I was deeply heartened that my post on the IPCC communication failure from a while back prompted valuable commentary on this blog. One comment in particular was so useful and constructive that I’m reproducing it in its entirety here as a way of prompting further discussion.
I had written that when it comes to communicating the urgency of addressing climate change, “We all have a great deal more to do…and the clock is ticking.” This prompted a lengthy comment from “hmd,” who enumerated, in detail, the various snags and roadblocks that prevent the scientific community (broadly conceived) from turning itself into a more effective communication machine. I am reproducing hmd’s entire comment with my own thoughts interpolated below:
Not sure what can be done. It seems like every stakeholder here is tied up in institutional knots.
Scientists – Well, their primary task is to do the science, not report on it. They might be encouraged to be more open and helpful to science journalism, but in the publish or perish world, that takes time away from their career-advancing research.
Ah, but what if for some small number of scientists, there was actually the possibility of career advancement in the field of science communication? Most scientists could continue to go about their normal publish-or-perish routine, but for those wanting to get into communication, don’t we merely need to set up an incentive structure for them to do so?
Science Departments – They could encourage more outreach, maybe even hire some people who combine teaching duties with public outreach. Of course, that would require budget for hiring teachers who are paid more than adjuncts and don’t bring in grant money. Trying to count public service stuff toward duties and tenure has the same problem – it takes time and doesn’t bring in grant money.
Don’t grants often have a public outreach component already? And couldn’t universities raise money from donors specifically for the puposes of enhancing the communication of their research findings? If universities made this a priority, they could then send some of that money to the departments for precisely this purpose (that is, if they don’t decide to centralize the communication function)?
Universities and Labs – Encourage their public relations people to be more science literate? Not sure how you encourage more public engagement without encouraging the kind of self-serving press releases that accompanied the cold fusion fiasco some years ago. Again, they’d probably need more budget to hire people who can serve as resources for the science journalists. And change institutional culture to encourage sciene departments to cooperate with this. But money will remain a problem.
Yes, money will indeed remain a problem…everyone wants money for everything. But if we can wake up the scientific community up enough so that it realizes the important of greater investment in effective, strategic communication, then money will follow.
Professional Associations – Like AAAS, American Chemical Society, etc. Maybe they could publish their own journals aimed at a scientifically literate layman audience? Science has some stuff like that, but a good half of it is still awfully dense for anyone not well-versed in the relevant fields. American Physical Society has AJP, but that is aimed more at science teachers than journalists. Then again, you still need to get someone to write those articles, and for a journal that doesn’t have the prestige of Science, it won’t be particularly attractive to scientists. Unless the societies can hire their own science writers to do it. Where’s the money for that? Maybe they can sell enough subscriptions to university libraries?
For the professional associations I have particularly high hopes. But I don’t think they should publish journals aimed at lay audiences–rather, I think they should use part of their member dues to establish centralized communication initiatives which a) invest in the best available communication research, and then b) go on to apply it in order to spread knowledge about science much more effectively than has been done so far.
Science journalists – A lot of attention has been paid to this. I think some work can be done here to identify some of the standard tropes of journalism – crafting a narrative, framing, connecting to the reader’s personal concerns, whatever – and how they can be utilized to increase the accuracy and relevancy of the information received by readers. Can we construct some standard ways to frame science stories that focus on the actual science rather than politics and personalities? And still hold the interest of the casual reader?
Wait a sec….Matt Nisbet has shown (PDF) that traditional science journalism really only reaches a relatively small population of science enthusiasts. It’s the mass media where the real problem lies.
Media Institutions – Generally these are for-profit corporations, that need to sell ad space and eyeballs to live. Does this create an inherent conflict with good, accurate science reporting? Do the media even care? How do we get them to care? Can we create some alternative way of reaching people beyond the science articles on page A12?
This is a real trick. The mass media–especially television media–care about ratings. Which means they would rather cover Britney’s bald head and astronaut love triangles than climate change. An argument could be made for the scientific community directly addressing the mass media and call for more responsibility on their part, so that stories like the IPCC report release don’t get swallowed up by infotainment coverage.
News Consumers – Generally already awash in an information glut. How do science stories rise above the noise? How can consumers distinguish between sense and nonsense when they lack expertise? Is there a way to present key information that can get past people’s filters and pre-existing biases? And who exactly do we need to reach, anyway? How do we provide enough information to protect the general public against FUD and disinformation?
It is because they are already awash in an information glut that we have to target them with the right messages, using the right platforms, in order to successfully communicate. We have to break the problem down by publics and by platforms, essentially. Then we have to find the right message–and messenger–for each different public. The whole project will require a heckuva lot of research….followed by effective implementation. And these are our current challenges.