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  • Writer's pictureBecca Dzombak

#scicomm thoughts: who are “the public,” and how do we engage them?

This week has been a #scicomm whirlwind on twitter; Earth Science Week combined with the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) Science-A-Thon for a veritable wave of science tweets (check out #dayofscience for glimpses into the lives of scientists in many different fields!). Taking part in this has been fun and, actually, a little challenging – I don’t think I met the 12-tweets-a-day goal any day. It’s also prompted me to assess the state of #scicomm and science communication more broadly, and to really think about what my scicomm goals are and what I’m doing to achieve them.

For me (and many others), a big part of science communication goes way beyond promoting our own work. Sharing our science – and who we really are – is a way to promote diverse, real representation of who is in science and what being a scientist looks like. Studies have shown that perceptions of “what a scientist looks like” change with age (younger kids draw versions of themselves, older kids draw more men than women), reflecting an insidious bias; but good news, this trend seems to be improving with time – more older kids draw versions of themselves now than decades ago. But it’s still so, so important to have good representation. I’m a woman, and there’s a huge problem with retaining women in STEM fields, particularly in academia; however, I’m also white, so not so much diversity there. Bringing as many folks to the scicomm table as we can to represent diversity beyond gender and race – financial background, education, ability, sexuality, literally every type of difference, visible and invisible, should be represented. Because science is an increasingly diverse community, and that gives us great strength.

So, representation matters – nothing groundbreaking there, but an incredibly important goal.

Another common goal for scicommers, and scientists more broadly, is to increase public awareness of and engagement with science, particularly for policy-relevant issues like climate change. Having an educated and motivated public is essential for driving policy change. The issue we run into, though, is: how do we best engage the public? And – do they even care?

These concerns are valid and deserve our attention and brainpower, but I also think there’s an underlying issue here: the divide between “scientists” and “the public,” as though we are not part of that voting public. This divide isn’t helped by the so-called ‘ivory tower’ perception of scientists and academics: removed, privileged people who have no sense of the ‘real world’ or the struggles that ‘normal’ people are going through. Often, then, attempts at public education or outreach can come off as very top-down; that is, “I’m the expert, let me tell you what to think” – or at least, that’s how it can be perceived, even if we are in fact well-intentioned and just want a discussion of the topic.

Pew research from the past few years has shown generally positive (if lukewarm and variable based on political orientation and specific issue) public views of scientists, on par with the military and far greater than elected officials (just 3% strongly supported) or the news media (21% had no trust). Despite the media ramping up coverage of negative and alternative views of science, the public generally support science, particularly medical research and nature conservation. The American public believes that the U.S. should be a leader in space; we like NASA. This is good news: people do care.  It’s just that science, for some reason, has been misconstrued over the recent years as a partisan issue.

So how do we get around this?

Part of this issue of access to people and overcoming the divide, perceived or real, between “the public” and scientists is the obvious problem of what is the best way to engage people? What forum is the most effective and productive for talking with people, either for science/policy education or encouraging/supporting underrepresented groups in STEM? As highlighted earlier, twitter is a common way for scientists to provide representation of scientists and access to their science. Instagram allows us to visually share our lives as scientists. Universities often offer a range of outreach events for engaging their local communities, like hands-on science events for kids or seminars on policy issues open to the public. Some groups even partner with bars to host “science nights” where scientists give lightning talks on their research, geared towards non-expert audiences. Traditional media (news, radio) provide some coverage for research, but it is often limited to biomedical advances or harbinger-of-doom climate change studies. Not that these topics shouldn’t be covered – they are important and eye-catching ways of getting people to think about science and research as things that could affect their daily lives – but there could be more.

So, we have options. The underlying issue here is ultimately self-selection bias. Like all news and content, people today have greater control over essentially the reality they experience: what news articles they read, what podcasts or radio shows they listen to, what social media accounts they follow, and what sorts of events they attend. If someone is prone to engage with those things, it’s likely that they are already interested in the topic or science in general – which is great from a ‘providing representation’ standpoint, but not so much for ‘reading the broadest audience possible to educate on policy-relevant issues.’ Who will attend a bar night hosting science talks? People interested in science, or already open to learning. Who will follow scientists on twitter? Other scientists, academics, policymakers, and a few nerdy public folks. Who takes their kids to museum events? Parents who (a) have the privilege of free time and resources to take their kids to museums and (b) are aware that they should actively engage their kids in science and critical thinking. (Although outreach-oriented museum events are impactful and important!)

What we are left with is essentially walking the streets with a billboard that says, “Ask me about my science!” (There areAsk Me – I’m A Scientist!” shirts already.) In liberal cities, I’m sure you’d get at least a few people engaged in that way.

I think it’s also important – essential – to stay positive in the current political climate and with the modern news media. It’s easy to buy into the “There’s a war on science!” discourse; in some very real senses, it’s true, with government support for conservation and research apparently dropping, and anti-vaxxers spouting nonsense and seemingly gaining traction. But there’s also the insidious partisan aspect, with far right-wingers stirring the pot and inflaming what is in reality a small but loud group of anti-science people. Even people in areas that are traditionally associated with anti-science sentiment, like the midwest, are aware of climate change and often open to discussing it when they’re approached in a respectful way. Farmers notice when rain patterns change; ranchers notice when vegetation disappears; southwestern-dwellers know when their wells dry up. Their reality is strongly affected by climate change, and they know it. (Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, the new Dean of the School of Environment and Sustainability here at UM, has dealt extensively with some of these people, and Dr. Julie Cole has devoted parts of her career to communicating climate change.)

This is all sort of roundabout and doesn’t have a clean, clear conclusion. I guess the real takeaway is: it’s easy enough to tweet about our work, and share it on Instagram, and have our websites and blogs. We’re providing content and representation, but it feels like it’s more for ourselves, our community, than the “public” who would most benefit from these conversations. (Although creating a supportive community is equally important!) What it comes down to is our willingness to “leave the ivory tower” (stop just tweeting from our couches) and go out into our communities, visit elementary and middle and high schools in underprivileged areas, provide programs that link schools with colleges for higher education opportunities, make both visible and invisible types of diversity – especially racial, gender, and financial – clear so that every kid has someone they can relate to who went to college and was able to pursue a career in STEM… We in higher education have the power and opportunity, and I would argue the obligation, to be active and continually push for improvement.

(And, ultimately, vastly rework and improve our national education program, dealing with systemic and inherent racial and financial biases to ensure equal opportunity for all and invest in a globally-competitive, highly-educated workforce for the future so we can be a leader in change. But that’s more than can be addressed by a single blog post.)

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