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Science and Communication

November 3, 2009

Last week at the Canadian Science Policy Conference, I picked up on two dominant themes that were repeated in a variety of sessions. The first involved the practical side of improving Canada’s science policy, whereas the second addressed the proposed content of future policy. I’ll discuss the first today, and address the second – the need for science policy to focus on improving innovation – in a later post.

The practical theme surrounded science communication; namely, how scientists and related stakeholders can increase the awareness of science policy issues, and encourage politicians and the public to support stronger science policies. This was a major focus of Preston Manning’s keynote address, but was also addressed in other sessions. I provided an outline of Manning’s arguments in an earlier post, which has generated some interesting and thoughtful discussion. Manning’s main point, if I can paraphrase, is that scientists need to understand the difference between “Receiver-Oriented Communication” (ROC) and “Source-Oriented Communication” (SOC). The former is based on a consideration of the interests, needs, and background of the person you’re speaking to, whereas the latter is based on the interests, needs, and background of the speaker. Too often, scientists engage in SOC communication, and when the message gets garbled or ignored, we lament the scientific illiteracy of the public. Instead, Manning urges scientific stakeholders to engage in ROC. So, if scientists are arguing for the support of a specific funding program, for instance, it is ineffective to frame it thus: “We need this money so that we can upgrade our equipment to pursue our work in X”. Instead, how does the same need fit with the receiver’s interests? Does it fit into the government science and technology program? Does it address something currently under political consideration? etc. It isn’t bastardizing the science or selling out to consider the audience; scientists do it all the time, whether when designing lectures or when submitting to different granting programs. Politics is just a different audience with different needs. We vastly underestimate the degree to which communication dominates politics, Manning suggests, and that the ability to communicate a policy efficiently and effectively is essential to its support. Not sufficient, mind you, but essential. Framing science in appropriate terms for political debate will help its cause. Manning had much more to say – a suggestion to separate policy advice from funding advocacy, the need to get more scientists involved in politics, and more – but I think his suggestion about effective communication generated the most interest. (For an insightful and cogent analysis on the same subject, check out Frogheart, and for some insightful thoughts about the dangers of simplifying science for the sake of communication, check out Jim’s comments on my earlier post).

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob Annan permalink*
    November 3, 2009 08:13

    As a corollary to this: I was just thinking some more about Jim’s points about the dangers of oversimplifying the science to get the point out. I think it is a real danger and poses a real conundrum.

    As an example, take the policy debate on global climate change. The need to communicate the science to politicians and the public has effectively divided the science into two distinct camps: climate change supporters and climate change “deniers”. All nuance is gone, uncertainty is erased, and the debate is polarized. The uncertainty and fine-grained distinctions inherent in science are erased as the discussion rotates around two extreme poles. But I suspect you would be hard-pressed to find any actual researchers who are absolutist about their position. Scientists, by definition, don’t hold absolute positions, but are ready to adapt to new and changing evidence. Politicians? Maybe not so much…

    But what is the solution? Even on a subject as prominent as climate change, involved and subtle discussion is overwhelmed. Is the division between the uncertain process of science and the adversarial process of democratic decision-making inherent and impossible to overcome?

    • Jim permalink
      November 3, 2009 16:26

      Very asute… The climate change debate has polarized unnecessarily as the science was simplified to encourage a call to action by frustrated climatologists. The science quickly played second fiddle to the rhetoric. Another example is the weird and troubling debate over vaccination – a debate that has been going on since Jenners day. There’s an (IMHO) excellent article in Wired discussing this issue which is long but worthy read:
      http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/10/ff_waronscience

      Anti-science is a real and dangerous possibility when science is poorly communicated. It is irresponsible to oversimplify or oversell. Credibility is fragile – and easily undermined by ignorance and arrogance. Just ask Professor David Nutt in the UK.

  2. November 4, 2009 09:26

    Thanks for sharing your synopses of the policy conference. This concept of receiver oriented communication and the potential for oversimplification/hype was recently discussed by Blackman in The Scientist “Promises, Promises” (http://www.the-scientist.com/2009/11/1/28/1/) and further explored in Gallagher’s commentary “Authors of Our Own Misfortune” (http://www.the-scientist.com/2009/11/1/13/1/).

    Oversimplification can often equal hype, as so many have already noted, it can be such a thin line to tread.

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      November 4, 2009 10:28

      Thanks for the links, Diane.

  3. November 4, 2009 09:42

    There is already underway in Canada an initiative to improve the reporting of science in the mass media. By next summer, the Science Media Centre of Canada will join other such centres already operating in the U.K. , Australia and New Zealand. (www.sciencemediacentre.ca for details)

    I was supposed to be part of the media panel on Day 3 of the conference but illness prevented me from attending. The moderator, Paul Wells of Macleans, read my remarks about the state of science journalism in Canada. If anyone is interested I can email a text.

    Peter Calamai

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      November 4, 2009 10:40

      Hi Peter,

      Your presence at the media panel was missed, though Paul Wells did an admirable job of reading your insightful comments (“incendiary”, he called them). The creation of the Science Media Centre of Canada was noted and discussed. It will no doubt do an admirable job of improving the state of mass media science reporting. Preston Manning had suggested the creation of an analogous body for politicians, modeled after the British Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Perhaps these sorts of “translational” bodies will help to bridge the communication gap between scientists and non-scientists.

  4. November 5, 2009 18:29

    It isn’t bastardizing the science or selling out to consider the audience; scientists do it all the time, whether when designing lectures or when submitting to different granting programs

    … and when communicating with the media. In fact, this “receiver-oriented communication” Preston Manning was describing, this “consider the audience” concept, is an other way of describing what we, journalists, are learning in first-year journalism. When hearing Manning arguments last week, I was saying to myself: “Hey, he is giving them a Journalism 101 lesson”.🙂

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