Are we making an impact with science communication?

By Craig Cormick and Arwen Cross

Community concerns about wind farms and vaccines have led to a discussion about why some people have strong fears of adverse reactions, and why their perception of risk doesn’t align with those of scientists. As Janet McCalmun wrote recently:

Their problem is a problem with science, and science has a something of a problem with them.

Both sides have a problem which could potentially be addressed by better science communication that worked to include all sides of such debates rather than polarising them, and used evaluation to measure impact and improve.

There are many good arguments for raising community understanding of science. These include a knowledge of science being useful in daily life (such as determining which medical advice is more sound), the economic benefits (a skilled workforce is good for the national economy), the cultural benefits (that it is fulfilling to know about science, history or music), or even democratic benefits (an informed society can make better decisions). Let’s call this 20th century thinking.

More recent arguments say that people should be engaged early in the directions and outcomes of scientific research, as key stakeholders/tax payers/beneficiaries. Let’s call this 21st century thinking.

But is the question a discrepancy between 20th and 21st century thinking as Jenni Metcalfe has suggested? Or is it more about better matching science communication strategies with different audiences, based on evidence? Because if we’re going to debate the best way to communicate science to the public, we must use that key tool of scientific research – evidence!

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