How do we enrich Americans’ engagement with science and technology? That is
the quest that brought scientists, journalists, and leaders of science institutions
together at a series of workshops organized by the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences and supported by the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.
Why did the participants find this topic so compelling? Discomfort with or disinterest
in science is widespread enough to seem “normal” in the United States.
Since somebody must understand science and technology well enough, why worry
that others don’t?
In fact, scientific illiteracy has deep and wide implications for public policy
in the United States and around the world. Having a minority in a democracy conversant
with science and technology produces a low level of public discussion and makes
for impoverished policy-making. On issues of great public import, from energy policy
to climate change, from how to teach evolution to how to fight disease, a lack of
scientific knowledge undermines progress. When a nation invades another with little
clarity about the science and technology underlying the war’s proximate cause,
when a population is seized by fears that science has shown to be unreasonable,
when children may not learn basic building blocks of knowledge because scientific
understanding and moral judgments are conflated—then a widespread understanding
of science seems a compelling need. And this is true not just for Americans. With
the rest of the world feeling the results of our policy decisions, the responsibilities
of this nation’s citizens are ever greater.
So what accounts for the sorry state of Americans’ civic scientific literacy?
The educational system, of course. But many other factors contribute. Journalists
and their conventions play a powerful role, one made more complex today with growing
resource pressures on the media. Scientists and their traditions are also
part of the problem—and solution—along with public information officers
and public officials. The Academy’s working group on Science, Technology,
and the Media wrangled with all these questions, trying to determine which issues
seemed most critical—and what eventually might be done to address them.
How science and technology are covered by the media is a central factor in scientific
illiteracy. Journalists value timeliness, speed, simplicity, and clarity. Yet stories
about science and technology may be long-building, complex, and without dramatic,
time-pegged events. The need to grab and hold attention, to write tight stories
or produce short segments, can come at the cost of context and nuance. One observer,
noting journalism’s preference for attention-grab-bing, conflict-driven events,
has joked that reporters two thousand years ago would have covered the heck out
of the crucifixion—and missed Christianity.
To make science and technology coverage still more challenging, the journalistic
tradition of objectivity has often been distorted into a kind of false balance,
giving equal weight to opposing views, no matter how much or little credibility
or value they possess. Scientific issues may be closely interwoven with moral or
ethical controversy—consider stem-cell research, evolution, even climate change.
Yet journalism’s conventions make it ill-suited to aiding the public in disentangling
the underlying science from the controversy, sometimes creating in the observer
the notion that scientific thinking is divided even when it is not. And it is not
always easy for journalists—or the public—to accept the tenet that all
scientific knowledge is provisional. As one of the journalists put it: should we
have covered Newton or should we have waited for Einstein?
Meanwhile, many in the scientific community are reluctant to speak to the press
or to engage with the public. One bad experience with an interviewer may turn a
scientist off to journalists for a lifetime. And “popularization” of
one’s work in mainstream media, far from winning acclaim for a scientist,
is often viewed instead with disdain by colleagues. Our group also noted the glaring
lack of training opportunities for scientists and engineers to acquire the skills
to make them strong communicators. In fact, courses that might prepare future scientists
to present their work to lay audiences are completely absent from most graduate
On the other side of the spectrum, some scientists who have become adept
at dealing with the press and the public either hype or over-simplify their work
for an all-too-credulous interviewer. Little wonder, then, that science and medical
stories—as one of our participants noted—seem always to fall into one
of two categories: either no hope or new hope.
While the group focused much of its attention on science journalists, it recognized
that many—perhaps the majority of—big science and technology news stories
are covered by reporters who do not specialize in these areas. In fact, coverage
of stories that have important science components appears every day, written or
produced by journalists who lack any particular training or experience in science.
The fact is there are fewer and fewer reporters on the science beat and ever smaller
science news holes at the nation’s daily newspapers and broadcast and cable
Into this mix, add public-relations people with varying degrees of training and
government officials with varying degrees of scientific understanding themselves—not
to mention the pull of institutional loyalties and varying attitudes toward openness.
Meanwhile, traditional news media resources dwindle, and competition for limited
government money for scientific research increases, while those determined to “spin”
scientific stories grow ever more adept at doing so.
And what of the public? How well prepared are American citizens to engage in science
and technology issues? The single largest determinant of a person’s scientific
literacy, one of the workshop participants noted, is whether he or she has taken
a science course in college. Surveys indicate that Americans have a healthy respect
for science. And they evince considerable interest in it. It’s the understanding
of science and technology that’s lacking.
A piece of emerging good news is that enormous possibilities are opening now, with
new media, for citizens to inform themselves. And the evidence suggests that there
is a healthy appetite among news consumers for information about science and technology
(and health); these topics are among the ones that people search for most frequently
online. But what about their vulnerability to the pressures of narrow interests
in the Wild West atmosphere of the Web? And, if understanding and communicating
complex science stories is sometimes challenging even for veteran science reporters,
what happens in an environment in which the user is king and the audience drives
The participants in the workshops resolved to address this complex set of issues
in a number of ways. The essays in this volume discuss the roles of scientists,
journalists, and public information officers in communicating about science and
technology. The authors look at the role the media play in boosting Americans’
scientific literacy and at how the new digital media are changing the coverage (and
consumption) of science news. They discuss how inadequate press coverage combined
with poor communication by scientists can lead to disastrous public policy decisions.
* * *
The relationship between scientists and science journalists is the subject of the
introductory essay by project cochair Donald Kennedy, former Editor-in-Chief
of Science and President Emeritus of Stanford University. Starting with the
assumption that citizens’ broad understanding of science and technology is
“a public good,” Kennedy explores the complaints on both sides of the
relationship and discusses ways to improve the clarity of communication.
Actor, writer, and director Alan Alda, who has interviewed dozens of scientists
as the host of science-themed programs on public television, admonishes scientists
to share their passion for their work with the public. Noting that good communication
is fundamental to successful science at multiple levels, he suggests that some of
the actor’s techniques are well suited to enhancing scientists’ ability
to convey their work to the public.
According to Cristine Russell, Senior Fellow in the Environment and Natural
Resources Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science
and International Affairs and President of the Council for the Advancement of Science
Writing, the greatest challenge for the news media is to enhance public understanding
of policy options. Russell provides a wide-ranging look at the state of science
writing and explores opportunities for the media to provide more balanced coverage
to benefit a wider audience.
Most Americans receive foundational instruction about science in school. But if
science literacy is crucial to an informed citizenry, then adults need to continue
learning about science long after their formal schooling, argues Jon D. Miller, the John A. Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies at Michigan
State University. Miller, who has developed a scorecard for measuring a nation’s
“civic scientific literacy,” examines the impact of the media on adult
scientific literacy in the United States.
An essay coauthored by Rick E. Borchelt, Director of Communications for the
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research, education, and economics mission
area, Lynne T. Friedmann, freelance science writer, and Earle Holland,
Assistant Vice President for Research Communications at Ohio State University, addresses
a “trust gap” in science as an enterprise, and holds public relations
practitioners responsible for a lack of dialogue and transparency. To cultivate
trust, the authors argue for a fundamental change in the way information flows —from
the current model of “one-way” communication to “two-way symmetric
communication” between scientific organizations and their stakeholders.
Robert Bazell, Chief Science and Health Correspondent for NBC News, has spent
his journalistic career interacting with public information officers like Borchelt
and his coauthors. While agreeing with many of their conclusions, Bazell questions
the basic assertion that Americans no longer trust science or the scientific enterprise.
He also offers his own pragmatic assessment of the role that institutions play in
disseminating science news.
Cornelia Dean, science writer and former Science Editor at The New York Times,
discusses the “collective unwillingness and/or inability of scientists”
to talk to the public. Dean recalls a time when the disconnect between scientists
and the public was not very important. Today, however, it has big implications for
the nation’s public life. She offers practical suggestions for bridging the
gap between scientists and the public.
In assessing the prospects for science journalism in a digital age, Alfred Hermida,
a veteran BBC correspondent and now Assistant Professor at the University of British
Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, explores the changing nature of science
news. Hermida welcomes the participatory potential of the Internet for science stories
but warns that the nonlinear nature of the Web can make it a challenging medium,
in which readers may “jump straight into a deep end.”
Although journalists need not be scientists or engineers, they do need to have enough
technical understanding to communicate effectively the scientific or technological
dimensions of public policy issues that dominate the news. In his essay, William
A. Wulf, University Professor and AT&T Professor of Engineering and
Applied Sciences at the University of Virginia, cites six “poor, and perhaps
even dangerous” examples of media coverage. His intention is not to condemn
the media, but rather to invite journalists and the technical community to share
a responsibility to inform the public.
* * *
As the world grows more complex, there is an increasing need for citizens to understand
the scientific and technological dimensions of daily news events. Journalists play
a critical role in helping readers, listeners, and viewers appreciate the science
underlying major policy choices. And scientists, in turn, must effectively communicate
to the public, especially through the media. We hope that the essays gathered in
this volume will generate a broader understanding of the intertwined roles of the
media and the scientific and technical community in helping to ensure a well-informed
Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser, Cochairs
American Academy working group on
Science, Technology, and the Media