Science’s Next Frontier? It’s Civic Engagement

Louise Lief at Discover Magazine: “…As a lay observer who has explored scientists’ relationship to the public, I have often wondered why many scientists and scientific institutions continue to rely on what is known as the “deficit model” of science communication, despite its well-documented shortcomings and even a backfire effect. This approach views the public as  “empty vessels” or “warped minds” ready to be set straight with facts. Perhaps many scientists continue to use it because it’s familiar and mimics classroom instruction. But it’s not doing the job.

Scientists spend much of their time with the public defending science, and little time building trust.

Many scientists also give low priority to trust building. At the 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, Michigan State University professor John C. Besley showed these results (right) of a survey of scientists’ priorities for engaging with the public online.

Scientists are focusing on the frustrating, reactive task of defending science, spending little time establishing bonds of trust with the public, which comes in last as a professional priority. How much more productive their interactions with the public – and through them, policymakers — would be if establishing trust was a top priority!

There is evidence that the public is hungry for such exchanges. When Research!America asked the public in 2016 how important is it for scientists to inform elected officials and the public about their research and its impact on society, 84 percent said it was very or somewhat important — a number that ironically mirrors the percentage of Americans who cannot name a scientist….

This means scientists need to go even further, venturing into unfamiliar local venues where science may not be mentioned but where communities gather to discuss their problems. Interesting new opportunities to do this are emerging nation wide. In 2014 the Chicago Community Trust, one of the nation’s largest community foundations, launched a series of dinners across the city through a program called On the Table, to discuss community problems and brainstorm possible solutions. In 2014, the first year, almost 10,000 city residents participated. In 2017, almost 100,000 Chicago residents took part. Recently the Trust added a grants component to the program, awarding more than $135,000 in small grants to help participants translate their ideas into action….(More)”.