Recent research reports on science literacy and on the science of science communication

[Warning: This is a long post. Sorry about that.]

At least six times in the last two years, the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, & Medicine (NASEM) has included science communication as a key component of its reports. That signals that the natural science community has recognized the value of our field…and also highlights our need to “up our game” and show that we are building on the very best available research, whether we are researchers or practitioners. Some of the reports were about specific fields of science (gene editing, chemistry, GMOs) looking for best practices in science communication, indicating a focus on practice that again pushes both researchers and practitioners to make their work fully up-to-date.

Two of the NASEM reports that have focused entirely on science communication are particularly important: Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences (released in August 2016, and Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda (released in December 2016, In this post, I will attempt to briefly summarize them. Each report is a “consensus study,” which means that it collates current research and has passed through an extremely rigorous peer review (often led by natural scientists), making it a stable base on which to build.

The Science Literacy report is an explicit attempt to move the field forward by comparing “science literacy” with recent developments in “health literacy.” Led by general literacy expert Catherine Snow of Harvard, the committee that produced the report included many people well-known in parts of the PCST community – Nick Allum, John Besley, and Dominique Brossard, as well as education researchers Noah Feinstein and Jonathan Osborne; Eugenie Scott, emerita director of the US National Center for Science Education, was also on the committee and has several times attended PCST conferences.

The comparison of science and health literacies highlighted the importance of the ability to act (a key element of health literacy), as well as the importance of thinking at a community level (as does the field of public health). The report envisions “a society that is infused by science literacy, not in the sense that every person necessarily knows any specific set of things about biology, chemistry, or physics, but in the sense that there is a shared belief that scientific expertise can be trusted [n.b., the report has difficulty conceiving of situations in which distrust of science might be appropriate, in part because it does not distinguish between science as knowledge/process and science as social institution], that scientific misconduct and fraud are rare, and that social organizations can and should be structured to enable science literacy rather than prevent it.” This sounds very much like the idea of culture scientifique that drove the initial creation of the PCST Network!

Two key ideas emerge from the report: First, we must move away from simple attempts to measure and compare (especially at the national/international level) “science literacy.” The multiple contexts and meanings of the term cannot be reduced to simple measures. Second, and to my mind far more consequential, is a new focus on thinking about science literacy at three levels: individual, community, and society. Yes, individuals can be science literate. But so can communities. Entire societies can be science literate.

I’m especially excited by the “community” (or communal) focus. We have long known about “family learning” in museums, in which individual members of the family notice different things, then bring them together in collective discussions in the days and weeks following a museum visit. Similarly, in activist groups such as advocates for those who are HIV-positive or local groups protesting hydrofracturing, members divide up the knowledge, so that some people focus on technical details, others handle political strategy, and others handle community communication. Working together, these groups very effectively leverage their collective knowledge in ways that no individual can. The emerging field of citizen science offers similar opportunities for collective knowledge, especially in those projects focused on local environmental monitoring.

On the particular issue of individual science literacy, the report reinforces conclusions that have been emerging for several years: increased science literacy does not necessarily lead to increased support for science; general attitude towards science does not necessarily predict attitude towards a specific science or science-linked issue; some science issues evoke attitudes based on worldview (e.g., political ideology, religion, deference to authority) rather than on knowledge of science.

Not surprisingly, the report called for more research. 😊 It didn’t, however, say much about practice.

The second report, Communicating Science Effectively, is explicitly a research agenda. The committee that produced the report, led by former AAAS CEO Alan Leshner (who has attended PCST meetings) and communication researcher Dietram Scheufele, was sometimes referred to as the “science of science communication” (SoSC) committee. As with much SoSC activity, the report is driven by the sense that science is not being communicated “effectively,” especially in the policy arena. The report is less concerned with cultural issues (except as an analytical tool), and more with finding ways to make science a more powerful voice in relevant policy settings. The committee that produced the report consisted largely of psychology, risk, and political science researchers; some members whose work might be familiar to PCST researchers include Bill Hallman (risk), Robert Hornik (health communication), Andrew Maynard (risk), and Matt Nisbet (science communication).

The report acknowledges that creating a “science” of science communication is complicated, because of the almost infinite combination of goals, resources, audiences, and contexts that may be in play. Thus a major goal of the report is to drive a silver stake into the vampire body of “the deficit model.” This is especially true for communication about contentious issues, such as climate change, stem cells, nanotechnology, vaccines, hydrofracturing, GMOs, nuclear energy, obesity, and evolution. When these are the topics, issues of prior knowledge, numerical literacy, risk perception, political ideology, religion, deference to authority [Does this list sound familiar? Look back three paragraphs to the other report!] come into play. More knowledge does not necessarily lead to more support.

Nonetheless, the report argues that existing research provides guidance in a variety of areas – framing, focusing on trust and credibility, and working with traditional communication campaign tools such as exposure, timing, and duration of messages. It highlights the need – especially on controversial topics — to pay attention to beliefs and values, uncertainty, and the amplified voices of organized interests.

An important section of the report collates current research on journalism and use of the Internet for acquiring science information, including opportunities provided by blogs, social networks, and social media. These are, of course, rapidly changing areas with lots of research attention (especially after the disruptive elections in the last year in the US, UK, Spain, France, and elsewhere), so the mid-2016 summary in this report no doubt already needs updating. New posts on the Public Understanding of Science blog that emerged from the Public Engagement in Science Online workshop earlier this year contribute to this updating

The report provides specific suggestions for a research agenda and a research infrastructure, including taking a systems approach and determining which communication approach works best in what circumstances. Several of the points of the “research infrastructure” section are especially relevant to our discussions in Bellagio: The need for research/practice partnerships; the need for active cross-, multi-, and interdisciplinary research; the recruitment of new researchers into the field; and the development of rapid-response research mechanisms for situations such as the emergence of new diseases (Zika is the example in the report).

Finally, the report emphasizes that research to date is largely based on particular cases in particular contexts. It urges the research community and various institutions of science (such as national academies) to start building more systematic analyses that can be applied across topics and contexts.

One concluding observation: As I reread what I’ve written above, I notice that I haven’t used the word “engagement,” though that is a buzzword in our field. The science literacy report hardly uses it at all. The SoSC report does discuss engagement, but largely in the sense of both formal and informal engagement processes regarding policy about specific scientific developments. The more general, educational sense of engagement isn’t present. Nor does either report use the word “dialogue” more than a handful to times

I’ve barely done justice to these rich and important reports. I encourage you to download and read them yourselves.

3 thoughts on “Recent research reports on science literacy and on the science of science communication”

  1. Thank you, Bruce! To add to the list of important consensus reports from the US National Academies, here one on communicating chemistry, also available for download at
    The report was split into a conceptual volume and one for practitioners.

    First the one for practitioners: Communicating Chemistry: A Framework for Sharing Science: A Practical Evidence-Based Guide (2016)

    A description:
    A growing body of evidence indicates that, increasingly, the public is engaging with science in a wide range of informal environments, which can be any setting outside of school such as community-based programs, festivals, libraries, or home. Yet undergraduate and graduate schools often don’t prepare scientists for public communication. This practical guide is intended for any chemist – that is, any professional who works in chemistry-related activities, whether research, manufacturing or policy – who wishes to improve their informal communications with the public. At the heart of this guide is a framework, which was presented in the report Effective Chemistry Communication in Informal Environments and is based on the best available empirical evidence from the research literature on informal learning, science communication, and chemistry education. The framework consists of five elements which can be applied broadly to any science communication event in an informal setting.

    Now the conceptual framework:
    Effective Chemistry Communication in Informal Environments (2016)

    Chemistry plays a critical role in daily life, impacting areas such as medicine and health, consumer products, energy production, the ecosystem, and many other areas. Communicating about chemistry in informal environments has the potential to raise public interest and understanding of chemistry around the world. However, the chemistry community lacks a cohesive, evidence-based guide for designing effective communication activities. This report is organized into two sections. Part A: The Evidence Base for Enhanced Communication summarizes evidence from communications, informal learning, and chemistry education on effective practices to communicate with and engage publics outside of the classroom; presents a framework for the design of chemistry communication activities; and identifies key areas for future research. Part B: Communicating Chemistry: A Framework for Sharing Science is a practical guide intended for any chemists to use in the design, implementation, and evaluation of their public communication efforts.

  2. In addition to the two chemistry reports that Martin listed [full disclosure: I was a member of the committee that produced them], the other reports I was thinking of include:

    2009: Learning Science in Informal Environments
    An important report for bringing “informal science education” into the more general PCST conversation
    [Another full disclosure: I was one of the co-chairs of the committee that produced it]

    2016: Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects
    Chapter on “Social and Economic Effects of Genetically Engineered Crops,” but also extensive attention to communication across other chapters

    2016: Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values
    Includes a chapter on “Engaging Communities, Stakeholders, and Publics”

    2017: Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance
    Includes a chapter on “Public Engagement”

    Finally, in 2018 the NASEM will release a study on “Designing Citizen Science for Science Learning.”
    [I’m a member of the committee producing this report]

  3. Science communication & public engagement; practitioner and researcher

    This post follows Bruce’s comments on the recent US reports on science communication and how the terms ‘science communication’ & ‘public engagement’ have been used (or not). While there isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ terminology, the way we use these terms varies across nations (with different PUS traditions, national, governmental and institutional policies, and goals for communication), and within the environment they are embedded in (practitioners, policy, and academic circles). In the UK, we see a strong distinction between science communication (deficit/one way models) and public engagement (two-way/dialogue) mostly in government and academic discourses; in Portugal ‘public engagement’ is not common, we rather use science communication, which refers to any form of communication including ‘public engagement’ initiatives. Even amongst our community of researchers, we seem to use terms differently; public engagement has been used as a general term to refer to any type of communications with non-specialists (Jensen and Bauer, 2011, Entradas and Bauer, 2016), but in many cases, is used in the civic sense of participation and debate. I also have the impression that in recent years (after GMOs and other S&T controversies in the 1980s) the term ‘science communication’ has had a bad connotation (e.g. during my experience at the BBSRC (UK) ‘science communication’ was not welcome because all we were doing was ‘public engagement’!). This vision seems to be changing… What has made me wonder if we should agree on a common language for our discussions, or whether these distinctions are clear to all of us?

    The same might go to ‘researchers’ and ‘practitioners’. Ideally, the distinction between both would be clear — at the one end of the spectrum we would have science communication researchers, and at the other end science journalists, PR officers, science communicators at research institutes, universities, museums. But the spectrum is large and the middle ground is populated with a fragmented community performing many different tasks, ranging from PR, lobbying, marketing to science communication. Would it be useful to find a common terminology here too for our discussions?

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