Do Scientists Understand the Public?


Back to table of contents
Chris Mooney
Scientists’ Understanding of the Public

Beginning in 2008, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences organized four off-the-record workshops for experts from the scientific community and representatives of the public to explore how scientists currently understand their obligation to the broader social and cultural contexts in which their work is received, and to examine ways to improve engagement between the scientific and public communities.

The Academy focused each project workshop on a specific area of research and technology: the Internet, nuclear waste, genetic information, and alternative energy. In these four areas, scientists have met with varying degrees of success in working with the public, in part because of differences in the maturity of the technologies. For instance, nuclear waste has been an issue for decades while personal genomics is a still-emerging field. These developmental time frames affected the workshop discussions as well as the recommendations for next steps that emerged from each workshop.

Nevertheless, the four project workshops identified common themes that can influence future work to strengthen the dialogue between the scientific community and the public. These themes serve as the basis for what might become a contract between society and science. The goal of such a contract should be to provide ways for society to benefit from emerging technologies while reducing risk. These themes include:

  • Heterogeneity. It is important to remember that both the “public” and the scientists/technologists” are heterogeneous.
  • Trust. The scientific community must build and maintain the public’s trust.
  • Education. Just as the public must be educated on scientific topics, so must the scientific community be educated on public attitudes and opinions.
  • Communication. There is a need to improve the forums for public communication.

There are many ongoing efforts to build public trust, to learn about the values of the target audience, and to address issues of concern to the public; yet more can be done to encourage the expert community to cultivate and maintain trust, as well as to listen and respond to public concerns. Based on the pilot workshops, the Academy has developed a series of recommendations to guide future work in this area:

  1. Scientists and engineers should seek input from the public at the earliest stages of technology development and should continue to seek consensus through a participatory process.
    • One attribute of an effective participatory process will be for experts to demonstrate to the public that the scientific community is taking the public’s views into account.
  1. When assessing the risks and benefits of new technologies, scientists and engineers should account for the non-technical and value-based concerns of the public in addition to technical concerns.
    • Scientists and engineers should perform a thorough and publicly accessible evaluation of non-technical concerns.
    • Scientists and engineers should clearly articulate the ethical values that will guide their work, build those values into all aspects of their work, and consequently build all relationships around those ethical principles and values.
  1. The expert community should value and utilize data from social scientists in order to better understand public attitudes toward science and technology.
    • Science and engineering journals should include regular columns that present data from social science studies regarding public attitudes toward science and technology.
    • Professional scientific meetings should include discussions of current public attitudes toward new scientific discoveries and why those attitudes are vital to scientific research.
  1. Scientists and engineers need to create more opportunities to establish the trust and confidence of the public.
    • Open forums, tours of facilities, and science cafés are existing ways the public can interact with the expert community; these options provide the expert community an opportunity to build the trust of the public.
    • Scientists and engineers should develop effective communication strategies based on authoritative information from independent scientists and government officials. This strategy can be used both when creating new regulatory guidelines and during times of crisis.

This study provided a unique opportunity for scientists and representatives of the public to examine the scientist-public relationship from a new viewpoint. Meeting participants found the “scientists’ understanding of the public” perspective refreshing and intellectually challenging. They expressed an intent to carry forward these recommendations in their own work, and we hope they will do so.

The Academy gratefully acknowledges the workshop chairs: David Clark (MIT), David Altshuler (Broad Institute), Thomas Isaacs (Stanford University and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), and Robert Fri (Resources for the Future). We also appreciate the contributions of the workshop participants (see page 16). The Academy expresses its gratitude to the members of the advisory committee for the Academy’s Initiative on Science, Engineering, and Technology, which had oversight of this project: Neal Lane (Rice University), Greg Papadopoulos (formerly of Sun Microsystems), Hunter Rawlings (Cornell University), and Charles Vest (National Academy of Engineering).

We are especially grateful to Chris Mooney for distilling our discussions and helping bring attention to scientists’ understanding of the public.

Thank you also to Academy staff Dorit Zuk, John Randell, Elizabeth Huttner, Paul Karoff, Phyllis Bendell, Micah Buis, Erica Dorpalen, and Scott Wilder, who provided organization and assistance throughout all phases of this project and also helped produce this publication.

The Academy would like to thank Ralph Gomory for proposing this study, and Doron Weber and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for supporting this exploration of the complexities of the science-public dialogue.

Leslie Berlowitz
Chief Executive Officer and William T. Golden Chair
American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Kimberly Durniak
Program Officer
American Academy of Arts and Sciences