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

Priority 3: Developing Systemic Support for Science Engagement Efforts

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The Public Face of Science

As highlighted in Encountering Science in America, there is a diverse and expanding range of opportunities for people to encounter science, including visiting informal science institutions, participating in citizen science activities, or attending science events. These activities can be designed to achieve societal benefits, from broadening participation in STEM to expanding community engagement with research and building trust in information on controversial topics.55 These science-based experiences are the result of efforts in the fields of science communication, public engagement with science, and informal science education. For each of these fields, there are a broad range of institutions and practitioners that contribute to science engagement efforts. A systems-level approach to supporting science engagement reflects the complexity of the landscape by which people come to experience science.

In the context of this priority, providing systemic support for science engagement refers to resource-sharing and bridge-building efforts among institutions or practitioners with shared engagement goals. In addition to improving outcomes of engagement, greater interconnectivity within science engagement landscapes also has the potential to raise awareness of current efforts and increase the number of new activities that build on prior research and experience.

Insights from Encountering Science in America: The Participants


Supporting Institutions

Institutions can provide access to critical resources, from financial and logistical support to the personnel or infrastructure that make science communication and engagement possible. These participants have a significant role in defining the outcomes and potential impact. Supporting institutions include but are not limited to:

supporting institutions

Professional Practitioners

Each of the following categories of professionals may possess expertise in science communication, engagement, pedagogy, or, in the case of scientists, a specific subject matter. Moreover, scientists who gain experience and training in science communication and engagement techniques may assume dual roles, becoming facilitators, writers, or producers in addition to content experts. Professional practitioners can include:

professional practitioners



GOAL 1: Increase opportunities among researchers, practitioners, science centers, and communication and engagement organizations and networks to collaborate and share resources and best practices.

The science communication and engagement space includes at least three distinct but overlapping fields (see figure for description). Resources and expertise typically exist within these individual fields and are less likely to be shared more broadly. A recent workshop series convened by the Kavli, Rita Allen, David and Lucile Packard, and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundations highlighted the need to strengthen the bridge between research and practice, including in the areas of science communication training and engagement facilitation.56

With a finite amount of funding available to support science communication and engagement activities, it is critical that programs and activities use and build on the current understanding within this space (see Appendix B: Resources on Science Engagement). Shared resources are particularly important when there are shared communication and engagement objectives, such as an increase in informed decision-making, participation in research, or interest in science.


shared resources

Public engagement with science 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science defines “public engagement with science” as “intentional, meaningful interactions that provide opportunities for mutual learning between scientists and members of the public.”57

Science communication 

A National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on communicating science effectively defines science communication as “the exchange of information and viewpoints about science to achieve a goal or objective such as fostering greater understanding of science and scientific methods or gaining greater insight into diverse public views and concerns about the science related to a contentious issue.”58

Informal science education  

The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education describes the field of informal science education as pursuing opportunities for “lifelong learning in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) that takes place across a multitude of designed settings and experiences outside of the formal classroom.”59


Where Informal STEM Education (ISE) and Science Communication (SciComm) Meet

In January 2019, the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) released the results of a series of studies on the overlap between informal science education and science communication. The studies were part of CAISE’s efforts to build capacity for these fields. A survey on the professional connections and resources within both fields revealed that the two professional communities are siloed, but indicated that there is a “larger research-practice divide in SciComm than in ISE.” ISE was found to emphasize youth, learning, and the STEM education pipeline, whereas the science communication community focused on adults, general audiences, and decision-making. The report presented three conclusions and opportunities as a result of their studies:

  1. “ISE’s experience and expertise in broadening participation of underrepresented audiences can inform issues of growing interest in SciComm, such as the desire to engage with new, diverse publics. SciComm’s growing knowledge about decision-making can inform ISE efforts to design for changing behavior.
  2. In a landscape where ISE and SciComm researchers and practitioners are mostly siloed within their own domains, there [is] a small number of people whose activities span the two communities. These dual ISE/SciComm citizens could serve as ambassadors to enhance knowledge exchange between the fields.
  3. Bridging research and practice requires more efforts to highlight the work of practitioners as relevant and salient to researchers across the fields. It is also crucial to represent research findings in formats that practitioners can use, ideally with guidance for translating research into practice.”60


[Goal 1] Action 1:

Funders should support the development of centers, databases, and practical approaches that connect researchers and practitioners, such as through travel support for conferences and meetings.

Funders with interest in a particular goal or outcome of science communication and engagement can support resource-sharing around that goal. For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently funded a new Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society (ARIS), building on the success of the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI). To ensure that new centers or databases reach broad populations of practitioners, researchers, facilitators, and trainers, the designers of these resources should intentionally engage members from across the science communication and engagement landscape to identify interested users.

In addition to investing significant resources into infrastructure for information-sharing, increased funding for researcher-practitioner interactions, such as through travel support, will be important for creating a bridge between the two spheres. A recent example of this type of support is the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Standing Committee on Advancing Science Communication Research to Practice Partnership Awards, which are “catalyst awards” of up to $12,000 to support new collaborative partnerships.61

case study

Case Study

Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society and the National Alliance for Broader Impacts

Founded in 2014, the National Alliance for Broader Impacts is an NSF-funded international network of almost eight hundred members working to “build institutional capacity, advance BI [broader impacts], and demonstrate the societal benefits of research.” In addition to hosting an annual national summit, NABI has produced resources such as their “Broader Impacts Guiding Principles and Questions for National Science Foundation Proposals,” a guiding document for improving consistency in BI proposal evaluation.62 In 2018, NABI released its report The Current State of Broader Impacts.63

Building on the reach and insights from NABI, the Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society was created in 2018. Also funded by the NSF, ARIS is an emerging network of funders, researchers, and practitioners working together to move the needle on the societal impacts of research. ARIS seeks to build capacity within individuals—researchers and practitioners—as well as institutions for broadening the impact of research through partnerships, scholarship, and professional development. More specific, ARIS seeks to narrow the gap between research and practice through evidence-based resources and training.

science engagement institutions
scientific societies

[Goal 1] Action 2:

The leaders of science communication and engagement organizations and networks should collaborate on areas of shared interest.

Science communication and engagement networks are typically based around either a specific field or topic (such as public health, climate change), target audience (such as families, young adults, policy-makers), or venue or profession (science festivals, science museums, science writing). There are also networks dedicated to specific goals, such as graduate student science communication training or increasing diversity, equity, and inclusivity. Breaking down barriers among existing networks and organizations will allow for increased sharing of best practices and expertise and will encourage collaboration where networks share a common societal mission. For example, at an October 2018 convening, thirty science communication and engagement network leaders identified areas on which shared action was possible, including connecting research to practice and practice to research, as well as increasing diversity, equity, and inclusivity in science communication and engagement.

ongoing efforts

Ongoing Efforts

Outcomes: Support Systems for Scientists’ Communication and Engagement

Between December 2017 and May 2018, the Kavli, Rita Allen, David and Lucile Packard, and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundations hosted a workshop series on “Support Systems for Scientists’ Communication and Engagement: An Exploration of the People and Institutions Empowering Effective Impact.” This series convened scientists, academic leaders, engagement professionals, researchers, communication trainers, and foundation leaders in order to identify how to make the field more “effective and sustainable.”64 This discussion series identified a need to connect better the work, people, and ideas across different—and often disparate—science communication and engagement networks. In January 2020, a network for Leaders in Science and Technology Engagement Networks (LISTEN) hosted their inaugural summit. Shared priorities include:

  • Building new capacity and models for putting communities first in science engagement;
  • Creating more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments for science engagement;
  • Connecting research and practice in science engagement;
  • Contributing to shifting the incentives and disincentives for how science engagement is encouraged, recognized, and rewarded;
  • Advancing measurement and evaluation of engagement practices;
  • Fostering systems for connecting scientists and engagement opportunities; and
  • Connecting and supporting current and emerging science engagement networks.

science engagement institutions
science communicators

[Goal 1] Action 3:

Science engagement networks and programs should dedicate resources to support efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion and share these resources with the broader community.

Principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) should be embedded in all aspects of science communication and engagement. The federal government prioritizes DEI through its support for programs that help to broaden participation in the STEM workforce. However, DEI in science communication and engagement is also important for enabling people to engage with science. Science communication and engagement networks or programs that seek to integrate DEI into their activities should build on existing resources and seek to learn from established networks within this space, such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and Ciencia Puerto Rico, or participate in emerging online communities, such as #InclusiveSciComm on Twitter.



CAISE Broadening Participation Task Force

In February 2019, the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education Task Force for Broadening Participation in STEM released a toolkit to support science engagement professionals in these efforts. The toolkit included:

  • The report Broadening Perspectives on Broadening Participation in STEM.65
  • A summary for stakeholders, such as supervisors and board chairs, of the benefits of increasing support for DEI initiatives.
  • A conversation guide to help facilitate DEI discussions with staff.
  • Practice briefs with discussion ideas that include recommendations and resources.

The taskforce also stressed that “broadening participation, equity, and inclusion work needs to be positioned as core to the organization’s mission and success, and not tacked on or siloed within an organization or program.” Providing the necessary staffing and support required to execute effective DEI efforts was fundamental to this goal. The task force also raised the need for engagement professionals to make an effort to demonstrate how “STEM relates to and can be advanced by other cultural ways of knowing and being.”66



GOAL 2: Strengthen local science engagement ecosystems, especially where access may be limited, and increase cooperative science engagement efforts.

The National Science and Technology Council has described STEM ecosystems as being able to “bridge, integrate, and strengthen the learning opportunities offered by organizations across sectors compared with isolated, independent entities.”67  STEM ecosystems, consisting of informal science education, formal science education, universities, industry, government, libraries, festivals, community centers, and other mission-aligned organizations, have traditionally been organized around learning outcomes of science engagement for pre-K–16 students. In addition to these knowledge and skills-based outcomes, local science engagement ecosystems have the potential to address additional outcomes of science communication and engagement associated with lifelong interest, motivation, and behavior change. Moreover, local engagement ecosystems can address community-specific science needs and support programming that accounts for any history of exclusion.

ongoing efforts

Ongoing Efforts

The STEM Funders Network’s STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative

The STEM Learning Ecosystems Initiative is a global community of practice with eighty-four communities supporting “cross-sector collaborations to deliver rigorous, effective pre-K–16 instruction in STEM learning.”68 Although individual local ecosystems self-organize, the initiative supports resource-sharing and collaboration between ecosystems. The framework for the STEM Learning Ecosystems community of practice is built around four strategies: 1) cultivating cross-sector partnerships; 2) creating and connecting STEM-rich learning environments; 3) equipping educators; and 4) supporting youth pathways.69

STEM Ecosystems

stem ecosystems

Source: Figure by STEM Ecosystems, modified with permission.

science engagement institutions
science communicators

[Goal 2] Action 1:

Local scientific institutions, schools, science centers, and libraries should (continue to) form strategic partnerships and collaborations on local science issues and engagement outcomes. Local stakeholders (government, university, industry) should invest resources in these ecosystems.

Comprehensive frameworks such as the Science Capital Model developed in the United Kingdom, highlighted in Encountering Science in America, considers the multiple dimensions that can shape the perception that science is “for me.”70 These dimensions include talking about science in everyday life, science literacy, and participation in out-of-school learning. Partnerships between local institutions with shared engagement goals will allow for experiences that “enrich and reinforce” each other in order to build long-term impact.71 These collaborations are particularly of interest for addressing scientific topics that have become controversial in the public discourse.

case study

Case Study

The Potential of Local Efforts to Address Controversial Scientific Topics

As discussed in Perceptions of Science in America, the leaders of the scientific community are among the most-trusted groups compared with bankers, congresspeople, and media representatives. However, there are areas for concern around a minority of specific science topics such as vaccines, climate change, and GMOs. These topics require evidence-based methods, dialogue, and trusted messengers. Local science engagement ecosystems have the potential to engage effectively on these topics. As highlighted in Encountering Science in America, meteorologists have been identified as effective climate change messengers because of their access to sizeable audiences for whom they are trusted sources of information.72 Additionally, informal science educators at zoos, aquariums, museums, and national parks can act as authentic person-to-person messengers when discussing climate change in the context of local impact.73 There are also national networks available to support these types of local efforts, such as the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, which provides informal science centers with training on evidence-based climate change communication approaches.74



GOAL 3: Standardize and increase the number of resources for assessing outcomes and long-term impacts of science communication and engagement.

One takeaway from Encountering Science in America is the need for additional social science research to understand the impacts of science communication and engagement, including on public interest in, understanding of, and support for science. An individual’s underlying attitudes toward science are the product of cultural influences, fundamental belief structures, experiences with science, and prior knowledge about science. The long-term, cumulative impacts of experiences and engagement with science are challenging to assess because these experiences do not occur as isolated events and there is limited data on an individual’s movement between activities. Further, differences in metrics and methodologies limit researchers’ ability to compare existing evaluation data.


cumulative experience

science engagement institutions
science communicators

[Goal 3] Action 1:

Funders should support professional organizations in establishing shared databases and metrics.

Shared databases and metrics are necessary for comparing engagement activities and assessing long-term impact. Recent investments in shared metrics highlight the potential for this data to be used to identify national trends. Evalfest was founded in 2014 as an NSF-funded community of practice that developed resources for collecting data from science festival stakeholders. To date, Evalfest has created nine methods and worked with twenty-five partner festivals to complete forty thousand attendee surveys. As a result of these efforts, they are able to identify national trends in the audiences for science festivals.75  The funding also supports the development of evaluation scales that are applicable to other science communication and engagement domains.