The Challenge of Communicating Science to the Public

By Charles R. Chappell and James Hartz

Developments in science and technology affect virtually every aspect of our lives, from our physical health to the kinds of cars that we drive. Improvements in technology have contributed substantially to increased productivity in U.S. industry. Yet in recent years, political pressures to balance the federal budget have eroded the proportion of the budget devoted to basic research, the underpinning of scientific and technological advances.

Scientists have understood the potentially debilitating consequences of this, but many citizens have not. President Clinton's budget for fiscal 1999 would begin to reverse this trend, if Congress accepts his proposals, but our information media still need to do a much better job of helping scientists communicate the substance and importance of their work.

As visiting scholars at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, we conducted a survey of 2,000 journalists and editors and 2,000 scientists and engineers to determine how the two groups felt about each other. We also wanted to find ways to improve their relationship and thus increase the amount of accurate and useful scientific information in the media.

The results of the survey, published in our recent report, "Worlds Apart," showed that neither scientists nor journalists think the media do a good job of explaining science to the public.

We asked both groups to rate how effectively the major media communicate scientific news. Both groups gave national newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post the best ranking, but neither group considered any of the media to be doing a particularly good job.

The results also revealed a serious lack of confidence by both scientists and journalists in the media's understanding of how science is done and how to interpret the results of research studies. That lack of knowledge means that journalists have a hard time reporting scientific and technological discoveries in a readily understandable and useful way. Examples include journalists' frequent confusion about how to interpret statistics, probability, and risk. Journalists in general also do not understand the peer-review process in science, hence may report findings that have not been subjected to an independent review. And they tend to look for sensational results, whereas science usually advances by a series of incremental steps.

Improved communication must begin with scientists themselves, of course, even though some still feel that talking to the public is a waste of their time. As competition for federal funds has increased, though, more scientists have acknowledged that they must communicate the importance of their work through the media.

In fact, we found that a remarkable 81 per cent of the scientists we surveyed stated that they would be willing to invest time in learning how to explain their work more clearly to the public. Further, both scientists and journalists agreed that science is not too complex to be reported effectively.

If scientists hope to improve their communication of science, they need to change their own culture. They must stop disapproving of colleagues who take on and even excel at this task. As Timothy Ferris pointed out in "The Risks and Rewards of Popularizing Science" ( The Chronicle, Opinion, April 4, 1997), Carl Sagan was one of the rare scientists who found it relatively easy to explain technical material simply, but he was scorned by many of his colleagues, who felt that he was too visible in the public eye.

As a first step in improving communication with the public, then, scientific societies and other organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, should make better use of the World-Wide Web to disseminate information about major advances in science. For instance, a scientific association could make readily available on the Web, for journalists and the public alike, several clearly written paragraphs about important new developments, indicating which new papers and discoveries were the most significant. The groups also could use the Web to make it easier for the news media to contact scientists with the ability to discuss new findings in terms that non-specialists could understand.

Journalists could use that information to decide which stories to pursue. The gatekeepers of the media -- editors and producers -- would find the information valuable in their efforts to understand the relative importance of various developments. That, in turn, would help them make decisions about whether to allot space to the stories. Further, interested members of the public, including policy makers, could use the information to help them interpret media coverage of recent research and to find other sites on the Web with relevant information.

Colleges and universities also need to do a better job of training scientists to explain their work. Students who are majoring in science should be required to take courses in how to communicate scientific research to the public. Those courses could include information on technical writing, but also should teach communications skills helpful in addressing the public, such as how to present an article about a scientific discovery as a detective story, and how to present new knowledge in graphic terms. In addition, universities should offer more workshops to train scientists who have already begun their research careers to communicate with the media more effectively.

Education for journalists also needs improvement. The best way to train science reporters is to create an undergraduate, interdisciplinary curriculum, half of which would be devoted to courses in science, engineering, and mathematics, and the other half to classes in communications, English, and other liberal arts. Such a program is being developed at Vanderbilt. Existing programs to train science journalists, including those at the master's level, too often are designed to teach a little science to journalism majors. That approach is inadequate. Instead, we need to keep all of those who will communicate scientific information to the public -- such as journalists, publicists for industry, and policy makers -- involved with science throughout their education.

For those journalists already in mid-career, we recommend workshops that expose them to scientists and the research process. The workshops might give the journalists a taste of actual research, through case studies that show the incremental nature of scientific discoveries or the way that research into one problem often sheds light on another issue. Media gatekeepers also should participate in workshops that help them gain a broad understanding of what various scientific fields are focusing on and what the ramifications of those developments are likely to be.

Economic competition today is driven largely by the quality and quantity of new science and technology. Our scientists and engineers will be able to generate further improvements in our lives. But if the pace of progress is to continue, voters need to understand the importance of adequate support for research and development. Now that many scientists understand the importance of citizens' support, scientific organizations, journalists, and educators need to build bridges to unite scientists firmly with the public that pays for and ultimately benefits from their explorations.

Charles R. Chappell is an adjunct professor of physics and director of science-and-research communications at Vanderbilt University. James Hartz is a journalist specializing in reporting on outer space and science.

Copyright (c) 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
Date: 03/20/98
Section: Opinion Page: B7

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