Talking about talking science

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up of a liquid being pipitted into a test tube

The end of the year presents an opportune moment for the science community to consider not just the achievements of the past twelve months, but also the opportunities and challenges ahead, for which we may prepare. Of all the science announcements made in 2014 and the stories brought to us by the Science Media Centre and others across this year, it is perhaps the least of the headline-grabbing reports that may be of particular importance to New Zealand – especially as scientists and educators begin planning their programmes of activity for 2015.

While the recent Nielsen survey of public attitudes toward science in New Zealand has received positive attention because of its findings of general support for the scientific endeavour and indeed its public funding, at least two findings of the survey are cause for concern – and concerted action. The survey found that science is held in high regard, but 48% of respondents said science was too complex to be understood. Worse, 51% said that scientific information seems rather conflicted so it is difficult to know what to believe.

When fully half of the 3000 New Zealanders surveyed are telling us that the scientific information they take in is incomprehensible or conflicting, we have a problem. And this problem must not be seen as a deficit in the public’s interest or level of understanding. Rather, as the research that scientists undertake becomes more complex in both how the questions are framed and the techniques used to analyse the data, there needs to be a commensurate effort to translate and contextualise this process and its results for the public – or rather the multiple publics who are consumers of the information in a variety of ways and actually fund much of it.

There has been much discussion, not all of it constructive, in recent months about one pillar of the new science in society strategic plan, A Nation of Curious Minds. Together with efforts to boost science and technology education and to encourage public engagement with science, this third pillar is an effort to rebalance the conventional deficit model and encourage the proactive engagement of the science community with the public. So why has this pillar garnered all the critical press?

Part of the issue may be that the science community itself has not yet fully recognised the role it must play in responsible science communication. To be sure, there are some great researchers who are also notable as great science communicators, along with a small but increasing number of professional science communicators. Many of these individuals have been recognised in recent years through the science communication prizes offered by the Prime Minister, Royal Society and NZAS. But systemically, and as a community, there is still a lot to learn about making complex findings and uncertainties understood, giving them sufficient context and – importantly – being clear about what is not known together with what is known. While the style of communication may differ, these principles are generalisable irrespective of whether scientists are communicating with the general public or to specific knowledge end-users such as policy- and decision-makers.

It is easy to say that we should all just stick to the facts. But in reality, the ‘facts’ (such that they are) will always carry methodological assumptions and contextual associations that may be well understood by scientists, but that can easily lead to confusion outside the science community. Indeed, science is not about ‘facts’ – it is about increasingly reliable knowledge about of natural, social and built worlds. Science loses its explanatory power and, ultimately, its credibility when these important nuances are either wilfully ignored to ‘make a point’ or glossed over in the interests of simplification. Part of the communicator’s job is not only to explain what we know, but also how we got to that knowledge. This can help to convey the relative quality and rigour of the knowledge and the degree of scientific consensus that exists, which is key for those seeking to base decisions on it.

Undoubtedly, the changed nature of the relationship between science and society, and the changed culture of both the media and research institutions, are putting put new pressures on the science community. While it is not realistic that every individual scientist now becomes an expert communicator, institutions (whether universities, CRIS or other forms of research grouping) are expected to ‘get their science out there.’ In particular, given that half our public scientists operate out of CRIs, these institutions must be more open and encourage their staff to engage more.

The communications offices of such research organisations will inevitably turn to the scientists themselves for the story. It is helpful for any scientist – blogger or not – to have some idea of how to tell it. It is also important, from the perspective of institutional behaviour, not to let the institutions exaggerate claims – doing so can only undermine trust in science. I have argued elsewhere why trust and integrity are essential if science is to serve society well.

Thus, with the changing expectations on the science community to take on more public roles, so too should there be commensurate expectations on the training and professional development available to scientists to enable them to undertake these tasks confidently, responsibly and in a way that protects the integrity of their work and, ultimately, of science itself.

A Nation of Curious Minds is designed to assist precisely this process which is explicitly about encouraging and assisting scientists to undertand their relationship with society better so they can take a greater and more active role. In the New Year, I hope scientists will look forward to working with the Royal Society of New Zealand, to review and, if they deem it necessary, to refresh the principles relating to their increasingly public role. Other academies and scientific organistaions around the world are similarly discussing these challenges. As the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity makes clear, the style and nature of science communication has an essential relationship to maintaining both the integrity of science and thus public trust in science. Without these characteristics, science loses its critical status as the source of privileged knowledge, and cannot contribute optimally to solving many of today’s most pressing challenges without that trust.

What does ethical engagement and communication look like? Would better guidance be helpful? Are there particular guidelines needed in emergencies and crises? It is noteworthy that most concern has arisen in the context of crises internationally. Do emerging and established scientists need new models of training to meet these new expectations and how should this be delivered? The science community will have a chance to discuss this in the coming year. I look forward to the conversation.

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