PCAST Hears from Panel on Science Communication

April 13, 2022 

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met on March 24 to hear from experts on two topics: science communication and wildfire preparedness (watch the recording or see the agenda).

Three co-chairs lead PCAST: Francis Arnold, California Institute of Technology; Francis Collins, Acting Science Advisor to the President and former Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH); and Maria Zuber, Vice President for Research at MIT and Member of the National Science Board.  

Dr. Collins introduced the session on Improving Science Communication. Reflecting on his time at the NIH, he shared his surprise that despite the development and availability of effective vaccines, so many people refused to get the shot. Dr. Collins spoke of the importance of science communication across the federal government, mentioning that several working groups have highlighted the importance of improving science communication including how to best talk about the evolution of science and allowing room for uncertainty. The panel featured dynamic experts from the behavioral and social sciences, including two speakers – Arthur “Skip” Lupia and Kathleen Hall Jamieson – who have previously presented at FABBS annual meetings.

Arthur “Skip” Lupia, PhD, University of Michigan, who recently finished his term as the Director of Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences at the National Science foundation, presented first. He identified obstacles to sharing information, listing numerous factors that prompt decisions to ignore or reject scientific insights, as well as opportunities to improve communication. Dr. Lupia offered several examples of when scientific advances – i.e. ability to accurately predict hurricanes – failed to save lives because individuals either didn’t fully process the information or chose not to heed the guidance. He explained that human capacity to process information is often limited due to the function of attention span and memory. Dr. Lupia encouraged scientists to think about the exchange of information from the perspective of the recipient. What is the relevance of the information to their immediate, core concerns? How does the information connect to thoughts and feelings and align with values? Furthermore, he cautioned that credibility is not inherent, it is based on an assessment bestowed by listeners.  

Consuelo Wilkins, MD, Vanderbilt University, presented on her work with the NIH All of Us precision medicine initiative, emphasizing the need to build trust to increase community engagement. Referencing psychological science and the importance of transdisciplinary research teams, Dr. Wilkins underscored the importance of presenting full information as opposed to expecting community members – particularly those who have a history of being mistreated – to take the word of entities outside of their communities.  When asked about some of the obstacles to advancing this work, Dr. Wilkins explained that due to the disease-focused nature of the individual institutes at NIH, it can be challenging to get funding for research that addresses how to build trust in medical advice and practice. 

The third presentation was given by computer science professor, Jessica Hullman, PhD, Northwestern University, who spoke about the importance of being transparent about the inherent uncertainty in science. Dr. Hullman opined that the government needs to express uncertainty at all levels and that it would be valuable to quantify and visualize uncertainty, sharing the example of a flexible rating system that uses red, yellow, and green to indicate reliability of the science. Additionally, she encouraged people to turn to multiple sources of information.  

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, PhD, University of Pennsylvania, was the final speaker. Her research examined the information used by individuals to make decisions around vaccines. She found that basic foundational knowledge and trust in health authorities, rather than COVID specific information, were predictive of a person’s decision whether to get vaccinated. To address this foundational knowledge, Dr. Jamieson recommended that the federal government present clear and – drawing from behavioral science – justified knowledge that provides a takeaway message that individuals will hold in their memory and repeat. She underscored the dangers of categorical statements; for example, if the federal government says that masks stop the spread of COVID-19, it just takes one person getting COVID while wearing a mask to undermine credibility. Instead, she offered “High quality masks worn correctly reduce the spread of COVID.”  

FABBS members bring significant expertise to this topic and FABBS will be following up with individual Council members and work to help support improving science communication across federal agencies.