Do Scientists and Engineers Understand the Public?
American Academy Publishes Study Findings
June 29, 2010
WASHINGTON, DC – Scientific advances often provoke deep
concern on the part of the public, especially when these advances challenge strongly
held political or moral perspectives.
An American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ project on Improving the Scientific Community’s
Understanding of Public Concerns about Science and Technology examined the
ways in which scientists engage with the public, and how their mutual understanding
could be improved. More than fifty scientists, engineers, public policy experts,
lawyers, ethicists, and journalists participated in a series of workshops that focused
on four areas of public concern: the siting of nuclear waste repositories; the spread
of personal genetic information; the next generation of the Internet; and the risks
and benefits of emerging energy technologies. Several common themes emerged:
- Scientists and the public both share a responsibility for the divide. Scientists
and technical experts sometimes take for granted that their work will be viewed
as ultimately serving the public good. Members of the public can react viscerally
and along ideological lines, but they can also raise important issues that deserve
- Scientific issues require an “anticipatory approach.” A diverse group of
stakeholders — research scientists, social scientists, public engagement experts,
and skilled communicators — should collaborate early to identify potential scientific
controversies and the best method to address resulting public concerns.
- Communications solutions differ significantly depending on whether a scientific
issue has been around for a long time (e.g., how to dispose of nuclear waste) or
is relatively new (e.g., the spread of personal genetic information). In the case
of longstanding controversies, social scientists may have had the opportunity to
conduct research on public views that can inform communication strategies. For emerging
technologies, there will be less reliable analysis available of public attitudes.
In Do Scientists Understand the Public?, a new paper based on the Academy
study, science journalist Chris Mooney reviews the workshop findings and recommendations.
The monograph is available online at http://www.amacad.org/publications/scientistsUnderstand.aspx.
According to Mooney, Scientists and the public often have “very different perceptions
of risk, and very different ways of bestowing their trust and judging the credibility
of information sources.”
“Perhaps scientists are misunderstanding the public…due to their own quirks, assumptions,
and patterns of behavior,” says Mooney. Laypeople, meanwhile, tend to “strain their
responses to scientific controversies through their ethical or value systems, as
well as through their political or ideological outlooks.”
Leaders of the four Academy workshops were: David Clark, Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (The Next Generation of the Internet); Thomas Isaacs, Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory; Stanford University (Public Perception of Nuclear Waste Repositories);
David Altshuler, Broad Institute (The Spread of Personal Genetic Information); and
Robert Fri, Resources for the Future (The Risks and Benefits of Emerging Energy
The Academy’s multi-year project, Improving the Scientific Community’s Understanding
of Public Concerns about Science and Technology, was supported principally
by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Complimenting this study, the American Academy will soon release a new volume, Science
and the Media, edited by Donald Kennedy (Stanford University) and Geneva Overholser
(University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism). The collection
of essays will discuss the roles of scientists, journalists, and public information
officers in communicating about science and technology.
Marking its 230th year as an independent policy research center, the American Academy
of Arts and Sciences conducts multidisciplinary studies of complex and emerging
problems. Current Academy research focuses on science and technology policy; global
security; social policy; the humanities and culture; and education. With headquarters
in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Academy’s work is advanced by its 4,600 elected
members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business and public
affairs from around the world. (www.amacad.org)
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