Science communication and the Rockefeller Foundation’s priorities

Report by Toss Gascoigne, Facilitated by Cary Funk

This session was the most goal-orientated discussion of the meeting. It looked at how science communication could contribute to the Rockefeller Foundations four global priorities[1]:

  • Advance health
  • Revalue ecosystems
  • Secure livelihoods
  • Transform cities

The discussions raised questions:

  • Does the incessant flow of information (sometimes contradictory) lead to confusion and a lack of trust in the people conveying the information?
  • Is it a strength that science communication is a multi-disciplinary field, and in considering how we should respond, we should take a pragmatic, project-orientated approach?
  • What does Rockefeller Foundation want and expect from us?
  • How can science communication best contribute to Rockefeller’s aims and similar broad questions? By identifying gaps in information or understanding? By acting as mediators? By adding value to existing discussions and activities?
  • Which of the many theories and concepts of science communication could most usefully be applied as our contribution to possible solutions?
  • What behaviours, activities and approaches would be most useful? ‘Boundary-spanners’? ‘Knowledge brokers’? Building resilience, empowerment in communities (including helping them face failure)?

One of the strengths of science communication is that it is most accurate to regard it as a field of study rather than a discipline. This encourages both practitioners and researchers to take a promiscuous approach, choosing the most appropriate approach from a palette of tools, disciplines and theories (instead of being bound by the confines of a self-imposed discipline). This is a strength.

How science communication should position itself in terms of these issues? Are we advocates? What is our role? Many practitioners are cheer leaders, paid by research organisations to publicise their institution and ensure its survival. Our discussions rejected this positioning: the task of science communication is not to sell science. In the instance of these practical issues, it is to work with the community to make science work from them.

The discussion suggested a more consultative role for science communication: ‘listening’, ‘community empowerment’, ‘community concerns’, ‘local values’ and ‘helping people face challenges’ all indicated a preference for a less dogmatic approach. What do communities want? How can they use science to achieve their aims? They need to be assisted to meet challenges, which in some cases might be low-tech or no-tech, the third way between Luddite and green-light. Communicators can encourage researchers to listen to community concerns and use that local knowledge to build into traditional science methods to work again for the community.

This includes the notion of dealing with failure: learning from our failures and allow people to become more comfortable with failure because they are not going to succeed all the time. This points to a role for science communication in teaching science as a life skill, helping communities meet a wave of challenges and the stresses of constant change: health, environment, life in modern cities, employment.

Constructing narratives is another important activity to help communities face inevitable change, as is helping communities put appropriate values on their assets (including ecosystems). Social and community values need to be taken into account as well as economic. How does a community value assets like ecosystems? A proper re-evaluation [revaluation?] has to be broader, and science communication can offer information on the way that ecosystems have been devalued culturally and historically.

Science communicators are not very good with dealing with behavioural change. They can deal with understanding, they can deal with dishing out knowledge. But they’re not particularly good at inspiring behavioural change because in general terms science communicators have a weak understanding of particular issues. They tend to deal with what people don’t know rather than what people do know. This suggests that science communication and science generally needs to go into a community with humbler attitude: we’re here to assist.

In offering solutions, science communicators need to wait for the ‘teachable moment’. These need to be recognised and seized upon. Sit down, listen to community voices and hear what they have to say – and wait for the teachable moment, use the teachable moment.

[1] These priorities are superseded: “During 2017 the Rockefeller Foundation is reviewing and assessing our areas of focus and grant-making to ensure that we are most effectively delivering on our mission to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world.” https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/our-work/grants/what-we-fund/)