A Scientist of Science Communication: Q&A with John Besley

qa john besly scicomm

May 14th, 2016

John Besley is Associate Professor and Ellis N. Brandt Chair in Public Relations in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University. Dr. Besley studies how views about decision-makers and decision processes affect perceptions of science and technology (S&T) with potential health or environmental impacts. This focus includes consideration of both mediated exposure through newspapers, television programs and web content, as well as face-to-face public engagement exercises (e.g., public meetings). His work emphasizes the need to look at both citizens’ perceptions of decision-makers and decision-makers’ perceptions of the public. We recently interviewed Dr. Besly on the topic of science communication. 

[CAISE] Since the two National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine Sackler colloquia on “The Science of Science Communication,” there has been increasing interest in this area of study. How would you characterize science communication for those who are unfamiliar with it? What disciplines and areas of expertise are involved in the research about science communication?  Would you say that, across these different areas of expertise, science communicators share a similar professional identity (i.e., all see themselves as part of the same field)?

[JB] I’ll answer the discipline or community question first. If you look at Google Scholar and you see who identifies themselves as interested in “science communication” it’s a really broad mix of scholars. It gets even broader if you add in related terms like “environmental communication” or “risk communication.” Adding “health communication” brings in another whole (large) group. A lot of them are scientists who might do science communication but don’t study it.

That being said, in the U.S., I think there’s a core group of people who identify as science communication researchers. Within that group, a lot of us studied at the University of Wisconsin or Cornell – or have a pretty clear connection to those places through academic advisor lineage.

Getting to the ‘how do you characterize’ science communication question, I think a lot of us study the dynamics of public opinion about science,  with a focus on how communication might affect these dynamics. I think we’re pretty agnostic as to the channel of communication, in that some of us are curious about the effects of the news or entertainment media while others are interested in the face-to-face element. Most of us are probably interested in multiple channels.

This channel agnosticism comes from the idea that what we’re really interested in is the effect of different types of messages. Sometimes these messages might include factual information but communication scholars also worry a lot about other things.

I’m really interested, for example, in what happens when people see a decision-making process as procedurally fair, which involves worrying about whether a message communicates that someone has a meaningful voice in a decision and that the decision-maker respects the audience. For a community member,knowing whether a decision-maker is listening and respects your views is a type of information, but  I don’t think it’s what people think about when they hear the word ‘scientific knowledge.’ And this is just me. I have other colleagues who might be interested in the communication of social norms, specific ways of framing information, tone, or a hundred other features of communication.

I should also say that this community of research  is growing. There are lots of people – it seems like more and more every year – in sociology, social psychology, political science and related fields that also have interests in these areas. I think climate change is part of what’s driving this interest, as well as the fact that when you study science, there’s a clear path to funding. Beyond the U.S., the researchers I interact with are often in more traditional social science departments, rather than communication departments.

There was a well-attended and highly rated session at the 2015 Association of Science-Technology Centers conference titled, “How Can Science Museums Adapt to Fundamental Challenges Raised by the Science of Science Communication?”. Where do you see areas of distinction and/or overlap between informal STEM education and science communication?

The thing I always feel like I’m doing when I interact with the ISE community is talk about how communication researchers often – based on our understanding of the research – don’t believe that providing people with more information is likely to have much impact on attitudes about science. Practically, I interpret this to mean that we need to think about other types of strategies and associated outcomes beyond learning about science facts and processes.

Also, from this strategic perspective, you start seeing things like public engagement exercises as opportunities for scientists to both share what they know (which is likely why non-scientists are likely interacting with scientists) as well as do things like communicate their values, shared identities, personalities, and expertise in ways that build trusting relationships.

That being said, I also know that education folks are thinking about these things as well  so maybe it’s just a matter of degree of emphasis. Another big difference is that I think a lot of the communication researchers, including myself, are primarily focused on adult, rather than youth audiences.

Organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology have been cultivating and promoting “engagement” as a more inclusive and evolved way to think about interactions between the STEM research community and non-expert or public audiences. This type of public engagement involves “mutual learning,” where scientists learn as much as their audiences in the process. Do you see this concept gathering traction among scientists involved in these activities? Do scientists have different concepts of engagement with STEM than professionals in Informal STEM Education?

I’m not convinced yet that scientists prioritize hearing from others through engagement. Some do, but some surveys my colleague Anthony Dudo at the University of Texas, Austin and I have done over the last couple of years suggest that listening is one of scientists’ least prioritized objective for communication. That’s a problem.

Consistent with what I mentioned earlier, I also think we need to be clearer about what we mean by “mutual learning.” I don’t think we should conceptualize such learning as getting to know more facts about what different groups know. I think we need to think about building relationships and, for me at least, I don’t think “getting to know my spouse” was just learning facts about her life. It was coming to feel like I understand how she thinks, what she values, and why she does what she does.

Facts are important and it’d be a shame if an audience  had facts that scientists ignored, but the thing that I think comes mostly out of an engagement interaction is meaningful relationships, rather than mutual learning.

There is a great deal of activity and discussion in the field of Informal STEM education around better integrating research and practice. Are there parallel discussions and efforts in Science Communication and Public Engagement?  Are there examples of fruitful research/practice partnerships that you can share?

Absolutely. The ‘science of science communication’ stuff mentioned above is all about this kind of thing. But there’s a long way to go. The interview that my colleague Anthony and I did  in Fall 2014 with science communication trainers – who we see as a primary connector between the research and the trainers – suggested that a lot of trainers have a hard time figuring out what the research really means.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of the questions we need to answer aren’t “theoretically” interesting in a way journal reviewers often demand. What’s often needed is more like iterative A|B testing where it would be nice to know whether this picture or that picture better communicates warmth or how much time needs to be devoted to discussion before people feel like they have a voice. The research tells us that things like personal warmth and voice matter, but it often doesn’t tell someone exactly which factors will lead to the effects we might want.

Could you share with us some findings from your research with Anthony Dudo on scientists who participate in science communication? What are some common reasons why scientists participate in science communication and public engagement? What draws some scientists to engage with the public, but not others? Have new forms of technology and social media changed how scientists engage the public with STEM topics? If so, could you explain how?

This is a big question. I’ll try to answer it quickly and folks can look me up on Google Scholar if they want to look for some more specific things. And more is in the pipeline. For all of the things that  we’ve found correlate with engagement, it’s important to remember that none are silver bullets. If these things matter, they’re more like nudges than pushes.

First, demographics and field matter only seem to be small predictors of engagement and we can’t really do much about those so I don’t worry too much about them. Second, for attitudes, it looks like scientists engage more when they feel like there’s a benefit,   which seems reasonable, and those who got into science to make the world a better place seem more likely to engage. A third thing, and this is related, is that scientists who feel like they have the skills to engage and who feel like engagement will make a difference seem more likely to engage. These seem particularly important because they’re things we can address in training.

One thing that doesn’t seem to matter much but that comes up a lot is “social norms.” The scientists who engage don’t seem any more or less likely to say that their colleagues approve or disapprove of engagement. However, there’s some evidence that being in a culture where it feels like others are engaging will push scientists toward engagement.

What lessons, if any, do science communication and public engagement with science have for informal STEM education?

I can’t say too much because I’m still getting to know the community and I really appreciate the depth of experience and all the practical, real-world things that the ISE community does. There are two related things though that I wonder about.

First, I think the communication researchers I interact with care deeply about communication effects. We want to know when (or if) a communication is having the effect we hypothesize it should have, as well as why that effect is taking place in terms of various cognitive processes. This can be a burden, however, inasmuch as there’s probably a lot of good stuff going on that  is difficult to measure.

The second thing is that I think professional communication should be done genuinely, but also strategically. Communicators who take communication seriously should have reasons – grounded in theory and research – for why we communicate the things we communicate. This is a tall order and often not fully feasible, but that’s the ideal. The challenge I have is how to meld authenticity with strategy. We’ve all seen politicians who seem so worried about the potential effects of a  message they are conveying that they look like drones. We don’t want that for science. We have so much cool stuff to share and so many awesome people to share it that we need to make sure we don’t hide behind meaningless sound-bites.

On the other hand, if things like warmth, listening, and being smart are things that matter, then we have to make sure we don’t hide our warmth. We have to really listen. And we have to do our work in way that no one should question that we’re making more sense of the world every day.