Holdren: Scientists Should Spend 10% of Their Time Talking to the Public
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Just how important is public communication? Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren believes that scientists should devote 10% of their time to talking to the public about matters of science and policy, especially in the area of energy and climate. That's what he urged in the conclusion to his 2007 AAAS Presidential address and again last year at the energy summit sponsored by the National Academies. From the report to that summit:
"I suggested in my AAAS presidential address last year that everybody in the science and technology community who cares about the future of the world should be tithing 10 percent of his or her time to interacting with the public in the policy process on these issues...if all us just got out to the public more and talked to policymakers more, we would get more of this done."
Of course, it's more than just talking to the public, it's actively framing information in a way that remains accurate and true to the science, but that connects a complicated subject such as climate change to something the public already understands or values. It also means providing the incentives for scientists to devote their time in this way, which usually means creating financial rewards, such as additional NSF funding for public engagement initiatives.
I will have more on this subject, applied to climate change, in a forthcoming article at the journal Environment. For additional thoughts, see this recent column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
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