Communicating about communicating science at the National Academies

by Andrew Maynard on May 22, 2012

I‘ve just spent the last two days at the National Academies of Science listening to a long strong of folks talk about the Science of Science Communication.  It was a bit of a guilty pleasure for me as I wasn’t a speaker and so could just kick back and listen – but I did get a couple of questions in. The meeting was in the series of Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia that the National Academies organize each year – meetings designed to cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries.  And in this respect the colloquium was certainly a success, bringing together over 400 participants from a wide range of disciplines to discuss empirical research on the nature, practice and effectiveness of science communication.

Although there was plenty of room for improvement in the scope and execution of the colloquium (as was amply commented on in the Twitter stream accompanying the event*), I must confess that I did find the meeting both useful and enjoyable – mainly because it prompted me to start thinking again about several aspects of science communication that I’ve pushed to one side as a myriad other things have slid onto my plate.  Summarizing the meeting as I type this (and wait for a delayed flight back to Michigan) is largely beyond my tired brain at this point – I still need to take time to digest much of the stuff that was presented.  But I would encourage you to check out the videos of the talks, which have been posted here.  That said, it’s worth noting three things that struck me as I listened to the presenters:

It’s important that the National Academies of Science are taking the study of science communication (and its practice) seriously.  Inviting a bunch of social scientists into the National Academies – and into a high profile colloquium like this – was a big deal.  And irrespective of the meeting’s content, it flags a commitment to work closely with researchers studying science communication and decision analysis to better ensure informed and effective communication strategies and practice.  Given the substantial interest in the colloquium – on the web as well as at the meeting itself – I hope that the National Academies build on this and continue to engage fully in this area.

Moving forward, there needs to be more engagement between science communication researchers and practitioners.  Practitioners of science communication – and the practical insight they bring – were notable by their absence (in the main) from the colloquium program.  If the conversation around empirical research is to connect with effective practice, there must be better integration of these two communities.

Better mechanisms of establishing a science communication agenda are needed.  Climate change dominated the conversation over the past two days – perhaps understandably.  But it’s not the only issue that depends on effective science communication.  Issues such as the water-food-energy nexus, chronic exposure to low level synthetic chemicals, non-communicable disease, even the current global economic crisis, and many others, need to be part of the science communication agenda.  Instead, there is a sense that researchers and practitioners are attracted to the bright shiny issues that attract (or are engineered to attract) people’s attention, while overlooking many less eye catching but equally important issues.  Moving forward, it would be good to see more systematic approaches to identifying where science communication research and practice is focused.

There’s an awful lot more that could be said about the meeting, but at this point I will leave this to others, and end by thanking the organizers for a stimulating two days.

*The extensive Twitter chatter associated with the meeting (using the hashtag #sackler) picked up on poor coverage of digital communication, a lack of science communication practitioners in the program,  and a preponderance of while middle class (and beyond) men in the presenters lineup.  But what really bugged me – and was the subject of much online derision – was that internet access at the meeting was so poor that in-person attendees struggled to either contribute to the online discussion or submit questions – which were supposed to be sent in via email!  A bit of a faux pas for a meeting on communication!

1 Nicole Casal Moore May 29, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Thanks for this post. I’m a science writer at U-M who is looking forward to watching the webcasts.

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