirks, assumptions, and patterns of behaviour," Mooney said.

Lay people, meanwhile, tend to "strain their responses to scientific controversies through their ethical or value systems, as well as through their political or ideological outlooks".

We worked on a public perception project on re-use of treated sewage effluent. We discovered that there was a significant shift in perception if the correct information was delivered in a language that the public can understand.

Prof. Dr. Yang Farina,
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia