Science Communication: Making Research Valuable To Everyone

November 10, 1998

Science and technology research has been an important component of public investment over the past 50 years. During the Cold War, the return on this investment was the United States actual and/or perceived technical superiority over adversarial nations. Nearly a decade into the post Cold War era, a panel of national experts has now begun to chart a future road map for the effective communication of new scientific knowledge.

The Research/Road Map for the Communication of Science and Technology in the 21st Century working group completed its second meeting November 6-7, and discussed preliminary research results at the Marine Biological Laboratory and at the National Academy of Science's Erik Jonsson Study Center in Woods Hole, MA.

"It's an open question as to what science communications will look like in the 21st century, especially with the growth of new technologies like the Internet," said Rick Borchelt, of Oak Ridge National Laboratory who chairs the panel. "Our charge is to perform research that will create a road map for how science communication can best be performed in the coming years, how that communication will add value to the scientific research itself, and how scientists can best provide a return on investment to the taxpayers who fund the research."

The "R2" group, as they call themselves, completed a two-day program that included presentations from science communications experts from across the country. In the initial session, Dr. Michael Weigold of the University of Florida presented the results of a comprehensive literature review of science communications research dating back over 30 years.

"This was an interesting effort, and I think that science communications - studying how and why people use and obtain scientific information - is a very fertile research area," commented Weigold. "But there are many untested assumptions on which much of this research is based that need to be examined in detail."

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Why is NASA interested in Science Communication?

A primary mission of the Agency, stated in the NASA strategic plan is

" advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of the Earth, the solar system, and the Universe, and to use the environment of space for research." (emphasis added)

This involves all of NASA's scientific research, and places the communication of newly acquired knowledge and understanding on an equal footing with the generation of that knowledge and understanding.

Without communicating these advances, this part of NASA's mission remains incomplete. Effective communication between scientists and non-scientists is not unlike the different languages on the Rosetta Stone (shown above) that unlocked the records of ancient Egypt.

Without an effective translation between the language of science and the languages of others, communication is incomplete. Hence scientists need to better understand how to communicate the contents and importance of their research to the National Interest.

The concept of science communications is not new within NASA. In fact, in the Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, which created NASA, NASA is chartered to

"provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof."

Some of these assumptions include the rationale for science communications itself. According to Weigold's research there are at least three models, each of which remain essentially untested. First, there is the so-called "Deficiency Model," which asserts that science as a general enterprise requires an informed public, because the more people know about science, the more they'll support it. However it is also possible that a more informed consumer is a more choosy or critical one. Second, there is the "Rational Choice Model," which argues that science communications is important so that the public can make key political decisions based on science. A counter argument to this model is that scientists themselves often don't agree on which course of action to take based on a set of scientific data. The third model for the rationale for science communications argues that a more "bottoms-up" approach is required, because individuals need and use science information in many different ways for personal decisions, education, information, and sometimes even entertainment.

"Whichever combination of these models for science communications is correct, if any," remarked Dr. John Horack of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, the organization sponsoring the research effort, "we have to try to communicate scientific knowledge in a way that makes the research we do more valuable. It must lead to a quicker transition from research knowledge to positive outcomes in the economy, quality of life, education, and so forth. If all we try to do is garner public support, `do outreach,' or build a positive image of science by `putting a nice coat of paint on the house,' I think we're really headed down the wrong track. Science communications must lead to better science and positive outcomes for society."

The second meeting also featured a lunchtime presentation by Dr. Rick Chappell of Vanderbilt University, co-author of the recent study "Worlds Apart: How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America's Future," published by the Freedom Forum. In his talk, Chappell articulated some of the findings of the recent study, and offered his suggestions for how to improve the communications skills of scientists, and the science literacy of journalists.

Another key session involved Nan Broadbent of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), who discussed the use of the Internet in science communications, and particularly the Eurekalert! service provided by the AAAS. The Eurekalert! site generates over 1,000,000 hits per month, and contains much of the latest scientific news and information from across the country. Intended primarily for science journalists, Broadbent noted that while this intended audience is indeed being well-served, the usage of the site by so-called "science attentives" within the general public outstrips the media usage by more that 5-1.

Other presentations were made by Bradie Metheney of the Washington Fax, and Roger Johnson of Newswise. A panel discussion on the role of the public information officer in a science-generating organization was also held, featuring Pam Hinckle of the Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory, Carol Morton, formerly of Brown University, Elizabeth Thomson of MIT, and Dan Gibbons of the Harvard University Medical School.

Over the next two years, the R2 group will hold several meetings around the country to explore various issues of science communications. In addition, they will sponsor several white-papers on issues of interest, case-studies, and selected research topics.

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center--Space Sciences Laboratory

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