2020 will go down in history as a year of unprecedented natural disasters. Wildfires in California and Colorado were the largest on record in both states. The number of named tropical storms set a new record at 30, with a record high of 12 coming ashore in the continental United States. All this amid the COVID-19 pandemic — itself a natural disaster caused by a virus that shifted hosts from animal to human — which has led to more than 1.5 million deaths worldwide and a global recession.
As devastating as these disasters have been, none were unexpected. Scientists have been attempting to sound the alarm for decades about the links between human-induced climate change, habitat destruction, and the overexploitation of wildlife on the frequency and intensity of storms, droughts, and wildfires as well as the emergence of new pathogens. If we knew such calamities were coming, why have our efforts to prevent them been unsuccessful?
Part of the explanation may be that the public remains disconnected from science because the voices of scientists remain marginalized. The public rarely hears directly from scientists about scientific matters. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, only a handful of high-profile scientists, like infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, have been prominent in public discourse. Instead, politicians at local, state, and federal levels have used their bully pulpits to spread information about health and safety, including some that has been misleading or intentionally inaccurate. Meanwhile, several politicians have discredited scientists and undermined the scientific process.
The primary way that the public stays informed about science is through the media. Yet mainstream media outlets have become politically polarizing and public trust in mass media remains low. In contrast, surveys show that public trust in scientists has remained high for decades and that the public wants to hear directly from scientists. A recent survey found that 82% of Americans think it is important for scientists to inform the public about their research. A majority of Europeans surveyed stated that they prefer to hear about science from scientists rather than journalists.
Systematic changes are needed to facilitate engagement between scientists and the public, especially to policymakers. First, we must train scientists to be effective public communicators. Education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines rarely includes communication training and when it does, the focus is often on communication with other scientists (e.g., how to write effective research papers and grant proposals) rather than how to communicate with the public. Coursework and practical experience in public communication should be required in all doctoral programs in STEM fields.
Second, academic institutions should make science outreach an integral part of promotion and tenure decisions. Rather than interpreting outreach as time taken away from scholarly pursuits such as securing funding, conducting research, and teaching, faculty in STEM fields should be incentivized to engage the public.
Third, we should create more job opportunities in STEM fields with a focus on public science communication. New positions could be created within academia that emphasize public engagement (such positions are more common in the UK, for example). Likewise, existing science communication positions in professional organizations (e.g., the American Association for the Advancement of Science), informal science education (e.g., museums, zoos, aquariums) and government could be filled by scientists. Given that faculty job openings in STEM fields declined by 70% this academic year there is a surplus of qualified scientists in the job market.
To be sure, many scientists are already communicating widely. Social media platforms such as Twitter have made it easier for scientists to engage with the public. Yet most have never been trained on how to do so effectively and it can be difficult to cultivate a following outside of one’s own professional network. What’s more, research has shown that simply having more communication between scientists and the public (the so-called “deficit model”) will not solve the problem. Communication goes both ways and for it to be effective scientists must listen as much as they speak. Therefore, communication training in STEM fields should emphasize engagement that is dynamic, open and inclusive.
Even if done effectively, communication alone is not enough to protect us from future disasters — we also must invest in science. Unlike other countries where investment in science has been growing, U.S. investment in science has been flat and this year the U.S. investment in research and development fell behind China when measured as a percentage of GDP. Luckily these goals are complementary — public engagement makes people more likely to support public expenditures in science.
If 2020 has taught us anything it should be that science is essential to our prosperity and that we cannot afford to limit the number of voices communicating science. Yet to increase both the quantity and quality of science communication we must also invest in communication training, incentives for public communication by scientists, and jobs focused on sharing science. Science communication alone cannot prevent future wildfires, storms or pandemics. But having a society that is better informed about and more engaged in science will best position us to face the challenges of the future.
Scott Solomon, an associate teaching professor at Rice University’s Department of BioSciences, wrote this blog at the invitation of Baker Institute fellow Kirstin Matthews. The post is the first in the Science and Technology Policy Program’s “What I Learned in 2020” series.
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