Better communciation of science to the public is critical to tackling major environmental challenges

There is a pressing need for researchers to better communicate science and technology developments to the general public, says Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a publication last week.

Currently, public engagement tends to be an afterthought, says Mr Leshner, meaning that the general population and, critically, policymakers, frequently “misunderstand, misrepresent or disregard” complex issues such as climate change and GM food.

Improving public understanding and involvement in these issues is critical, as solutions to tackle them often depend on a strong policy response and widespread buy-in from the general population. GM foods, for example, cannot be successfully introduced without the support of the public, as was demonstrated by the rejection of a genetically-modified aubergine variety in India in 2010.

To help researchers with the challenge of communicating often complex scientific findings, Mr Leshner points to recent empirical research which reveals information about how public attitudes to scientific knowledge are shaped.

He also stresses the importance of ‘issue-framing’ in determining the reaction of the public and policy-makers and suggests scientists can learn from ‘antiscience forces’ which often significantly simplify the information in order to tell a convincing story. People care most about issues that might affect them personally, so the strongest tool in effective science-communication may be tailoring the message to a particular audience’s concerns.

However, in adopting this approach, Mr Leshner stresses, science faces a particular challenge; researchers must make sure to always “stick to the facts” so as not to in fact counter-productively undermine science’s credibility in the public eye.

The original article was published on on 22nd August 2012