“How Americans Really View Science in Society”: A Necessary Conversation

October 30, 2018

On October 2nd, the Aspen Institute hosted a conversation on “Challenging the Orthodoxy of How Americans View Science in Society.” It featured a presentation by Science Counts Executive Director, Chris Volpe, followed by a panel discussion.

Dan Glickman, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute, opened the event, stressing that when the public does not understand something, they are less likely to deem it as important. Seema Kumar, the Vice President of Innovation, Global Health and Policy Communication at Johnson & Johnson, a sponsor of the event, added that science is seen as “an ivory tower hobby” that is inaccessible and irrelevant to the average person.

After opening comments, Chris Volpe of ScienceCounts presented research on “How Americans Really View Science in Society.” Volpe explained that the promotion of science and the principles of marketing are not dissimilar. Volpe emphasized that science advocates cannot simply push information onto others; they also have to market a branded product to draw people in and compete with other sources of influence. The public is in a marketplace and not a classroom, and thus advocates must persuade the public, and not just teach them. People already positively associate science with hope, but hope is an incomplete product if presented without a clear benefit, as hope towards something. Volpe cautioned, however, that poor branding may not only fail to achieve its goal of improving the public’s view on science, but can even cause a negative effect where people like science even less.

A panel discussion followed. Moderator, Nsikan Akpan, Digital Science Producer for PBS NewsHour, pointed to a Pew Research study, showing that even though 76% of the public supports and trusts science, only 21% strongly do. For example, a vast majority of scientists believe in climate change, but this translates to only 39% of the public believing in it. What can be done to bridge the gap? Is it about educating the public or there something else missing?

Mary Woolley, President & CEO of Research!America, and Laura Lindenfeld-Sher, Director of Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, joined Volpe on stage for the panel discussion. They discussed how to brand basic science and make people aware of the impact that it has in their daily lives. Volpe noted that over half of the public does not link STEM leadership with their quality of life, and only a quarter think that the government has any role in funding scientific research, which is not the case. Lindenfeld-Sher mentioned the use of improv theater exercises in their science communication training to stress that listening is an important part of communicating. Science advocates need to understand what the public perceives as a relevant topic and work backwards to link it to basic science. Woolley added that if scientists are asked what they do, they should have the mentality of “I work for you” to help solidify the link between research and people’s daily lives.

The panel also tackled the concept of the “general public.” In addition to having varying interests, Volpe explained that the public can be metaphorically classified as being drivers of the cars ready to advocate for science, front seat passengers, backseat passengers, or completely disengaged and not riding in the car at all. There is little that can be done for the disengaged or even the backseat passengers, and it is in everyone’s best efforts to focus on those who will drive momentum. Just as in marketing, appealing to these segments needs to be targeted.

A recording of the talk may be found on Youtube.

Volpe’s presentation slides may be found here.