January 24, 2013
America’s Honest Brokers
How Scientists Can Effectively Engage Society
As Obama seeks bi-partisan support for action on climate change, four core principles can aid experts in effectively communicating with the public and policymakers. (Photo credit: White House.gov)
In 2009, I contributed a chapter to an edited volume that was a first attempt on my part to dig deeper into the the normative and ethical dimensions of science communication, particularly many of the questions that had been raised by the growing attention to communication research over the decade and the correlated attention to the role of scientists in high-profile political debates over stem cell research, climate change, evolution and other policy controversies. In doing so, I drew on on my experience in discussing and giving talks specific to the role of framing in science policy-debates. I also drew on the contributions of science policy scholars, most notably Roger Pielke Jr.'s and Daniel Sarewitz's work on "politicization" and the different roles that scientists and their organizations can play in managing policy conflict.
Four years later, attention to the valuable contributions of communication research and the policy sciences to understanding the social dimensions of science controversies has only grown, as evidenced by last year's very successful "Science of Science Communication" Sackler Colloquium organized by the National Academies. Moreover, as policy debates continue over climate change, the teaching of evolution, biomedical research, food biotechnology, and other issues, the role of scientists remain front and center, most notably raised last week in the pages of Nature magazine by Dan Sarewitz and further discussed by Roger Pielke at his blog.
Both argue that as scientists are increasingly viewed not as honest brokers, but as advocates aligned with the goals of the Democratic party, scientists and their organizations risk losing public trust and only likely contribute to polarization on hot button issues like climate change. As their commentaries suggest, for all the attention that science communication research has deservedly received, what is still missing from this discussion is careful analysis, understanding and application of normative and ethical principles to how experts and their organizations can effectively engage the public and policy makers.
As I showed in a recent study with John Besley, scientists' perceptions of the media, the public, and public affairs still remain relatively out of step with the findings from research and much of the work that has been done in a variety of social science fields over the past thirty years. With this in mind - as a way to hopefully jump start more conversation and discussion -- at the Climate Shift Project, I have posted the final draft of the full text of the 2009 chapter. You can also read most of the chapter via Google Books.
Below are the four guiding principles that I emphasize and detail in the chapter as they apply across science-related policy debates.
* Experts and their organizations should emphasize and invest in dialogue and the exchange of perspectives, rather than traditional top-down approaches to communication. This imperative can be promoted either through face-to-face meetings, new models of digital participatory media, and/or as in the case of the National Academies relative to evolution, using research to identify frames of reference that emphasize common ground and promote dialogue.
* Experts should transparently acknowledge and communicate the values that guide a policy decision rather than simplistically defining a policy debate as a matter of “sound science” or “driven by science.” In a policy debate, when scientists or journalists focus exclusively on these types of claims, they create the incentives for interest groups to turn science into just another political resource, leading to distortion and exaggerations of scientific evidence and uncertainty.
* Whether an issue advocate or honest broker, accuracy by experts in communication needs to be maintained. Both scientists and journalists must respect the uncertainty that is inherent to any technical question, resisting the tendency to engage in either false balance or exaggeration. As in the case of climate change, each time a scientific claim is proven false or inaccurate; it risks further alienating publics already distrustful of science and scientists.
* Scientists, experts and their organizations should avoid using communication strategies to denigrate, attack, or stereotype belief systems, ideologies, or social groups, or to define political parties and leaders as either “anti-science” or “pro-science.” Framing and other communication strategies will always be an effective and legitimate part of social criticism and electoral politics, but for scientists, experts and journalists to simplistically define critiques of religion, an ideology, or opposition to a political candidate as a “matter of science and reason” is not only inaccurate, but also alienates key publics, impairing efforts at dialogue and consensus-building.
About Matthew Nisbet
Matthew Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication and Co-Director of the Center for Social Media at American University. He has published over 50 studies, book chapters and monographs examining the communication dynamics of policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over science, the environment and public health. Nisbet has been a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a Google Science Communication Fellow, and a visiting Shorenstein Fellow in Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.