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

Special Section: The Crucial Role of the Social and Behavioral Sciences

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The Public Face of Science

The Public Face of Science Initiative has examined attitudes toward science and the contexts and experiences that shape those attitudes. This effort has required substantial contributions by the social and behavioral sciences. As the fields of science communication and engagement continue to develop and the available data on perceptions and encounters with science become more complex, these sciences will continue to be critical. Explicit recognition of the importance of the behavioral and social sciences is necessary, as is proper citation of their findings. Too often social and behavioral science concepts are treated as common sense: that is, “well, we always knew that.” This misrepresents such scientific contributions as:

  1. Polling data. Nationally representative polling data on trust in science, such as from the General Social Survey (a half-century of trend lines) and Pew Research Center, is depicted throughout Perceptions of Science in America. Social science underlies everything from survey question development to data collection methodology and data analysis. The 2019 American Academy report The Public Face of Science Across the World analyzes polling data from the World Values Survey for insights into how cultural and economic contexts are associated with attitudes with science across fifty-four countries.49
  2. Understanding the underlying factors. Perceptions of Science in America emphasizes how context and values may influence public attitudes. For instance, some recent research suggests that although conservative Republicans are less likely to believe in the scientific consensus on climate change, those with a higher curiosity about science are more likely to agree with the consensus.50  However, other studies suggest alternative patterns and influences.51 Exactly when, and how, the source of information influences the response to that information is not settled science and requires continued research in this domain.
  3. Correcting misinformation. Responding to misinformation without reinforcing falsehoods is of critical importance to the scientific community. Research considering how information is processed and spreads through society is fundamental to this goal. Encountering Science in America highlights approaches for correcting misinformation based on insights from the cognitive sciences: for example, providing correct factual information in a manner that does not restate the falsehood.52
  4. Measuring impact. Encountering Science in America describes the measurement and evaluation data of science festivals and science communication training programs. Here the focus is on motivations for and consequences of such initiatives. Social science concepts, methods, and analytic tools are foundational to understanding public engagement.

These examples are but a few of the many ways in which research probing attitudes toward and engagement with science, of all kinds, is necessary to the science of communicating science. Developing this expertise results in both practical applications relevant to the complex ways in which the public face of science is presented and interpreted, and is necessary as a standalone research domain. That is, this fairly recent social science initiative needs resources to mature into a major research field in its own terms. This point is stressed in the 2017 NASEM report on The Value of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences to National Priorities: A Report for the National Science Foundation: “Nearly every major challenge the United States faces . . . requires understanding the causes and consequences of people’s behavior.”53


Call to Action

Despite the essential nature of the social and behavioral sciences, funding for these fields is frequently threatened. In addition to recognizing and highlighting the contributions of these fields, the following actions are necessary for advancing the goals of the Public Face of Science Initiative:

  1. Increasing research on effective communication of the social sciences. Social sciences such as the science of science communication typically focus on topics like biotechnology or climate change, but more research is needed on how to communicate effectively the value and contributions of the social sciences themselves.54
  2. Connecting research and practice. There continues to be a need to link more effectively research and practice through partnerships, codevelopment, and boundary-spanners. An example of current attempts to strengthen this connection is the NASEM Standing Committee on Science Communication Research and Practice, which, in addition to colloquiums, has issued Partnership Awards to support the development of collaborative projects.
  3. Funding. Continued support for research in the social sciences is critical to realizing the societal goals described throughout this report. Funding is particularly critical for maintaining publicly accessible polling data, understanding impact, and exploring how shifts in the communication and engagement landscape influence behavior.