Communicating environmental science to the general public

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Given the recent events in the US and their potential implications for actions on issues such as climate change or the non-toxic environment, this editorial seems important enough to warrant a full reprint here. It was originally published by Thomas-Benjamin Seiler and myself in Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, in June 2016, dx.doi.org/10.1002/ieam.1787


We live in an era of unprecedented scientific progress and dissemination. Biological knowledge is estimated to double every 5 years (Malhan and Rao 2008), and knowledge accrual in environmental science might progress at an equal pace. Almost every day, new findings about anthropogenic impacts on the environment and humanity’s dependence on healthy ecosystems (food, water, and other ecosystem services) are described in scientific articles or the popular press. However, such knowledge is not considered often enough in the choices made, in everyday life as well as in societal decision making. In fact, as scientists, we are baffled that even well-educated decision makers often ignore relevant science when making crucial management or policy decisions. Why is that? To understand the cause, perhaps we need to take a closer look at how we, as scientists, communicate with others. Distribution and access to information is not an issue in the internet age. However, the sheer amount of highly specialized scientific literature continues to expand at an exponential rate. Decision makers are therefore increasingly faced with unmanageable volumes of rapidly evolving evidence, mainly processed for exchange between experts. As an unfortunate result, they seem to have largely given up reading the primary scientific literature (Cvitanovic et al. 2015). Consideration of scientific findings in societal decision making, therefore, depends more than ever on better science communication — condensed and widely disseminated briefs, press releases, and reviews that summarize scientific findings and make them more accessible to non-experts.

The complexity of environmental science, which stems from an intense collaboration between a broad range of disciplines, is a key challenge for science communication, especially as results need to be communicated from a highly dynamic research front to a far more conservative societal and political network of stakeholders. Therefore, scientists must be more than clear, accurate, and concise when explaining research to a non-expert audience. They must also be able to hold the attention of nontechnical audiences and demonstrate clearly the value of their work. Unfortunately, scientists often assume a “deficit model” when communicating with the general public — any nonacceptance of scientific findings is assumed to be a deficit in the audience’s factual knowledge and can, therefore, be overcome by providing more facts.However,merely explaining additional scientific details, even when done well, rarely leads to a meaningful translation of science into societal actions.

People are inclined to accept scientific findings if they are in line with their cultural beliefs and those shared by their peer groups. For example, cultural worldviews were shown to have a distinct impact on the perception of nanotechnology risks (Kahan et al. 2009), with conservatives perceiving the benefits to be greater than the risks, and liberals doing the opposite. Scientific evidence that threatens cultural values will simply lead to an increased support of alternative arguments, no matter how unsupported by science those alternatives are.

Environmental scientists, therefore, need to become better at engaging in the public discourse by better considering social and cultural contexts, for example, by using metaphors and examples that connect to the audience’s experience of the world (and hence frame the issue to be communicated) — not only with the aim to facilitate the understanding of scientific findings but also to create an open-minded environment that enables an unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information. This might be the only option to incorporate incomplete, imperfect research results into policy debates, risk governance, and societal discussions. Such an approach will be critically important, because risk governance depends on the interplay between a wide range of stakeholders, such as nations, industrial stakeholders, regulatory authorities, academia, civil society organizations, and members of the general public.

A discourse on the challenges of science communication would be incomplete without acknowledging the underlying technological challenge we face today—channels used for communicating science are becoming increasingly diverse and new forms of media often encourage oversimplification. Gone is the almost exclusive focus on scholarly communication via peer-reviewed journals. Taking its place is a complex melange of rapid social media forums (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, etc.) and new open platforms, pre-print servers, post-publication review platforms, retraction watchdogs, and fundamentally novel journals, such as the newly minted Journal of Brief Ideas, which supports the communication of new ideas in 200 words or less. If environmental scientists want to meet the challenge of engaging the public and cut through the political rhetoric and misinformation often tangled in the public press and social media, we need to better understand and effectively navigate the rapidly evolving information technologies and communication outlets.

Otherwise, we will continue to struggle when trying to explain the implications of our research and its potential value to society. As the world’s largest professional society in the field, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) has a duty to advance the conversation in environmental science. SETAC Europe has initiated a program to systematically strengthen and improve science communication strategies: the new advisory group on science and risk communication (SCIRIC), and we encourage all SETAC members to participate. Details of the activities of SCIRIC can be found at http:// www.setac.org/group/SEAGSCIRIC.

References

Cvitanovic C, Hobday AJ, van Kerkhoff L, Wilson SK, Dobbs K, Marshall NA. 2015. Improving knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers to facilitate the adaptive governance of marine resources: A review of knowledge and research needs. Ocean Coast Manage 11:25–35.

Kahan DM, Braman D, Slovic P, Gastil J, Cohen G. 2009. Cultural cognition of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology. Nat Nanotechnol 4:87–90.

Malhan IV, Rao S. 2008. Perspectives on knowledge management. Plymouth (UK): Scarecrow Press. 476 p.

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