Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Scientists, the Public, and Engagement with Science and Technology

While my research primarily focuses on political entertainment, public opinion, and new media, I also spend a fair amount of time looking at issues in science communication -- everything from public participation on controversial issues like stem cell research to studying how citizens learn about and engage with new scientific and technological advances like nanotechnology.

When asked to name a scientist, Americans are stumped. In one recent survey, the top choice, at 47 percent, was Einstein, who has been dead since 1955, and the next, at 23 percent, was “I don’t know.” In another survey, only 4 percent of respondents could name a living scientist.

Dean continues on to chronicle the efforts of groups like Ben Franklin's List (the scientists' version of Emily's List), AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and Sefora (Scientists and Engineers for America) that are trying to create a larger role for scientists in public life -- as politicians and as researchers willing and able to engage with the public sphere.

These efforts are designed to increase technical and scientific understanding among citizens and politicians and to encourage the application of scientific principles to public policy debates. Unfortunately, one of the stumbling blocks for these efforts is the nature of the scientific field itself which often promotes research and discovery within the internal scientific community, not engagement with the broader public.

What then is the future of science communication and how can scientists pursue science while also engaging with the public sphere? Science communication scholars Matt Nisbet and Dietram Scheufele offered their suggestions in a 2009 piece in the American Journal of Botany:

We emphasize the need for science communication initiatives that are guided by careful formative research; that span a diversity of media platforms and audiences; and that facilitate conversations with the public that recognize, respect, and incorporate differences in knowledge, values, perspectives, and goals.

While still gaining in visibility, groups like Ben Franklin's list and Sefora seem to be part of the solution here -- they represent science communication initiatives informed by research. At the same time, efforts to promote greater levels of scientific literacy and public engagement with science are still an important part of efforts to make science accessible. 

In the meantime, I for one would like to hear more about scientists in Congress:

For example, according to the Congressional Research Service, the technically trained among the 435 members of the House include one physicist, 22 people with medical training (including 2 psychologists and a veterinarian), a chemist, a microbiologist and 6 engineers.

After all, we've certainly heard enough about the debt ceiling for a while ... 

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