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

Priority 2: Shaping the Narrative around Science

Back to table of contents
The Public Face of Science

Scientific narratives encompass everything from the discussion of specific scientific topics, such as vaccine safety, to assessments of the efficacy of the scientific enterprise. Discussion of science in news media and on digital platforms impacts public perceptions of science. Media coverage of scientific topics has been found not only to raise awareness of a particular subject, but also to shape trust in the relevant science bearing on that topic.28

Efforts to shape the narrative around science should be based on a rigorous understanding of how these narratives are transmitted and interpreted by audiences. The science of science communication is the study of scientific messaging, including how those messages are interpreted and how they influence behaviors and attitudes. The 2017 Oxford Handbook on the Science of Science Communication provides insights from this field, including case studies of failures and successes in communication, that should inform efforts to shape the narrative around science (see research highlight for a specific example).29

Ideally, scientific narratives should accurately reflect scientific consensus and the contributions of current scientific research. Narratives also have the potential to influence perceptions about who can contribute to science and use scientific thinking. Despite recent strides to bring more diversity into STEM fields, there is still pervasive underrepresentation of women and minorities in the workforce, with women accounting for just 30 percent of STEM professionals.30 When this disparity is compounded by a lack of representation of women scientists in the media, the public receives the message that only people who comply with a particular image can participate and inform science.

In addition to encouraging approaches to science communication that reduce misconceptions, shaping the narrative around science will require the creation and utilization of resources that both support accurate coverage of scientific topics and respond to misinformation.

ongoing efforts

Ongoing Efforts: 500 Women Scientists

“Request a Woman Scientist: A Database For Diversifying the Public Face of Science”

Founded in November 2016 by four graduates of the University of Colorado Boulder, 500 Women Scientists is an ongoing effort to address the narrative that science is informed and shaped solely by men and to highlight the vibrant and diverse voices and perspectives that exist within the science community. 500 Women Scientists first launched with the release of an open letter “re-affirming [their] commitment to speak up for science and for women, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA.”31 With an initial goal of five hundred signees, the pledge would obtain nearly twenty thousand signatures from women in STEM and supporters of women in STEM from more than one hundred countries.

In January 2018, the organization launched Request a Woman Scientist, an extensive database of self-identifying women scientists across the world to be used by conference organizers, journalists and the media, and students and scientists seeking partners and collaborators. The database addresses the claim of “not being able to find women experts” working in the field and aims to be a platform for highlighting voices from underrepresented backgrounds across the world.32 As of November 2018, a total of 7,500 women from 133 countries have voluntarily signed up as a resource and the database has been accessed more than one hundred thousand times by journalists, conference organizers, schoolteachers, and others. The Atlantic, Grist, and National Geographic are among the media platforms that have used Request a Woman Scientist to find women scientists as sources for articles.



GOAL 1: Decrease mischaracterizations of science in science communication.

Reducing mischaracterizations and instead accurately representing science in accessible ways will help to preserve trust and inform decision-making. There are also unintended consequences on perceptions of science when narratives surrounding science misrepresent the status quo (see research highlight). Of particular concern are mischaracterizations of scientific consensus, the impact of new scientific results, and the pace of scientific discovery. Progress on this goal will require efforts from all science communicators, including but not limited to journalists, public relations officers, and scientists. A challenge to achieving this goal is the conflict that can arise between acquiring and maintaining audience interest in a news article, press release, or social media post and the nuance and details required to represent accurately scientific content. Further, the public information officers and public relations staff who write press releases are often incentivized to sensationalize new scientific studies in a manner that may misrepresent the data in order to increase their perceived newsworthiness.

research highlight

Research Highlight: Why Contextualization Matters

“Science as ‘Broken’ versus Science as ‘Self-Correcting’: How Retractions and Peer-Review Problems Are Exploited to Attack Science”

In this chapter from the 2017 Oxford Handbook on the Science of Science Communication, authors Joseph Hilgard and Kathleen Hall Jamieson explore examples of widely reported scientific retractions to understand the framing of these retractions in the media.33 One of the retractions explored in-depth is that of a study published in Science that claimed that opinions of same-sex marriage could be changed through short conversations. The study was retracted after an attempt to repeat the experiment revealed that the original research was misrepresented and included “statistical irregularities.”34  In one hundred articles about the retraction, only four noted that retractions are rare, and only ten addressed the retraction as a form of scientific self-correction. Due to the political nature of the subject, the retraction was attributed to liberal confirmation bias in some media outlets and used to justify cuts to public funding of the social and behavioral sciences. As Hilgard and Jamieson discuss in the chapter, partisans have interpreted issues with peer review and retractions to advance a message that science is corrupt. They also suggest that science communicators should test alternative approaches that highlight the self-correcting nature of science and the rarity of retractions as a means of blunting overgeneralization.

science communicators

[Goal 1] Action 1:

Whenever possible, science communicators should emphasize the scientific process, highlight unanswered questions, note previous advances within the field, and avoid sensationalism when discussing science.

Contextualization of science can encompass everything from the need for further research to the failures and barriers that produced dead ends along the way. The Annenberg Science Media Monitor “analyzes the news coverage of widely reported scientific findings and disseminates its findings to science journalists,” including a study of nearly two years of news reports in The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post on 165 widely covered scholarly studies.35 Although major news outlets regularly highlight the significance of a scientific finding and identify those responsible for it, it is less common for these stories to discuss disagreement within the scientific community, false starts, or the need for further research. It is unclear, however, whether these rates of coverage apply to news outlets with fewer resources. In addition to contextualization in news articles, science communicators can provide additional context on social media and online platforms. For example, the Twitter account @justsaysinmice retweets headlines that overhype preliminary results by neglecting to mention that the findings were only “IN MICE,” as James Heathers, the research scientist who runs the account, emphatically comments. The account has succeeded in pressuring science writers to add more context to their stories.36


Rate of Coverage in Articles on Scientific Studies (by Newspaper)
News Outlets

Note: Authority designates “whether authorities such as scientists or institutions involved were mentioned in the finding.” Numbers of articles on scholarly studies appear in parenthesis. Source: Modified from The Annenberg Public Policy Center, “Annenberg Science Media Monitor–Report 1” (Philadelphia: The Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, 2018).

scientific societies

[Goal 1] Action 2:

Scientific societies should develop action plans to enable rapid responses to significant mischaracterizations of scientific discoveries or misinformation on scientific topics.

Scientific societies have an inherent interest in preserving perceptions around the efficacy of their research or scientific consensus in their field. Misconceptions can undermine public trust in their findings and support of their use in decision-making. Research suggests that corrections of misinformation are less effective when there is a time delay between misinformation and its correction, or when misinformation has been repeated.37 Expert voices and messages around the scientific consensus have been shown to be ineffective on issues on which people hold established perspectives, such as GMOs (see research highlight). For rapid response approaches to be effective, corrections to misinformation or false narratives should use techniques that are based on current research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences.38  A mechanism for monitoring and addressing misrepresentations does not currently exist; it is up to the leadership of individual scientific societies, in consultation with relevant experts, to build it.

research highlight

Research Highlight

“Examining the Impact of Expert Voices: Communicating the Scientific Consensus on Genetically Modified Organisms”

Forty-nine percent of U.S. adults believe GMO foods are worse for one’s health than non-GMO foods.39 Recent research on messaging about the scientific consensus of GMO safety has found that approaches that emphasize the scientific consensus are not linked to changes in attitudes about GMO foods. Results also suggest that previously held attitudes toward GMOs were the strongest predictor of outcomes compared with other study variables. These findings fit with additional research on the role of motivated reasoning in shaping a person’s response to scientific information, as well as evidence that people are more likely to reject information that disagrees with previously held beliefs.40



GOAL 2: Increase fundamental resources for science journalism.

Science journalism is responsible for providing an independent assessment of scientific progress and its implications for society. This role is distinct from other forms of science communication and engagement, which may have a goal of generating support for science or building trust in scientific information. A recent Pew Research Center study on Science News and Information Today showed that Americans blame reporters, not science researchers, for how science news is covered, and that 54 percent of people regularly get their science news from outlets that cover a variety of topics, as opposed to specialty news outlets.41 Considering the pivotal role of science journalism in shaping the narrative around science, it is essential that resources for science journalism increase.

Because the news media is currently in a state of flux, recommendations will be challenging to implement. Within the last decade, as the number of full-time science journalists in media organizations has declined, opportunities for stories to reach new audiences on social media, video platforms, and podcasts have increased. Further, as a result of philanthropic support for science journalism, there has been a growth in high-quality, science-focused digital magazines.42 Philanthropic support can also be used to reinforce and recognize excellence in science journalism, such as the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. The turbulence within the media landscape suggests the need for approaches to strengthen science journalism that are scalable and support journalists—from diverse backgrounds and experiences—reporting on science topics.


Percentage of U.S. Adults Who Say . . .
Priority 2 Goal 2

Source: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Encountering Science in America (Cambridge, Mass.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2019).

Funders blue
higher education

[Goal 2] Action 1:

With support from external funders, higher education institutions should develop workshops and experiences to provide journalists with insights into the scientific process and research enterprise.

To account for the decline in knowledge-based journalism, professional development opportunities that provide journalists with insight into the scientific process need to expand. Providing journalists with a deeper understanding of the scientific process, data collection, and scientific uncertainty can help protect against mischaracterizations in science journalism. Programs that offer this form of training, such as Metcalf Institute’s Annual Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists, report being unable to meet demand.43 For this action to impact regional and freelance journalists, the burden for financing these opportunities should be shifted from individual journalists to nonprofits and other interested stakeholders.


Highlights from the field

Metcalf Institute Annual Science Immersion Workshop

The mission of the Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island is to expand accurate environmental news coverage. In addition to occasional science seminars and webinars on specific environmental topics, the Institute offers its Annual Science Immersion Workshop, where journalists get direct access to scientists in and out of the field. The trainings seek to:

  1. Increase journalists’ understanding of the process of scientific research through off-deadline interactions with scientists;
  2. Familiarize journalists with the concept of scientific uncertainty;
  3. Increase journalists’ ability to interpret scientific information; and
  4. Prepare journalists to provide scientific context in their reporting on environmental stories.44

A study of Science Immersion Workshop participants revealed that journalists’ post-training stories offered “broader scientific context and more frequent references to scientific uncertainty.”45 Since the study, the workshop has iterated to offer more of a focus on fundamental skills such as understanding and interpreting probabilities and statistics.

science communicators
Funders blue

[Goal 2] Action 2:

Funders should support initiatives that provide journalists and editors with sources, fact sheets, and resources on controversial or topical scientific subjects. Science journalists and editors should seek out existing resources.

Freely available online resources such as fact sheets and briefings tailored for journalists have been used to improve coverage in other fields of journalism. The growth of new programs such as SciLine also suggests a demand for these types of scientific resources. SciLine launched in October 2017 with the mission to “provide context and research-based evidence to journalists working on deadline and in-depth stories.”46 Since its founding, Sci­Line has curated a database of nearly ten thousand scientists and recommended more than one thousand scientists to reporters with approximately 80 percent of related stories quoting a recommended expert.47 These types of resources should be appropriately funded to support outreach to local journalists.


highlights from the field

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma48

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is a resource center “dedicated to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy,” from natural disasters to mass shootings. Now a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the original programming began at Michigan State University in 1991 and included curricula on newsroom ethics for covering issues such as sexual assault. In addition to offering tip sheets (summaries of the latest information on a particular subject), trainings, and curricula, the Dart Center offers fellowships for journalists looking to improve their reporting on conflict. One of the missions of the center is to “create and sustain interdisciplinary collaboration and communication among news professionals, clinicians, academic researchers and others concerned with violence, conflict and tragedy.” The Dart Center and its programming are supported by funding from major donors and foundations.


  • 41Dietram A. Scheufele, “Communicating Science in Social Settings,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110 (S3) (2013): 14040–14047.
  • 42Thomas Hayden and Erika Check Hayden, “Science Journalism’s Unlikely Golden Age,” Frontiers in Communication 2 (2018): 24.
  • 43Sunshine Menezes, “Science Training for Journalists: An Essential Tool in the Post-Specialist Era of Journalism,” Frontiers in Communication 3 (2018): 4.
  • 44Hollie Smith, Sunshine Menezes, and Christine Gilbert, “Science Training and Environmental Journalism Today: Effects of Science Journalism Training for Midcareer Professionals,” Applied Environmental Education and Communication 17 (2) (2018): 161–173.
  • 45Menezes, “Science Training for Journalists,” 4.
  • 46Anne Q. Hoy, “SciLine Expands Scientific Resources Offered to U.S. Journalists,” Science 364 (6438) (2019).
  • 47Personal correspondence with SciLine executive director Rick Weiss, July 29, 2019.
  • 48Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Columbia Journalism School, “Mission and History” (accessed December 11, 2019).