Encountering Science in America


Back to table of contents
The Public Face of Science

Science shapes American society in many ways, from the scientific information that guides fundamental personal choices—like which foods we eat and what products we buy—to the technologies that lead to entirely new industries. Every day, Americans enjoy the benefits of science, including job growth, economic prosperity, cutting-edge disease treatments, and faster communication than ever before. Scientific information also bears on important societal decisions, such as responses to climate change, the opioid epidemic, and environmental contamination.

The essential role of the natural and social sciences in everyday life raises questions about where and how Americans encounter scientific content outside of classroom settings. The improved access to content enabled by new technologies and interactive platforms has changed how Americans consume information and seek entertainment. Social media and podcasting platforms now allow scientists to contribute directly to the public dialogue to an unprecedented extent. At the same time, stories of innovation and investigation that historically have been presented on stage or in movies are now featured on YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. Moreover, established science venues such as museums and state/national parks continue to refine pedagogy and experiment with the latest virtual reality and gaming technologies. Despite their ubiquity, little is known about the cumulative impacts of these new experiences on individuals’ curiosity about science, trust in scientists, support for scientific research, and understanding of the scientific process.

The goal of this American Academy report is to improve understanding and awareness of this complex landscape of encounters with science among communities interested in participating in or supporting the practices of science communication and engagement. By highlighting several key considerations, such as audience interest, practitioner motivations, and the interconnectivity of science experiences, this report seeks to encourage informed engagement and new scholarship.

This is the second in a series of publications from the Academy’s Public Face of Science Initiative, a three-year endeavor to learn more about the complex and evolving relationship between scientists and the public. The first report, Perceptions of Science in America, was released in February 2018 and examined the current state of trust in science and scientists. The forthcoming final report will present recommendations for building the capacity for effective science communication and engagement.

The Academy is grateful to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Hellman Fellows Fund for their generous support of the Public Face of Science Initiative. The Academy also thanks the participants at workshops held in June 2016 and June 2017, as well as the many project advisors whose thoughtfulness and insights contributed to the development of this report.