Helping close the gap between scientists and the public
Author: Cristina Rojas, Institute for Sustainable Solutions
Posted: January 3, 2019

Force feeding the public facts about controversial science topics like climate change, vaccinations or genetically modified food is unlikely to change attitudes. But having a better understanding of people's beliefs and values may help scientists communicate more effectively with the public — and encourage people to act, says Brianne Suldovsky

Suldovsky, an assistant professor of science communication and a faculty fellow in PSU's Institute for Sustainable Solutions, uses philosophical concepts — what is knowledge, what is the world and how we understand it, and the philosophy of values — to better understand which types of engagement work and why.

"Scientists tend to hold science up as the best mode of knowledge production, but that's not the case for everybody," Suldovsky says. "I look at how we can use philosophical concepts to understand when the public accepts and likes science and when they don't, and when the relationship between scientists and society works well and when it doesn't."

The so-called deficit model — the idea that all people need is the right information and they will suddenly believe and behave in science-consistent ways — doesn't always work to make people act, Suldovsky said. That's in part because people process information using their own perspectives and biases, and many tend to pay attention to information that reinforces what they already believe and dismiss evidence that would require them to change their minds, she said.

Suldovsky presents dialogue as a potentially more effective approach. This approach involves scientists giving people information in a more informal setting — a beer-friendly "Science on Tap" event, for example — but also addressing their questions and taking time to listen to what the public has to say. This might also include providing people the information they need to participate in meaningful discussions about a particular topic, and letting the public have more control over the implications and directions of scientific research.

Suldovsky pointed to an "Editing our Evolution" event at Portland's OMSI as a good example. Participants had a chance to learn the basics about human genome editing and the related ethical and societal issues, then share their opinions about whether and how to pursue these medical advancements using the information they learned, their background knowledge and their values.

"They give people scientific information but then they let non-scientists decide what we do with it, what's ethical and where we should go," Suldovsky said. "It's not just listening to people; it's giving them control over the future of scientific research and the implications of it." 

This method of engagement, Suldovsky points out, has been shown to be more effective in creating positive engagement with science. 

Read Suldovsky's tips on how scientists can effectively engage with the public 

Suldovsky's involvement in ISS-sponsored projects are part of her efforts to turn her research into action. Over the summer, she helped conduct focus groups for BREATHE Oregon, a university-community collaboration that is working to better understand what diesel emissions look like in the Portland region, create maps of the most affected neighborhoods, and arm community activists with information about what's in their air.

The information they gathered from residents about what they believe are the sources and impacts of air pollution and the strategies they use to cope will help the project team develop effective air quality tools.

"Understanding what people are currently doing is important if we're going to help people protect themselves," Suldovsky said. "Sometimes, those strategies can be something that scientists didn't think of but might be effective, while other strategies aren't effective. It's important to work with the community to figure out what works and what doesn't."

Suldovsky says she hopes her research can help improve the relationship between science and the public.

"I'm passionate about creating empathy for people who might not be science-consistent in their attitudes, beliefs or behaviors," she said. "If we can figure out how to measure people's implicit assumptions about the world and how we know about the world, we can use that information to create a stronger, more positive relationship between science and society."