NAS Activities in Communicating with the Public about Science
March 3, 2014
To Members of the National Academy of Sciences
Many of us are concerned about public attitudes toward science. We know that public enthusiasm, understanding and support are needed to fund scientific research and to improve science education. We also know that public awareness and engagement are required for our society to adopt the values of science, such as relying on evidence to guide public policy. While there are some encouraging signs, one sometimes feels that public attitudes toward science are worsening.
When I became NAS President, I wanted to test this view and try to improve public attitudes toward science and scientists. Now, in a time of very tight federal budgets for research, and of some antagonism toward some area of science, the need for measuring and improving attitudes toward science is even more evident, so I want to report on some of the activities that NAS has undertaken.
Research on Communications, and Priorities
Several years ago, before starting any new communications activities, I looked for an answer to the questions “What are American attitudes toward science, and how have they changed over time?” I could not find direct answers to these questions but there is useful information available from NSF and the National Science Board, from Harris Polls and from Research!America, for example. Briefly, the American public is broadly favorable toward science, more so than in most other nations but the support is shallow. Members of Congress tend to believe that science is good for the economy, apparently more than they did thirty years ago. Scientists are highly respected compared to other professionals. However, most Americans do not know a scientist personally. When asked (by Research!America) to name a scientist, the most common responses were “Albert Einstein” and “Carl Sagan” rather than a living scientist.
We also learned importantly, that the NAS is not known widely by the “man or woman on the street”. However, the NAS is known and respected by many decision makers in government, business, education and research. In many localities and regions, there are capable, trusted institutions like universities, museums, civic groups and other organizations led by respected individuals who know the NAS.
Also, it is ever more clear that communication must consist both of speaking and listening.
Given this background, what can NAS do? In this letter, I will report briefly on our efforts to understand and elevate public attitudes toward and engagement with science. We have begun or expanded the NAS's activities to communicate with the public (including listening) mostly by addressing highly educated people, elected officials, and others who already know us, or are familiar with local, respected science-oriented institutions.
NAS Activities in Public Communications
Distributing National Research Council and Institute of Medicine reports. As you know, NRC reports on many topics are published frequently, often addressing important, vexing current issues. Reports are written by study committees appointed by the NAS, NAE and IOM and are peer-reviewed. Committee members and reviewers work pro-bono. For years, NAS officers, Council members and our staff sought ways and worked to distribute the reports more widely and without charge. Our reports as well as current and past issues of PNAS have long been available online without charge in developing countries. A few years ago we succeeded in achieving the goal of making our reports available to everyone thereby disseminating our reports more widely and freely, while continuing to sell printed copies. Expanding on another effort from the past, we are also developing and distributing shorter, easier-to-read versions (derivative products) and summaries written for broader audiences. In these ways, the excellent work of volunteer experts, NAS members and our staff can become better known and more useful to our nation and others around the world.
The Science and Engineering Ambassador Program. The National Academy of Sciences is partnering with the Pittsburgh community on a new pilot program designed to bring science and engineering research to bear on important questions and concerns in the Pittsburgh community, with the initial focus being the topic of energy. The program involves scientists and engineers performing energy-related research in the Pittsburgh region at universities, in government and for private industry. The Ambassador program was created to build on the respect people hold for scientists and engineers, and to address the need for a greater general understanding of the science relating to such issues.
The target audience for the work of the Ambassador program is individuals whose ideas and opinions influence others in the community. These opinion leaders represent diverse professions and walks of life, including teachers, business leaders, policymakers, neighborhood leaders, students and the media. They include those who participate and have reach within the local community, as well as those who have a platform for disseminating knowledge and fostering community relationships.
Events for the Ambassador program in Pittsburgh will be developed around the goal of dialog, to promote not only public understanding of energy science, but also greater understanding among scientists and engineers about what the public wants to know. Working with community partners, the staff will then develop programs suited to the partners' missions and the audiences' interests, with an emphasis on interactive events that encourage conversation and dialog. We have selected a team of accomplished scientists and engineers from academia, industry, and government to serve as Ambassadors. Each was invited to choose one or two graduate students or early-career scientists to mentor through the program, for a total of 25 Ambassadors.
Pittsburgh was selected as the initial site for several reasons. It is home to an impressive number of top scientists and engineers who teach and conduct research at leading universities and it is a focal point for discussions about energy. The region has companies and activities in several relevant areas of the industry — coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar and wind — and active business leaders with a keen interest in community development. It is also endowed with a strong network of museums and other cultural outlets. Importantly, Pittsburghers have proven success at collaboration. The city is big enough to offer the key entities necessary for an effective program, yet small enough to allow for dialog, with a population that displays an impressive participatory spirit. The National Academy of Engineering is working with NAS in this program.
If successful, the program will expand to cover other important topics in contemporary society, such as infectious disease and climate change, and we will work to establish similar programs with other cities across the nation to make science and engineering available to address their community concerns.
The Science & Entertainment Exchange. The premise of this NAS activity is that the entertainment industry (for example, television and motion-picture creators) know how to communicate broadly and that entertainment exerts great cultural influence, for better or worse. Serendipity played a bigger role in getting us started on this activity than did our formal research and analysis of opportunities and needs. I had seen materials and films in support of California's Proposition 71 (which funded stem-cell research) and of various medical research causes that were created by Janet and Jerry Zucker, Hollywood entertainment professionals. Mr. and Mrs. Zucker met with me and discussed their very supportive and creative ideas about medical science and science generally. Many discussions ensued, and the Zuckers began to involve some of their Hollywood colleagues in partnership with the NAS to develop what has become the Exchange.
The Exchange was created with goals of (a) connecting scientists with writers, producers and directors to consult at all stages of production (concepts, technical questions, scripts, set design) and (b) to convene events for scientists and entertainment communities to discuss potential science content in popular media. Over its five years, the Exchange has now arranged for more than 800 consultations and an impressive array of events across many fields of science from a small Los Angeles-based office. A number of NAS members and many of our science colleagues have participated in both kinds of Exchange activities.
Although the Exchange did not spring directly from our early research and our communications priorities, it is turning out to be very valuable. There is noticeable impact on science content in certain movies and TV series and good relationships have been established between Hollywood entertainment leaders and individual scientists. In some notable cases, the portrayal of women scientists has been enhanced.
A new version of the Carl Sagan PBS series Cosmos is set to air on Fox on March 9, 2014, executive-produced by Exchange advisory board member Seth MacFarlane and hosted by long-time friend of the program, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. The origins of this series can be traced directly back to the launch event of the Exchange when MacFarlane and Tyson were introduced to one another. Parade magazine described this event in a cover story about Dr. Tyson in January and a separate description appeared in the March 2 New York Times. The new Fox series has enormous potential to reach millions of viewers not often exposed to science. The Exchange is also interested in potential ideas to become involved in science education. For all of these reasons, NAS has received significant support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the California Endowment, Mr. and Mrs. Zucker, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, UCLA, individual members of the Presidents Circle and others.
USA Science & Engineering Festival. The NAS is also involved with the USA Science & Engineering Festival, a public, street-level event to celebrate the roles of science and engineering in society and to welcome guests to demonstrations and displays. Several festivals operate in U.S. cities including New York, San Diego and San Francisco. In Washington, the NAS, NAE helped to found the national festival (2010) and our Koshland Science Museum and the AAAS have joined. A main mission is to inspire the next generation of science and engineering professionals and to communicate the roles of S & T in society today. Special attention is given to underrepresented students, teachers and military families. Many volunteers have participated in representing NAS and NAE, including our members and our NAS and NRC staff members. Participation by the public from Greater Washington has been enthusiastic, as seen in large numbers of attendees.
Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia on Science Communications. A gift in 2001 from Jillian Sackler in memory of her husband, Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, has enabled us to convene Sackler colloquia on many scientific topics over the years, often resulting in special features in PNAS. We have now convened two such colloquia on “The Science of Science Communication” (May, 2012 and September, 2013) with several goals, including: to gain understanding of relations between scientists and the public; to assess the scientific basis for effective communication about science; and to improve our institutional capability for evidence-based communications. Distinguished speakers and participants who are active in a variety of fields contributed greatly to descriptions of challenges and successes in science communication. The second colloquium, three days in length, was also webcast to 11,000 additional participants. A set of papers from the first colloquium was published in the August, 2013 issue of PNAS, an interesting summary of the second colloquium has been released by the National Academies Press (2014) and those papers will appear in PNAS this summer. I recommend these publications to you if you are interested in current scholarly and professional views of issues involving challenging-to-communicate science issues, public attitudes toward science, and the social, cultural, economic and political influences on science communication.
Communications Awards. Through our National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, four $20,000 prizes are awarded each year to individuals or teams who have developed creative, original works that address issues and advances in science, engineering and/or medicine for the general public in the previous year. The four categories in which prizes are awarded are: book, film/radio/television, magazine/newspaper, and online.
These awards are an important component in our overall strategy to stimulate not only new research but also broad public interest and understanding. They provide recognition for communicators in their respective professions; to encourage these individuals and others to continue to convey the excitement, opportunities, and challenges of research; and to create broad common understanding among federal and private decision-makers and the public. NAKFI Communications awards have been presented since 2003.
The winners are honored during a ceremony at the NAS Building and the winner in the book category often presents the "Book and Author Talk" at the NAS annual meeting. A number of nominees have told us that the awards are widely recognized and appreciated in journalism fields.
Brochures to Describe Benefits of Basic Research. There is a continuing pattern of payoffs from basic research that is unpredictable and often surprising. These benefits can be commercial, medical, agricultural or for national security, for example, and they might follow a basic discovery either quickly or decades later. The NAS Council has just launched a new project to prepare short brochures on such topics, using contemporary examples, to remind the public audiences and national leaders about “Surprising Payoffs” (the name to be used) from basic research. Such brochures were produced by NAS in the 1990’s (entitled “Beyond Discovery”). The products of "Surprising Payoffs" will be both paper and electronic, for distribution and for archiving; they are envisioned for 2015. The first group of examples will focus on social and behavioral sciences and later installments will cover other fields of science.
In closing, I have briefly summarized NAS activities that are aimed at understanding and improving public attitudes toward science. Public communications play a role in other NAS activities including the Koshland Science Museum, Cultural Programs of the NAS, and the Distinctive Voices lecture series at the Beckman Center in Irvine, California. In addition, PNAS publishes Q & As about science, and other “front matter” that complements its research articles. The new booklet “Climate Change: Evidence and Causes”, a joint activity of the NAS and the Royal Society (released on February 27 as a publication and an interactive website) with support from Dr. and Mrs. Raymond Sackler, has the goal of explaining a complex issue to the public.
Our communications activities are addressed mostly toward long-term improvements. These activities and similar ones in the future will require continued effort over a long period of time.
We are aware of serious and immediate problems to be solved, for example, challenges to the teaching of evolution, claims that climate science is fraudulent, rejection of genetically modified crops, many attacks on social science, pockets of sentiment against vaccinations, annual federal budget fights and underinvestment in science, general lack of understanding of the scientific process (how it corrects itself and how it advances society) and science as an international pursuit. The importance of opportunity in science for all K-12 students and for young Ph.D. investigators is a message that requires continual emphasis. Also, communication about proper conduct in science is a very serious topic that needs our attention.
I have tried to address these important topics on many public occasions during the past year when we celebrated NAS's 150th anniversary. However, once again, because public attitudes are involved, we must commit to long-term efforts to interact with the public.
Each of the activities mentioned above has received great benefits from voluntary work by NAS members, from many other scientists and from our professional staff (who have also donated much time). Barbara Kline Pope has been a key contributor, as has former NAS Vice President, Barbara Schaal.
Please send me your reactions and tell me of your related work with public groups.
With best regards,
Ralph J. Cicerone, President
National Academy of Sciences