Science,People & Communication

Review Article.


American Journal of Botany 96(10): 1767–1778. 2009

Matthew C. Nisbet 2,4 and Dietram A. Scheufele 3

In this article, we review the research on how the public make sense of and participates in decisions concerning science and technology. We also explore the role of the media and science communication among people, particularly the challenges based on the dominant assumption that science literacy is both the problem and solution to societal conflicts. In Singapore, Science,Technology,Engineering,Mathematics (STEM) was set-up to provide support for secondary school science teachers to further enhance the learning of science in schools. This was an excellent initiative,bringing Applied Learning in Science to secondary schools through hands-on activities, talks and learning journeys. This aim is to engage students in building a bridge between textbook knowledge and real-world applications so that they can be good scientists and awesome communicators-A serious lack in the education globally.

Public engagement in science has varied over the years when we look into cases of evolution, nanotechnology and climate change. There has been a slow but gradual shift in how people view engagement. Effective communication is multi-factorial. The public needs to recognise the efforts of scientist to make scientific information readily available in a simple and effective manner. It is also based on trust especially when media platforms are involved. Then the question arises on what is effective science communication. Many of these initiatives start with the false premise

Members of the public from diverse backgrounds use information and reach decisions based on their exposure to articles and multi-media interfaces. Scientists need to be clear in the content they want to put across and the intended key take home messages. In order to do this, they first need to understand that systematic empirical understanding of an intended audience, their existing knowledge, values and attitude are of paramount importance. Secondly, their preferred media sources and communication channels.

There has been several myths about science communication to the public. After formal science education ends, the exposure these people have to understanding scientific advances in society is greatly reduced. This is because of the technical details and jargons scientists used which turns them away. As a solution, science media should be used to educate the public about technical details of the matter in dispute. Research has shown that once the public is brought up to the speed on science, the controversy is likely to be reduced as they can judge scientific issues like scientists do.

Thus this article suggests various ways to move forward from here. The need for a more scientific approach to science communication which is less extensively driven by intuition, beliefs and traditional ways of doing ‘science communication’.

Another approach could be to beef up undergraduate and graduate level training for those majoring in sciences to have hands on training in science communications. Scientists with communication training are well sought after by media companies, tech industries and government sectors. They can then bridge the gap that we currently have.

Table 1: Certain issues that could be explored by the public

Public accountability Placing a blame on public actions for value, e.g. political gain in the climate change debate
Runaway technology: Creating a certain view of technological advancements, e.g. photos of an exploded nuclear power plant
Scientific uncertainty: Questioning the reliability of a scientific theory, e.g. arguing how bad global climate change can be if humans are still alive


2 School of Communication, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 USA; and 3 Department of Life Sciences Communication, Hiram Smith Hall, 1545 Observatory Drive, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin USA 53706-1215


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