Science and Communication
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).