Questions Posed at the Cal Tech Framing Science Seminar

I'm back in DC after a week long tour of southern California. On Monday night, an audience of close to 100 scientists, students, and staff turned out at Cal Tech for our latest Framing Science lecture. We followed on Tuesday with a day long science communication seminar (syllabus) that included 30 PhD students, post-docs, and Cal Tech staff. (Read one blogger's summary.)

I ended my morning session by posing the following issues and questions to the participants, with these issues arising from what I see as major changes in the political and media system that are generating new demands for scientists and their institutions as public communicators.

As I've noted at this blog many times and outlined in a talk last week at the BIO 2008 meetings, what are needed are novel forms of public dialogue complemented by media strategies that are informed by careful audience research.

Yet these initiatives raise several important questions. Namely:

What are the implications for the traditional role of the scientist?

Under what conditions do scientists turn into advocates and public persuaders? Is the traditional popularization process really that neutral, or does it actually mask other interests such as the need to publicize research, win grants, gain prestige, and influence peers?

Is framing just spin?

I have argued in many places "no" but the misperception remains.

Where does science end and worldview begin?

Many of the seminar participants agreed that an improved partnership between science and religion was needed and that the New Atheist movement, by confusing the differences between science and atheism, was likely to be harmful to public engagement.

Is this advocacy?

The goals and strategies involved in science communication will vary by issue and context. For example, with climate change, the communication goal should be to create the public opinion environment where meaningful policy action can take place. (For more, see this column.)

On other issues, such as nanotechnology, the communication goals are less obvious. In fact, one of the problems with much of the work in the area of nanotech engagement is that the goals, outcomes, and motivations of many of the participants have yet to be clearly defined or acknowledged.

Is public dialogue just PR by another name?

This relates again to an issue such as nanotechnology where institutions claim to be conducting "upstream engagement." In other words, the ideal is that they are consulting the public as an area of science is in development with the intention that public feedback will guide the trajectory of nanotech.

But will scientists and their institutions really listen to the public? Science has always enjoyed relative freedom and autonomy from society, despite strong levels of government patronage.

What happens if a well informed group of citizens comes together in a town meeting or consensus conference and issues recommendations that run counter to the interests of scientists? In other words, what if they recommend that nanotech be tightly regulated or even that there be legal moratoriums on certain areas of research given concerns over risks, ethics, or economic impacts?

When engaging and consulting with an informed public, are scientists and industry ready to receive feedback and answers that they might not like?

And if public feedback is rejected or re-interpreted, is this just PR by another name, risking public trust in the governance of science?

Fairness is a universal value. So why all this inequity?

Are we trying to solve too many problem with technological solutions?

  • Technology has given humanity the amazing ability to fix almost any problem, conditioning us to search for technological remedies to what might be social problems.
  • Alleviating social inequity is a problem that technology must necessarily attempt to solve, but technology alone cannot shape how humans assemble their societies.
  • Only by emphasizing the primary place of individual identity, human dignity, and universal values like empathy and emotion, can we hope to solve global issues that, so far, technology has been unable to conquer.

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