RESEARCHERS today, more than ever, focus their work on real-world problems, oftentimes making their research relevant to the public locally, regionally and sometimes nationally.
However, engaging the public in their research can be a daunting task for researchers both professionally and personally.
Leah Gerber, an associate professor in the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences, has identified impediments to productive science communication. She presented her findings at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, Mass.
As a researcher, Gerber and her group at Arizona State develop mathematical approaches that bring together the best available scientific information to make rational, efficient conservation decisions about endangered species and ecosystem management. Getting that information to the public is a key component of her work.
Gerber said barriers to communicating science include a lack of reward for engaging the public and decision-makers on science, limited communications training and the time pressure faculty members face while trying to obtain tenure.
She said other barriers for researchers include prioritizing their commitments, understanding the value of communicating their work to the public and needing to push their comfort zone, such as standing in front of a camera.
While the culture is slowly changing within academic institutions, success in higher education still is largely measured by publications and grants, which demand large amounts of time, Gerber said.
"We must find a way to make engagement rise to the top of the pile," Gerber said, noting that new institutional incentives need to be developed and implemented.
Gerber said some other institutional changes need to be made as well. For example, she said new accounting measures need to be developed for faculty who engage the public, and their outreach work needs to be part of their evaluations.
In addition to the standard grants and publications measures, communications training should become part of leadership programs for scientists, and professors should be given time to develop relationships with the media, Gerber added.
'Wild West' of blogs
In a separate AAAS presentation, University of Wisconsin-Madison science communication researcher Dominique Brossard reported the results of a study showing that the tone of blog comments alone can influence the perception of risk posed by nanotechnology, the science of manipulating materials at the smallest scales.
The study, now in press at the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, was supported by the National Science Foundation. It sampled a representative cross-section of 2,338 Americans in an online experiment in which the civility of blog comments was manipulated.
For example, the study showed that introducing name calling into commentary tacked onto an otherwise balanced newspaper blog post could elicit either lower or higher perceptions of risk, depending on one's predisposition to the science of nanotechnology.
"It seems we don't really have a clear social norm about what is expected online," Brossard said, contrasting online forums with public meetings, where prescribed decorum helps keep discussion civil. "In the case of blog postings, it's the Wild West."
For rapidly developing nanotechnology, which is already built into more than 1,300 consumer products, exposure to uncivil online comments is one of several variables that can directly influence the perception of risk associated with the technology.
"When people encounter an unfamiliar issue like nanotechnology, they often rely on an existing value such as religiosity or deference to science to form a judgment," explained Ashley Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and the lead author of the upcoming journal article.
The study revealed that highly religious readers were more likely to see nanotechnology as risky when exposed to rude comments compared to less-religious readers, Brossard noted.
"Blogs have been a part of the new media landscape for quite some time now, but our study is the first to look at the potential effects blog comments have on public perceptions of science," Brossard said.
While the tone of blog comments can have an impact, simple disagreement in posts can also sway perception: "Overt disagreement adds another layer. It influences the conversation," she explained.
University of Wiscosin-Madison life sciences communication professor Dietram Scheufele, another of the study's co-authors, noted that the internet is a primary destination for people who are looking for detailed information and discussion on aspects of science and technology.
Because of that trend, "studies of online media are becoming increasingly important, but understanding the online information environment is particularly important for issues of science and technology," he said.