The Public Face of Science in America: Priorities for the Future


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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 American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Public Face of Science Initiative began in spring 2016 to address the complex and evolving relationship between science and society. In this capacity, the initiative has aimed to: 1) raise awareness in the scientific and science communication communities on how the public currently views and encounters science; 2) encourage scholars, polling organizations, and funders to address unanswered questions pertaining to public attitudes and encounters with science; and 3) improve the science communication and engagement landscape.1 To achieve these goals, the initiative has engaged experts in communications, law, humanities, the arts, journalism, public affairs, and the physical, social, and life sciences.

The analysis of public opinion polling in Perceptions of Science in America (2018), the first report of the Public Face of Science Initiative, paints a picture of a heterogeneous public whose attitudes toward science are dependent on context and values (see Top Three Takeaways of Perceptions of Science in America). The data within the report highlight how trust in and support of science have remained strong relative to other professions. Although attitudes toward science are generally positive, the variation among demographic groups represents an area for concern and additional study. Further, the report shows how perceptions of specific controversial science issues, such as climate change and vaccine safety, are not uniformly associated with any particular demographic group. Perceptions of Science in America reiterated the need for science communicators, engagement programs, and scientists to understand the inherent multiplicity of attitudes toward science and the need for additional research on the subject.

The second report from the Public Face of Science Initiative, Encountering Science in America (2019), built on the findings of Perceptions to explore the complex landscape by which people experience science outside the classroom (see Top Three Takeaways of Encountering Science in America). In addition to presenting a broad conceptual framework for approaching science communication and engagement, the publication highlights the diverse and expanding range of opportunities for people to encounter science. These opportunities include visiting science centers, attending science events, engaging with science online, and participating in scientific research. In addition, the report includes a data-driven discussion section on science in the media. Encountering Science in America also explores how science communication and engagement activities can be designed for specific societal benefits, such as increasing community engagement with science, providing trusted information on controversial topics, or broadening participation in STEM.

The heterogeneity of current attitudes toward science, the great breadth of experiences with the potential to influence those attitudes, and the broad range of desired outcomes from science communication and engagement suggest that a multifaceted approach to shaping the public face of science is needed. This approach is based on insights from a series of nationwide expert roundtable discussions and two major workshops in June 2016 and June 2017. Additionally, outreach to key stakeholders following the release of the first two project reports has informed the recommendations for action outlined here.

This final report from the Public Face of Science Initiative identifies three high-level areas for change that can, over the long term, shape attitudes toward science and people’s experiences with it. Priority 1: Building capacity for effective science communication and engagement in the scientific community focuses on improving the foundation for these activities within the scientific community, with recommendations for universities (administrators to department heads), scientists, and scientific societies. Priority 2: Shaping the narrative around science reflects the importance of scientific narratives in guiding the public image of science and presents recommendations for science journalists, science communicators more broadly, scientific societies, and funders. Priority 3: Developing systemic support for science engagement efforts addresses the support structures for science engagement and the diverse group of stakeholders with recommendations for funders, scientific societies, science communication and engagement programs or participants, and universities.

Each priority has an accompanying set of goals and recommendations for action. Goals specify where actionable change needs to occur and a metric of what positive progress would look like. Actions are specific recommendations for how to make progress on each goal based on project findings, ongoing efforts, case studies, and current research. The goals and actions presented in this report do not reflect the only avenues for addressing the three priorities for the public face of science, but they provide a starting point for progress.

In addition to these recommendations, this report is a call to action for all organizations with an interest in the public face of science to use the resources at their disposal to support effective science communication and engagement.

Recommended actions for particular stakeholders are identified throughout this report using the following icons:





science engagement institutions

Science Engagement Institutions


scientific societies

Scientific Societies


higher education

Higher Education Institutions


science communicators

Science Communicators



  • 1The Public Face of Science Initiative primarily focuses on understanding attitudes toward and communication of the STEM sciences and uses the generic term science as the public often does: to describe the STEM sciences. We recognize the behavioral and social sciences, which play an essential role in this report, but our primary intent is to review what is known about the public face of the STEM sciences.