The National Academy of Sciences Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication

July 6th, 2012

As part of their Sackler Colloquia Series, the National Academy of Sciences organized a two-day event on the “Science of Science Communication.” The Colloquium focused on surveying what state-of-the-art empirical social science research tells us about the communication dynamics shaping public engagement and understanding of science issues. Insights, perspectives, resources, and information shared during the presentations may be useful to informal STEM practitioners and researchers.

The topic of science communication clearly resonated with the audience of scientists, researchers, and communicators. Overwhelming interest required event organizers to change venues to accommodate 450 attendees and offer a live webcast that involved 3,500 unique views over the course of the two-day meeting. Over 500 tweets were sent over the course of the colloquium, and the conversation continued on Twitter in the days after the initial event as new viewers accessed the archived webcast. Reflecting the deep interest in this topic, the National Academy of Sciences has indicated that they intend to hold a follow-up event next year.

The colloquium drew heavily on science communication research coming from media studies, mass communication, decision science, and risk communication fields, including Matt Nisbet, associate professor of science communication at American University, who gave a provocative keynote presentation at the July 2011 CAISE Media Convening. Presentations from Martin Storksdieck, National Research Council (Communication as an Empirical Endeavor: Why is Systematic Evaluation So Rare and How Can We Make It the Norm?) and David Klahr, Carnegie Mellon University (What Do We Mean?: On the Importance of Not Abandoning Scientific Rigor When Talking About Science Education), directly addressed learning as a goal of science communication, but otherwise, informal science learning as a topic and its place in science communication was less of a focus.

David Pogue, New York Times technology correspondent, and host of NOVA Now, screened clips from the NSF-funded Making Stuff series on NOVA to make the point that engaging translation of dry science content is essential. His presentation corresponded with research from the informal STEM education field, which has uncovered a wide variety of ways to engage youth in the exploration of science in a variety of settings and documented the effectiveness/impacts of these strategies.

Colloquium keynote speaker Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and author of Think, Fast and Slow, brought a fine point to the discussion of the fundamental role that beliefs, values, and emotions play in activating the network of associations that guide human communication and thinking, in science and elsewhere. Similarly, Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University provocatively explored the need for protecting “the science communication climate” by understanding how to reduce ideology and mitigate the “networks of political associations” that get in the way of learning science.

A frequent refrain from academic participants was the essential need for more and systematic funding of science communication research to guide our understanding of science communication in a complex and changing media landscape—a message targeted to the Washington, D.C. policy and federal agency stakeholders who were well represented in the audience.

The presentations and literature cited (links below) may be useful to those who are developing projects for, and proposals to, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program at NSF, particularly if your project involves communicating and engaging the public in value-laden (or controversial/challenging) topic areas such as climate change, vaccines, synthetic biology, autonomous robots, nuclear energy, and geoengineering. Incorporating best practices for communicating science and engaging the public may be of particular use to informal STEM learning projects that reach large and diverse audiences, such as film, radio, and digital media, as well as museum exhibits. Also of interest are opportunities to explore potential partnerships and models for research and evaluation that define project outcomes and understandings of impacts in new ways.

The organizers are planning a special collection of papers based on the colloquium to be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Links and literature:

Relevant articles: