Comedian Lily Tomlin once asked, “Why is it when we talk to God we’re said to be praying, but when God talks to us, we’re schizophrenic?”
So I ask: Why is it when scientists talk to the public, they’re said to be communicating, but when the public talks to scientists, they are crazy to think scientists will listen?
Traditional lessons on science communication address only one half of the possible exchange between scientists and the public. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, advises young scientists to develop their writing skills if they want to be effective science communicators. Alan Alda, the actor who also has a passion for explaining science suggests that scientists should practice story-telling and bring in strong feelings and emotions, channeling their inner ordinary person rather than their hyper-rational mindset as a scientist.
Its excellent advice, but what about the crazy half? Scientists should also practice listening to the public. Communication is a two-way street, so why should scientists turn a deaf ear to the people they are communicating with?
Case in point. The Flint Water Study, a citizen science project run by faculty and their students at Virginia Tech. Residents in Flint can follow a simple protocol to collect tap water in their home, ship it to Virginia Tech, and receive results about the water chemistry, including the concentration of lead, if present.
This project began when Marc Edwards, an engineering professor, received a phone call from a concerned resident in Flint—and he didn’t turn a deaf ear. This wasn’t the first time he’d heard from people who noticed problems with their water. He knew from past experiences, including finding lead in water in Washington, DC, that when someone complains about their water, they are often noticing a real problem. This isn't what people usually mean when they talk about "science communication," but it should be. Edwards and his colleague Yanna Lambrinidou, along with their team at Virginia Tech, exemplify my highest aspirations for science communication because they listen to the public.
When Lambrinidou and Edwards teach this form of science communication to their students, even they don’t call it science communication. It’s a course called Engineering Ethics and the Public. The heart of the course is a skill called transformational listening. According to Edwards and Lambrinidou, this should be considered an essential skill for engineers because conversations between professionals and the public can challenge stereotypes. When conversations expose power inequalities in the relationship, they can transform the relationship into trusted partnerships.
Engineers are not the only STEM professionals who should listen carefully. For the same reasons that apply to them, listening should be considered essential for all of science. Listening is a way of collecting information to inform a research agenda. The public can be our partners.
Some scientists already understand realize this already. For example, NASA’s Asteroid Initiative was informed by citizen input. The ECAST Network (Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology), an organization founded by Arizona State University, the Museum of Science, Boston; the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, SciStarter, Science Cheerleader, and the Loka Institute mediates forums where the public and scientists can deliberate on issues of science. Museums and libraries, the most trusted sources of science communication, are ideal spots for such deliberations. The Boston Museum of Science hosted two of the NASA public input events about asteroids and previously hosted two ECAST deliberations to inform United Nations delegates: Word Wide Views on Global Warming in 2009 and World Wide Views on Biodiversity in 2012. These examples are not about listening to off-the-cuff remarks, but thoughtful public deliberations, frequently about contentious issues.
In the European Union, Science Shops function to connect scientists with civil society organizations so that research agendas can be shaped by public interests.
Public health faculty have a long tradition of community-engaged scholarship where they listen to people and shape research agendas in response. Steve Wing, at the School of Public Health at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has collaborated with North Carolina residents on many studies, most notably about air pollution from industrial hog operation that residents brought to his attention. And Julia Brody at the Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts, carries out research looking for environmental causes of breast cancer. One community noticed that the predominance of cancer research focused on cures and wanted researchers to tackle the issue of causes and prevention. Brody listened and has crafted her research agenda in response to these public interests.
Some geographers are listeners too. Muki Haklay, a geography professor at University College London, is co-founder of Mapping for Change, a citizen science and community mapping platform to help communities voice, and act on, their concerns. Most scientists pursue topics that are trending in the literature or are known priorities with funding agencies. When I asked Haklay how he decided what topics to study, he said, “I go into a neighborhood, sit in a cafe and have conversations with people.”
With most citizen science projects, people gain a voice by collecting data –a language scientists, policy makers, and industry already understand. But giving the public a voice in the construction of scientific agendas is also a form of citizen science. Science communication scholars refer to this as "public engagement in science," but the skills for it have not yet been brought into the domain of science communication practice. Scientists can learn these skills. Journalists could facilitate these conversations; just as they translate research into words digestible by the public, so can they translate sentiments of the public for researchers to hear.
In the mid-1990s, the National Science Foundation added Broader Impacts Criteria to its grant proposal process. A 2011 study by the National Science Board shows that scientists have struggled to interpret the idea of broader impacts ever since.
To make their research have a broad impact, scientists most often assume they need to “disseminate” their findings. About half of scientists do minimal outreach. Most often, they visit classrooms to give presentations to school children. About half do nothing. They don’t think it is effective, and the way they do it most often is ineffective. Scientists tend to adopt a deficit model approach, rather than a dialogue or engagement model. The deficit perspective is the notion that the public has a knowledge gap and all scientists need to do is fill it by transmitting knowledge to people. Researchers in the field of science communication have repeatedly found that this is ineffective. Public engagement is necessary and that requires two-way communication.
Blogging (as I’m doing right now), sharing results, and answering questions are only part of science communication. The revolutionary part is listening.
Facilitated discussions like ECAST and Science Shops, as well as the new breed of STEM professionals like Edwards, Wing, Brody, and Haklay, exemplify how conversations allow research agendas (but not the results) to be shaped by public interests. As citizen science grows with a focus on people volunteering in service to science, let’s also have public engagement pave the way for science to function in service to people.