Reflections on American Academy's Report: Do Scientists Understand the Public?

Held in over 30 countries, the World Wide Views on Global Warming initiative represents the state-of-the-art in new approaches to public engagement, the subject of several recent reports and meetings. This video features a short documentary on the Australian event.

Over the weekend, my friend Chris Mooney contributed an excellent op-ed to the Washington Post pegged to an American Academy of Arts and Sciences event yesterday. The op-ed previewed a longer essay by Chris released at the event in which he described some of the major themes expressed in the transcripts of three meetings convened by the Academy over the past year. The Academy meetings prompted attending scientists, policy experts, ethicists, journalists, social scientists, and lawyers to discuss key issues in science communication and public engagement.

Summarized in an Academy news release, the meetings emphasized the following conclusions:

Scientists and the public both share a responsibility for the divide. Scientists and technical experts sometimes take for granted that their work will be viewed as ultimately serving the public good. Members of the public can react viscerally and along ideological lines, but they can also raise important issues that deserve consideration.

Scientific issues require an "anticipatory approach." A diverse group of stakeholders -- research scientists, social scientists, public engagement experts, and skilled communicators -- should collaborate early to identify potential scientific controversies and the best method to address resulting public concerns.

Communications solutions differ significantly depending on whether a scientific issue has been around for a long time (e.g., how to dispose of nuclear waste) or is relatively new (e.g., the spread of personal genetic information). In the case of longstanding controversies, social scientists may have had the opportunity to conduct research on public views that can inform communication strategies. For emerging technologies, there will be less reliable analysis available of public attitudes.

As I reviewed in an article last year with Dietram Scheufele, these conclusions reflect the dominant focus of research in the fields of science communication and science studies over the past 15 years and can be used to plan, guide, and evaluate a range of communication and public engagement initiatives. It is therefore deeply encouraging that these same conclusions emerged from the meetings convened by the American Academy and are given attention in the essay. It's a sign that research in the field has contributed to a cultural shift in how leaders in U.S. science view public engagement.

The focus on two-way dialogue and learning between experts, stakeholders, and the public is also one of the major recommendations of the recent National Academies' report on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change. As the report describes relative to risk communication (page 116):

What most risk researchers consider the ideal approach for communicating uncertainty and risk focuses on establishing an iterative dialogue between stakeholders and experts, where the experts can explain uncertainty and the ways it is likely to be misinterpreted; the stakeholders in turn can explain their decision-making criteria as well as their own local knowledge in the area of concern; and the various parties can work together to design a risk management strategy, answering each others' questions and concerns in an iterative fashion

My only major critique of Chris' valuable essay is how he frames the introduction and defines the importance of science communication. As I commented at Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog, the lede to the essay employs some of the very same exaggerated metaphors that often distract scientists and their organizations from successful public engagement efforts. Until we stop defining science-society relations in terms of "war," "anti-science," "street fights," "assaults," "cultural collisions," "exploding protests," " widening divides," and "dangerous gulfs," public engagement efforts will always be hindered. These metaphors and comparisons tend to reinforce polarized views, accent differences between groups, falsely dichotomize complex issues, and appeal to only the most ideologically committed individuals.

Here are a few more thoughts on the important American Academy report along with notes on other recent resources related to the topic of public engagement:

** Perhaps the most innovative and large scale public engagement initiative to date happened last year in the build up to the Copenhagen meetings. Coordinated by the Danish Technology Board, the World Wide Views on Global Warming project involved social scientists and co-sponsoring organizations in more than 30 countries and regions. At each site, the initiative recruited 100 nationally or regionally representative citizens to spend a weekend discussing, deliberating, and voting on key policy issues related to climate change. The results of the meetings were aggregated by country and released via the project's Web site and at the Copenhagen meetings. The report on the initiative is here. Above, you can also watch a short video documentary featuring the meeting held in Australia.

Notice in the video how participants describe the personal importance of being heard and the value they placed on having the opportunity to listen to multiple points of view. Another notable feature of the initiative is that there was no expert in the room. Participants were provided informational materials and videos before the meetings, had reference materials at their discussion tables, but the meeting was not organized around a "sage on the stage," i.e. an expert telling participants what they should know about climate change. Instead, careful planning was done in using a meeting facilitator and then trained discussion moderators at each table. The content of the meeting was the social interaction and discussion rather than a presentation or lecture.

As this example suggests, perhaps the best role for science organizations is to conceive of themselves not as communicators to the public but as conveners, facilitators, and sponsors who guide, enable, and support the public in discussion, deliberation, and decisions. Learning occurs among all participants, including experts.

** The strongest recent resource I can recommend on public engagement is The Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology, published in 2008. Of particular relevance to the American Academy report is the chapter by Alan Irwin, dean of research at Copenhagen Business School and a leading theorist in the area of science and society. Irwin argues that the deficit model approach to communication represents "first order" thinking about science-society relations, while the emphasis of the American Academy report can be characterized as "second order" thinking, proposing bottom up participation, two-way dialogue, the building of trust, and the ultimate goal of reaching consensus.

Yet what's still missing, argues Irwin, is "third order" thinking about science and society, an evolution in views and practice which involves deeper consideration about the governance of science-related issues and policy decisions. As I commented at Dot Earth, it's not clear to me that the science community realizes the full implications of public engagement and there's a useful analogy to U.S. public diplomacy. In Irwin's classification, we have yet to really approach third order thinking. Current innovative approaches designed to broker dialogue, for example, are often in practice just another version of the deficit model.

Empowering the public to participate in collective decisions over nanotechnology or biomedicine requires science organizations to accept that sometimes a well-informed and consulted public may prefer policies that cut against the direct interests of science. If these preferences are not given formal weight in decision-making, then any exercise in public engagement is merely a sophisticated effort at winning public consent to the preferred policies of scientists rather than inviting actual public participation in decision-making. (The only downside to the book is the cost. So look to request at your library.)

** This spring, the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology convened a meeting in Madrid to examine similar questions related to public engagement and the media. In conjunction with the meeting, Vladimir de Semir, director of the Science Communication Observatory at Pompeu Fabra University, authored a "meta-review" focused on science communication and media. The report in PDF form is a valuable resource and includes a detailed discussion of recent research and arguments in the field.

** Also of relevance, later this year, a special issue of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Environment will feature synthesis articles authored by participants in a meeting convened by the Cary Institute of Ecological Studies. The articles focus on overarching themes in science communication and informal learning and the specific roles of universities, non-profit organizations, and advocates. There is also an article proposing "four culture" synergies in climate change communication that bring together environmental scientists, social scientists, moral and religious philosophers, and creative artists, writers, and professionals. I will blog more about these articles when they are published.

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