I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. John Besley (Michigan State) and Dr. Anthony Dudo (University of Texas at Austin), two social scientists interested in the intersection of science, public engagement and communications. Their recent PLOS One paper described how scientists prioritize their communications objectives for public engagement. John and Anthony, both housed in in their institutions’ advertising and public relations departments, are working to help us understand the interfaces between scientists and the public. I had the privilege of talking with them about their work, motivations, and why scientists who are working to engage should care about their research.
Your recent PLOS paper got some great attention, what is the one thing you want scientists to take home from this paper?
JB: We want scientists to set realistic goals for their communication and think about what kind of objectives and outcomes will allow them to reach those goals. If your only goal is to share what you know, we know in the science of science communications that’s not necessarily going to have the impact you’re hoping for. What are the goals you have?
AD: We were trying to make a clear argument that communications goals and objectives are separate things—connected but separate. Goals are long-term, broad, macro things—more funding, more public support, diversifying and recruitment to STEM workforce. Objectives are more concrete—sharing info, listening, building confidence and trust, things that move along to the long-term broader goals that most scientists will say they really care about.
How does this paper fit into your entire body of work?
JB: The focus in scicomm training is often on skills, which are important and great, but the danger is that you can be skilled and it doesn’t go anywhere. Communications skills employed on their own won’t have an effect without a goal to work toward.
Having a goal and setting objectives helps you to be more efficient too. If a communications opportunity comes along, but it won’t help you reach your ultimate goal, that can help you decide whether to do it or not.
AD: To add context, John and I both have appointments in advertising departments. We approach science communication as strategic communication, and one thing that’s taken for granted in the PR field is that all communication is goal-directed. But are scientists aware of that maxim? And what kind of goals do they have, and are they diversified? Public relations (PR) research makes a clear differentiation between communication skills and communication management. Communication skills are necessary but insufficient for communication management, and at the end of the day that’s what we need. We would argue it’s directly mappable into this arena. Helping scientists gain communications skills is important and should be in trainings, but skills are insufficient on their own—without a goal you’re not taking a more holistic sense of ownership over your engagement activities, and it winds up making those engagement activities less fulfilling and less effective.
JB: For this study, we focused on the objectives, things that you can get directly from communication activities. Hopefully those objectives are the kinds of things that will let you achieve the goals you want, like getting policies into place, getting decisions made. But you need to think about the objectives that lead to your goal—do people need to know something? That means my objective is to teach. Do they need to trust us? Then my objective is trust-building. It’s important not to confuse the pathway with the end result. Saving the world, that’s an ultimate goal. “My goal is to educate people”—that’s not a goal, it’s an objective, a means to an end—you don’t educate for the sake of education. Breaking it down in people’s heads—what’s the next step to achieve your goal?
AD: John and I, for strategic reasons, really value the whole notion of “theory x practice” — it’s really important to us. We’ve both come to this wonky side of the game from the practitioner’s view. We want to close the loop. It’s a very strategic thing that we’re aware of and seek to continue to do it in the future.
So, which objectives ranked higher or lower isn’t really the point of this paper?
AD: From our perspective, it’s most important that scientists are aware of the spectrum of goals and objectives they can have, and that they are choosing those objectives and goals specific to the context and audience they are talking to.
Chart from PLOS One paper showing how different communication objectives for scientists rank against each other. The point, Dudo and Besley say, is not how objectives rank but rather, that establishing clear objectives in service of your ultimate goals – whatever they may be – is most important.
JB: Scientists do have goals, but haven’t necessarily connected them to specific objectives. We asked about their personal internal goals, what they want for themselves and society. Scientists said they want policymakers to use their scientific evidence and ensure that our society and culture values science. They want to increase impact of their research, and feel a duty to society to communicate it.
One piece of constructive feedback I heard from scientists when they saw this survey was “the objective I have for communicating isn’t really represented here”, what do you say to those folks?
AD: At no point are we claiming that the list of objectives is exhaustive—we looked across some areas of literature that we’re familiar with, and picked five concrete objectives for the pilot. In a subsequent survey, we have an additional subset of objectives, and we’re also looking at the goals. This PLoS One paper uses data from a couple of years ago, and was our first crack at this question. Stay tuned for analyses looking for relationships between goals and objectives, based on an expanded survey.
JB: We’re constantly on a quest to make sure we’re trying to collect the most exhaustive list of objectives and goals we come across–let us know if you’re seeing trends and patterns that we should know about.
We encourage scientists to share their personal “why” – why do you do this work? What are your “why’s”?
AD: I remember watching NOVA and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos with my dad when I was young. Those shows got me so excited about science — I was drawn to the passion and enthusiasm of the scientist narrators.
After college, I took a job at a big science museum in Philadelphia, where I was the middleman between the audiences the museum served (kids, teachers, and other groups) and the scientists working there. I realized first hand that there were lots of communication challenges. I became interested from a research standpoint in how we could alleviate that, and address severe communication challenges that didn’t need to be that severe. So I loved science as a little person, and then my experience working at a joyous but somewhat dysfunctional science institution led me to want to study how we could talk about science more effectively. I got into this game because of science educators who made the concept of discovery and science so interesting.
JB: Everyone in my family has a natural science degree except me, so I grew up understanding the world through science. Fast forward, I was working at Environment Canada in international relations, and people would say “the government doesn’t have the guts to do this or that policy.” My sense from inside the government was that, we’d love to do those things, but people need to tell their politicians what they care about. I also felt like there wasn’t a lot of expertise around understanding what people really thought about the environment, at least where I was. So I started off studying public opinion about science, the other side, which was great, but it felt like the science community thought they knew how to use communications to achieve what they wanted, but looking at what we actually do, it’s like we’re inventing the wheel over and over again.
I got interested in the training of scientists, and scientists’ views of how we’re using science communication, and started asking “what can we do to make science communication better?” All our theories have been “do x, get y,” but no one really knows whether that’s how it actually works. So I switched to studying the scientists’ side of things, because I want my research to be useful.
The body of theory that I like the most is this research of fairness. You can’t always get what you want in the world, but how can we create decision-making processes where people still see the outcome as legitimate, even if they don’t get what they want? In the procedural fairness body of literature, the key things are listening to people, and treating them with respect (and not faking it). If you really do those things, they lead to good outcomes. I like a good process.
When/if you took your own survey, which objective did you check?
AD: I’d say excite.
JB: Build trust is my top one.
If you have feedback or questions for John and Anthony, they’d like to hear from you. You can also learn more about their work here.