The big idea
Scientists don’t take time away from their research to share their expertise with journalists, policymakers and everyone else just to let us know about neat scientific facts.
They share findings from their research because they want leaders and the public to use their hard-won insights to make evidence-based decisions about policy and personal issues. That’s according to two surveys of Canadian and American researchers my colleagues and I conducted.
Scientists from both countries reported “ensuring that policymakers use scientific evidence” is at the top of their list of communication goals. Helping their fellow citizens make better personal decisions also scores high. Further, scientists say they’re not communicating just to burnish their own reputation.
Why it matters
In just one recent week, American President Donald Trump said top health scientists were making “a mistake” about the value of masks in slowing COVID-19 transmission and that he doesn’t “think science knows” whether climate change is part of the reason the American West is beset by wildfires this summer.
The scientific community has come to expect this sort of historically unusual disregard for scientific advice from the current administration. But our new study underscores that scientists prioritize sharing their research so it can have an impact in the real world. They aren’t satisfied just producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but rather want it to inform such matters as pandemic response and wildfire management.
We know from other interviews and surveys that many scientists will often initially indicate that their communication “goal” is simply to increase knowledge or correct misinformation. However, if prodded by questions like “But why do you want to increase knowledge?” or “What do you hope will happen if you correct misinformation?” they will often identify their ultimate aim as helping people make better decisions.
Highly trained scientists seem especially willing to share what they’ve learned if they think it can help society make smarter choices. For example, forest scientists I’ve worked with in New England want to help land managers and policymakers find ways to protect Northeastern forests from urban sprawl and other threats. There also appears to be broad demand among scientists of all types to take part in policy fellowships that help them connect with policymakers on issues like managing health and environmental risks.
Science isn’t infallible, but the premise of scientific research is that it’s among the best available ways of trying to understand a complicated world. Years of survey research also show that Americans have more confidence in scientists than in most other groups in society and want scientists to be involved in a range of different types of decision-making.
What still isn’t known
Our surveys didn’t ask about every possible goal. For example, we did not ask scientists about how much they aim to push policymakers to adopt specific laws or regulations. We also didn’t investigate how much effort scientists put into the goal of learning from those with whom they communicate, which might have implications for what they choose to research.
Another thing that’s missing from our research is direct information about what might lead scientists to prioritize specific goals.
However, we do know from past research that scientists are more likely to say they’re willing to communicate, as well as to prioritize specific objectives or tactics, if they see a choice as ethical, able to make a difference and within their capacity.
My colleagues and I continue to study scientists’ communication goals and overall views about communication. We’re especially interested in understanding how scientists identify their goals and how to encourage them to draw on evidence-based strategies that could help them achieve those goals. This increasingly includes efforts to encourage scientists to collaborate with communication experts within their organizations.