Why (and How) Scientists Engage with the Public

By: Sally Gore, MS, MSLIS, Research Evaluation Analyst, UMCCTS

An interesting article in the February issue of PLOS One, Scientists’ Prioritization of Communication Objectives for Public Engagement (Dudo & Besley), sheds light on a topic that’s been of much discussion in the scientific community for awhile now, i.e. the importance of scientists talking about their work with the public. Most often it’s cited that public engagement is important to insure public support, financial and otherwise, for scientific research. The argument goes that an informed public will be a supportive public, demanding that the government and private funding agencies adequately provide for science. Thus, researchers’ objectives and priorities when speaking to the public tend to be on informing, educating, and defending science. Indeed, this tendency and belief was evident in the findings of Dudo & Besley’s study.

More importantly, however, was the finding of what scientists believe is less important when engaging the public – building trust. “This is a problem because, as noted, past communication research has made a clear case showing that attitudes related to trust are correlates of positive reviews about science,” (p. 13) among other things. In short, researchers prioritize least the objective that may well matter most when speaking to the public. Dialogue – speaking and listening – appears key for effective communication and, ultimately, developing an informed and supportive public. “Communication scholars now emphasize that positive beliefs about science and scientists are more likely to stem from high quality interactions with likable and engaging scientists who are willing to listen.”  (p.2)

Like any other skill within one’s research toolkit, effective communication can and needs to be honed. For UMCCTS researchers looking for help and opportunities to better their communication skills and talk with the public, resources are available via the UMMS Center for Biomedical Career Development. You may also wish to become involved with Science Café Woo, a monthly forum in Worcester where local scientists are invited to talk about their work with the public, as well as engage in lively discussion.

(You can find a nice synopsis of the referenced article by Matt Shipman, science writer and communication officer at North Carolina State University on SciLogs.)