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

Priority 1: Building Capacity for Effective Science Communication and Engagement in the Scientific Community

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The Public Face of Science

The public is both a benefactor and beneficiary of science. In 2015, the federal government supported 44 percent of basic research in the United States.2 The outcomes of this scientific exploration can lead to direct impacts on society, from technologies that enable human gene editing to autonomous vehicles. The intrinsic links between the scientific community and the broader public necessitate that scientists actively pursue opportunities for engagement and education, from discussing findings with policy-makers to engaging directly with local communities.

Progress toward this priority will require developing institutional support, instituting structural reform, and connecting the scientific community with fields and professions that specialize in science communication and engagement. Capacity-building will also need to reflect an understanding that the skills and approaches required for these activities will vary based on the content, audiences, and objectives (see Top Three Takeaways from Perceptions of Science in America). Exemplifying this dynamic approach to science communication and engagement, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offers a variety of programs that provide scientists with the skills and opportunities to work with journalists, policy-makers, and communities. Such AAAS programming also demonstrates the established interest in the scientific community to connect with new partners and communities.

As discussed in Encountering Science in America, scientists have a variety of individual professional motivations for participating in science communication and engagement, including the desire to improve science literacy, to strengthen the perception of science, and for personal enjoyment. Science communication and engagement support programs designed for scientists can foster these motivations. For example, scientists who participated in the nationwide “Portal to the Public” training program were more likely to cite objectives such as “getting people excited about science” and “describing scientific findings in ways that make them relevant to people” than university-level scientists who did not participate.3

scientific societies

AAS Programming for Scientists

The American Association for the Advancement of Science offers a suite of science communication and engagement fellowships and professional development opportunities, including:

  • AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (established in 1973). This fellowship offers Ph.D.-level scientists the oppor­tunity to work in the executive or legislative branches of government in order to learn about government and policy-making. Fellows serve in government for one year, sometimes extended to two. Approximately 275 fellows are now spread across all three branches of the federal government. Since its founding, there have been more than three thousand AAAS Science Policy Fellows, about half of whom continue working in government following their fellowship, while others return to the bench or enter other boundary-crossing careers.4
  • Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science (established in 2016). Every year, each Leshner Fellow cohort specializes in a different scientific domain that broadly impacts society, such as human augmentation or water security. Leshner Fellows continue to work at their home institutions while receiving training in science engagement best practices and support for broader engagement activities, including plan development.
  • AAAS Mass Media Fellowship (established in 1973). The Mass Media Fellowship is a ten-week experiential learning program that places scientists who are already active science communicators with major media outlets such as NPR, WIRED magazine, and NOVA/PBS. Some scientists have continued to work within the field after their fellowship.
  • Communicating Science Seminar and Workshops. A recurring part of the AAAS Annual Meeting, the Communicating Science Seminar attracted five hundred participants in 2019. The full-day schedule of plenary talks and breakout sessions provides a forum that brings together aspiring science communicators and experts. In addition to the seminar, AAAS hosts Communicating Science Workshops tailored to provide scientists with tools to engage effectively with a range of audiences.



GOAL 1: Increase appreciation, awareness, and understanding of the skills required for effective science communication and engagement among the scientific community.

A recent survey of scientists found that a greater expectation of enjoyment and ability to make a difference were associated with a higher willingness to engage with the public.5  Similarly, during Public Face of Science Initiative activities and research efforts, a lack of appreciation for the skills and activities associated with science communication and engagement was cited as a recurring barrier to building systemic capacity. A collective recognition of the expertise required for—and the benefit of—these activities will be necessary to assess accurately and reward scientists for their contributions.6 This recognition should occur within all levels of the established structures of the scientific community, including academic departments, organizational leadership, and scientific societies.

To build capacity for science communication and engagement, there also needs to be a stable and responsive pipeline for the scientific community to learn and master continually evolving and developing best practices. Science communication and engagement rely on expertise from a range of fields outside of the technical and field-specific knowledge and experience of scientists and engineers, including but not limited to communication, education, public relations, and the cognitive, social, and behavioral sciences (see Special Section: The Crucial Role of the Social and Behavioral Sciences).

Currently, the burden to learn and understand best practices typically falls on individual scientists and engineers to seek out resources or training. Science communication trainers have recently identified the foundational skills necessary for effective science communication. A table of these skills has been included as part of Appendix A in this report. The actions for this goal utilize current frameworks within the scientific community and would shift the burden from the individual scientist to the broader scientific community. Systemic and institutional changes that build capacity for science communication and engagement will understandably require a significant dedication of resources, including time, funding, and personnel from the scientific community.


higher education

[Goal 1] Action 1:

STEM undergraduate and graduate programs should integrate core science communication and engagement competencies into their curricula.

Long-term capacity-building requires educating the next generation of scientists on best practices in science communication and engagement. Integrating science communication and engagement into the core competencies for scientific training will have a greater systemic reach than one-time workshops and training experiences. Understandably, this action will present challenges due to the lack of expertise of department faculty and the need to devote time and resources to the task. However, institutions that adopt this approach will be acknowledging how fundamental these skills are to becoming a scientist, as explored in-depth in two 2018 reports from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). The NASEM report Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century presents recommendations for improving the graduate STEM education system to meet twenty-first century demands on the scientific workforce, including “expansions in the scope of occupations needing STEM expertise.” The report suggests core educational elements for master’s and doctoral degrees, specifically suggesting the development of foundational and transferrable skills in “leadership, communication, and professional competencies,” including “the capacity to communicate, both orally and in written form, the significance and impact of a study or a body of work to all STEM professionals, other sectors that may utilize the results, and the public at large.”7 Published by NASEM the same year, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education examines the evidence for integrating curricula from the arts and humanities into scientific disciplines, including a 2015 study of MIT mechanical engineering undergraduate alumni showing that communication was among the top skills used and expected by employers. The report concludes that “certain approaches that integrate the humanities and arts with STEM have been associated with positive learning outcomes,” including communication skills.8 Recent efforts to identify specific learning outcomes for science communication training further support the ability to integrate core competencies into curricula.

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Research Highlight

“Science Communication Training: What Are We Trying to Teach?”

Curricula with integrated core science communication and engagement competencies will need to be developed and evaluated based on specific learning goals and objectives. In a 2017 publication, science literacy and communication scholars Ayelet Baram-Tsabari and Bruce Lewenstein outlined a preliminary, high-level list of learning goals to “provoke conversation about the contours of the overall field of science communication training.”9 They envision science communicators who:

  1. “Experience excitement, interest, and motivation about science communication activities and develop attitudes supportive of effective science communication.
  2. Come to generate, understand, remember, and use concepts, explanations, arguments, models, and facts related to science communication.
  3. Use science communication methods, including written, oral, and visual communication skills and tools, for fostering fruitful dialogues with diverse audiences.
  4. Can reflect on science and science communication’s role within society; on processes, concepts, and institutions of science communication; and on their own process of learning about and doing science communication.
  5. Participate in scientific communication activities in authentic settings, creating written, oral, and visual science messages suitable for various non-technical audiences and engaging in fruitful dialogues with those audiences.
  6. Think of themselves as science communicators and develop an identity as someone who is able to contribute to science communication.”

scientific societies

[Goal 1] Action 2:

Scientific societies should establish or further develop their resources on science communication and engagement.

Scientific societies are a common resource for professional development, research dissemination, and network-building. Moreover, scientific societies already have a vested interest in communication and engagement activities as a means of increasing awareness of current research in their fields. Time and monetary constraints typically limit the number of conferences and workshops individual scientists can attend, which creates inequitable access to best practices in science communication and engagement. Scientific societies are uniquely positioned to provide discipline-relevant resources for their members.

Science communication and engagement resources and training should be developed with clear objectives and, to avoid a duplication of effort, be informed by current research and practices in science communication fields. Understanding and implementing these standards will present a challenge to smaller scientific societies with fewer resources and personnel. Successful development of resources will likely require strategic partnerships with established programs or experts from the social, behavioral, and cognitive sciences.

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Research Highlight

“Scientific Societies’ Support for Public Engagement: An Interview Study”

A 2019 study by communication and media scholars Shupei Yuan, Anthony Dudo, and John C. Besley of twenty-one scientific societies in the United States found that “society leaders recognize the value of public engagement and the critical role of societies in supporting public engagement activities.”10  Unique aspects of scientific society support for public engagement that surfaced in the study include:

  • Impact of societies as a credible messenger;
  • Lifelong support for their members; and
  • Programming and content tailored to the differing needs of individual disciplines.

Of the interviewed societies, a majority already offered some form of science communication training, although this may not reflect the realities of smaller societies with scarce resources. However, the authors determined that few of the interviewed societies “have a clear objective when it comes to the design and development of their engagement activities,” and evaluation of these activities was limited.

scientific societies

The American Geophysical Union’s Science Communication and Engagement Resources

In 2010, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) released a new strategic plan with the mission to “promote discovery in Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity”11 and vision to “[galvanize] a community of Earth and space scientists that collaboratively [advances] and [communicates] science and its power to ensure a sustainable future.”12 To align with this newly stated mission and vision, AGU launched Sharing Science, a network made up of AGU members and led by a team of AGU’s staff from different departments across the society, including education, public affairs, strategic communications, and public information. This dedicated staff support allows for sustained and strategic development of Sharing Science programming.

Goals of the Sharing Science network include:

  • “Helping scientists powerfully convey the value of their work to the public and build important relationships with journalists, policy makers, educators, and community groups.
  • Making scientists visible, authoritative, and accessible voices in their community and the world.
  • Breaking down barriers by promoting scientific literacy and helping scientists to be compelling communicators and receptive participants in important conversations.”13

Sharing Science makes resources available on a website accessible to members and nonmembers alike and provides tools and exercises for scientists engaged in science communication. For example, to encourage scientists to rethink their use of scientific lingo in communication efforts, AGU provides a list of geophysical science jargon with dual meanings to avoid, such as “model” and “cycling.”14

Sharing Science has also added programming to AGU’s annual conference, with the 2018 conference attracting nearly thirty thousand people. As part of the formal conference, Sharing Science hosts a week of sessions and workshops devoted to science communication aimed at targeting a range of audiences through a variety of platforms and multimedia. Sharing Science also partnered with established science communication platforms and professionals, including the podcasts Story Collider and Third Pod from the Sun, filmmaker James Balog, and other artists, poets, bloggers, and social media and science communication experts active in this space. AGU’s dedicated programming demonstrates the organization’s recognition that science communication requires a sustained effort over time and is an important priority for its membership.



  • 5John C. Besley, Anthony Dudo, Shupei Yuan, et al., “Understanding Scientists’ Willingness to Engage,” Science Communication 40 (5) (2018): 559–590.
  • 6Informal Science, “Support Systems for Scientists’ Communication and Engagement: Summary of Initiative, Landscape Reports and Workshops,” Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education, February 10, 2019 (accessed December 11, 2019).
  • 7National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2018).
  • 8National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2018).
  • 9Ayelet Baram-Tsabari and Bruce V. Lewenstein, “Science Communication Training: What Are We Trying to Teach?” International Journal of Science Education, Part B 7 (3) (2017): 285–300.
  • 10Shupei Yuan, Anthony Dudo, and John C. Besley, “Scientific Societies’ Support for Public Engagement: An Interview Study,” International Journal of Science Education, Part B 9 (2) (2019): 1–14.
  • 11American Geophysical Union, “Strategic Plan” (accessed December 11, 2019).
  • 12American Geophysical Union, “AGU’s Mission” (accessed December 11, 2019).
  • 13American Geophysical Union, “Share and Advocate for Earth and Space Science” (accessed December 11, 2019).
  • 14For instance: In a scientific context, “cycling” is a flow of nutrients or elements; its general meaning is riding a bicycle. In science, “model” can mean computer simulation; a more common meaning is a person who shows off/advertises fashion or a product.

GOAL 2: Increase the capacity for science communication and engagement at higher education institutions.

Aademic institutions conduct slightly less than half of all basic research in the United States, while also educating and training the next generation of scientists.15 As a result, building capacity within the scientific community for science communication and engagement requires building capacity at higher education institutions. Science communication and engagement efforts should, whenever possible, be built on a current understanding of the research and evaluation of previous activities. Efforts to systemically change higher education institutions will require a multi­faceted approach. For example, the Association of American Universities’ (AAU) effort to reform undergraduate STEM education was developed around a framework that included pedagogy, support structures, and cultural change.

A 2018 landscape of university support systems and people supporting scientists in public engagement identified possible levers of change based on a review of twenty-six recent reports and seven focus groups with individuals from twenty-two institutions.16  These levers of change included 1) exposing the time investment required for effective engagement; 2) supporting brokers to magnify existing programs; 3) developing sophisticated metrics; and 4) con-ducting promotion and tenure reform.

case study

Case Study

AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative17

When: Launched in 2011.

AAU member participation in undergraduate reform activities (as of 2017): 55 out of 62 member universities and 275 faculty members/leaders.

Focus of the initiative: “To influence the culture of STEM departments at AAU universities so that faculty members are encouraged to use teaching practices proven by research to be effective in engaging students in STEM education and helping them learn.”

Infrastructure: Dedicated AAU staff member who engages with dedicated campus liaisons, workshops/in-person forums, and collaborations with national associations, funders, and industry partners.

Recommendations for successful institutionalization of undergraduate STEM education reforms:

  1. Shift from individual to collective responsibility for courses and curricula;
  2. Consider hiring nontraditional positions to bolster education reforms;
  3. Reorganize support services to augment departmental reform efforts;
  4. Employ and adequately support evidence-based educational best practices as an institutional responsibility; and
  5. Better manage the simultaneous pursuit of high-quality teaching and research.18

higher education

[Goal 2] Action 1:

Higher education institutions should designate centralized staff to connect and support on-campus science communication and engagement activities. Designated staff could support bridge-building between local efforts and the broader field and serve as a central resource for the dissemination of best practices.

A centralized, permanent support structure for on-campus science communication and engagement activities will support the development of institutional memory, encourage on- and off-campus partnerships, and provide a unifying resource. A significant obstacle to building capacity is the inefficiency of information-sharing on campuses and with local and national efforts. At the same time, common obstacles to building institutional knowledge are the single-effort nature of engagement activities, disjointed efforts across campuses, the reliance on soft funding for supporting professional facilitators and organizers, and the lack of funding for travel to relevant conferences and meetings. Efforts to generate support within an institution for capacity should also consider using established tools for understanding an institution’s current commitment to engagement.

Dedicated institutional resources can also help support aligned research and community-building efforts. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities’ (APLU) Public Impact-Focused Research (PIR) initiative has sought to design a common framework capable of empowering more institutions to undertake societally responsive research. The PIR report released in November 2019 identifies efforts to build communications capacity through investing in communications and weaving communications training into the fabric of academic institutions as critical components of successful PIR programs.19


Highlights from the Field

The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement: EDGE Tool

The National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) was founded in 2008 as part of an initiative to “create a culture within UK higher education where public engagement is formalised and embedded as a valued and recognised activity for staff at all levels, and for students.”20 The NCCPE’s EDGE tool is an example of a framework for self-assessing an institution’s support for public engagement in terms of “Embryonic, Developing, Gripping and Embedded levels of support.”21 The tool uses purpose, process, and people as focal points for assessing public engagement. For example, institutional missions with “little or no reference to public engagement in the organisational mission” would be at an embryonic level of support compared with institutions with an embedded level of support where engagement is “prioritised in the institution’s official mission and in other key strategies, with success indicators identified.”22

higher education

[Goal 2] Action 2:

Higher education institutions should encourage on-campus interdisciplinary research and programming partnerships to support science communication and engagement.

Most higher education institutions already possess expertise in the education, communication, social, behavioral, and cognitive sciences on campus. Transdisciplinary partnerships have the potential to address emerging research questions such as those surrounding public engagement with gene editing and can serve as a resource for best practices in communication and engagement (see Special Section: The Crucial Role of the Social and Behavioral Sciences).23 This action also reflects the recent growth of interdisciplinary research as a means of addressing the grand challenges facing society.24

The need for on-campus partnerships will only continue to grow considering the increased emphasis on evaluation and program impact of science communication and engagement activities. In addition to one-on-one partnerships between faculty, dedicated departments or initiatives can also support formal, interdisciplinary campus activity. Examples include:

  • The Department of Life Sciences Communication in the college of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has been a source of cutting-edge research on science communication, working with life scientists on topical issues such as gene drives and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).25 In addition to research, the Department of Life Sciences Communication offers undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. programs, including a Ph.D. minor in science communication.
  • Duke University’s Initiative for Science & Society seeks “to maximize social benefit from scientific progress by making science more accessible, just, and better integrated into society.”26 The initiative has core and affiliated faculty from across disciplines, provides resources and programming on areas such as research impact and science communication, and supports interdisciplinary research.
  • Iowa State University’s Science Communication Project emphasizes research, education, and dissemination. In addition to interdisciplinary research on “communicating science in controversial settings and of appropriate methods for addressing these challenges,” the project develops educational materials and trainings for early-career scientists.27

higher education

[Goal 2] Action 3:

The promotion and tenure system should reward—not discount—participation in science communication and engagement activities.

Although science communication and engagement should not be limited to tenure track faculty at research universities, the lack of formal incentives for these activities has a ripple effect throughout the broader scientific community. Changes to the promotion and tenure structure that acknowledge science communication and engagement will likely need to come alongside additional STEM reform efforts currently under discussion. These efforts include recognizing and rewarding progress in undergraduate education, transdisciplinary research partnerships, and effective mentorship. Ongoing efforts attempting to identify case studies of successful promotion and tenure reforms should be supported alongside national efforts to address this issue.


  • 15National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2018.
  • 16Informal Science, “Support Systems for Scientists’ Communication and Engagement: An Exploration of the People and Institutions Empowering Effective Impact” (Washington, D.C.: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education, 2018).
  • 17Association of American Universities Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, Framework for Systemic Change in Undergraduate STEM Teaching and Learning (New York and Washington, D.C.: Association of American Universities Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, 2017).
  • 18Emily R. Miller, James S. Fairweather, Linda Slakey, et al., “Catalyzing Institutional Transformation: Insights from the AAU STEM Initiative,” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 49 (5) (2017): 36–45.
  • 19Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Public Impact Research: Engaged Universities Making the Difference (Washington, D.C.: Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, 2019).
  • 20National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, “Our History” (accessed December 11, 2019).
  • 21National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, “Introducing the EDGE Tool” (accessed December 11, 2019).
  • 22National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, “EDGE Self-Assessment Matrix.”
  • 23Jenell Johnson and Michael A. Xenos, “Research Building Better Bridges: Toward a Transdisciplinary Science Communication,” Technical Communication Quarterly 28 (2) (2019).
  • 24Why Interdisciplinary Research Matters,” Nature, September 17, 2015.
  • 25Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, “About” (accessed December 11, 2019).
  • 26Duke Initiative for Science and Society, “Our Mission” (accessed December 11, 2019).
  • 27Iowa State University Science Communication Project, “What We Do” (accessed December 11, 2019).