Science communication today is thriving. Both explanatory and investigative science journalism are in rude health, at new publications like STAT and established ones like the Atlantic. Scientists increasingly appreciate that communicating accessibly isn’t just responsible citizenship, but also enhances impact. And social media makes science content easier than ever to find and follow.
Yet for all its quality and quantity, it’s hard to be confident that today’s science communication is changing many hearts and minds. Is it exposing new audiences to the methods and achievements of science, and persuading those who haven’t previously felt its pull? Or is it reinforcing and feeding the interests and prejudices of people just like ourselves, while passing the rest of the world by? Are we just preaching to the choir?
We’re certainly good at that. At Wellcome, which spends more than $1.2 billion a year on science and engagement with society, we know that our initiatives principally reach urban, well-educated and socially-privileged people, with an existing affinity for science. Most popular platforms for science communication find a similar audience – while struggling to reach people and places that voted for Trump and for Brexit.
It’s not just a matter of who we reach, but also how. Science likes to inform and persuade with expertise. We believe scientists draw credibility from the quality of their research, and promote them as authoritative voices accordingly. Yet behavioral psychology shows that people are less likely to form views according to a rational analysis of facts, than they are to analyze facts so as to rationalize views they've already formed for other reasons. And trust in expert authority figures is not what it was: the latest Edelman Trust Barometer (pdf) shows that people around the world are only slightly more likely to trust a scientific expert than a “person like yourself.” And even this represents a recovery for experts: a year ago, the two were tied.
So how can we reach out further? I think there’s inspiration in the metaphor with which we sometimes berate ourselves. When we worry about preaching to the choir, we forget that choirs once had a very practical function. They were a communication channel, a way of framing Christianity’s message for a mass audience. Priests preached to the choir so its singers would spread the Gospel to widest and most diverse possible congregation.
Science has an opportunity to achieve something similar. The millions of people who appreciate research can be so much more than passive consumers of great stories about it. They can also be its most powerful advocates. They don’t need to march or protest—which anyway can switch off neutrals. They just need to share their passion with their families and communities—with people who know and trust them but sit beyond our echo chamber.
TThe person like yourself” is persuasion’s secret weapon. That’s why businesses like Starbucks and Home Depot increasingly use rank-and-file employees, rather than executives, as their public messengers. And every scientist and supporter of science is a “person like yourself” to friends, neighbors and relatives who haven’t yet encountered or accepted positions we take for granted. These people won’t easily be won over by distant experts, or even by TV talking heads like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox. They just might listen to a person like themselves.
If we can make it easy for our supporters to share inspiring messages about science, and to encourage others to ask curious questions about the world, we’ll have a better chance of breaking out of our bubble. The Ask For Evidence campaign, from Sense About Science, does this by giving people tools to request the data behind supposedly scientific marketing claims, and to share the outcome with family and friends. Citizen science apps and games, like Cancer Research UK’s Cell Slider, give ordinary people an opportunity to engage in real research, and then to share their excitement at discoveries in which they have a personal stake. Beyond science, the #HeForShe campaign has given men a simple and resonant way to support women’s rights, and persuade others that this is an issue for everyone.
This social sharing is also the goal of #TogetherScienceCan, a new campaign that Wellcome is supporting with partners such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Novo Nordisk Foundation in Denmark, and the Max Planck Society in Germany. It celebrates and promotes the international collaboration that is central to scientific success, which feels increasingly under threat from narrow politics of the national interest on both sides of the Atlantic. We want to secure the ability of scientists to move around the world, and international funding that doesn’t inhibit collaboration but enhances it.
We think that means motivating the people who understand this in their bones to share their conviction with those who do not. So we’ve created a simple, uplifting hashtag, logo and campaign identity that anyone can add to their Facebook posts and tweets, so that our collective efforts amount to more than the sum of their parts. We’ve made a positive, optimistic film with emotional resonance—facts alone are never enough. There’s a gesture—the “brain chain”—which people can do and share—a bit like the ice bucket challenge. We’re helping people to create their own campaigns under a common banner—so the message arrives through a “person like yourself”.
Science, unfortunately, doesn’t speak for itself. Only the people who appreciate it can do that. So let’s inspire them by preaching to the choir—and then help them to find their voice.