Can sharpened messages & increased engagement help bridge trust gap between public and science?

Photo by Ola Lindberg
Photo by Ola Lindberg

By Aidan Gilligan, Founder & CEO of SciCom

Aidan contributed this article as part of our call for blogposts on conference themes. Submit your blogpost: 

Representatives of the Offices of Chief Scientific Advisers, large membership organisations, and the fields of nuclear energy, genetically modified organisms and harm reduction science in tobacco recently made a concerted plea that policy-makers better understand science engagement when communicating risk.

They also questioned the logic of hiding the scientific evidence and opinions fed-in behind some of today’s most controversial public policy issues.

These ideas were expressed at both the 2012 American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Annual Meeting (AAAS) held in Vancouver in February and the Euro Science Open Forum’s Bi-annual Meeting (ESOF) held in Dublin in July.

Panelists, each with pertinent experience of real-life scientific support to policy-making, offered first-hand advice on best practices and pitfalls encountered when architecting science policy on both sides of the Atlantic. These symposia, both titled “Exploding Myths on Reactor Security, Harm Reduction, and Genetically Modified Organisms,” featured a call for greater integrity, openness, clarity and public engagement on difficult to communicate issues of global significance.

A key message was that science and policy have a crucial relationship but scientists should not think that they are policy-makers. Equally, science must remain independent while ‘bad science’ and spin must be challenged. The AAAS symposium was moderated by (then) Irish Chief Scientific Advisor and Champion of EuroScience Open Forum 2012, Professor Patrick Cunningham. The ESOF symposium was moderated by Dr Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS and Executive Publisher of Science.

Panelists asked: with well over 50 nuclear plants under construction worldwide, Fukushima or not, why is it so difficult to separate fact from fiction on nuclear reactor safety and waste management solutions? With over 150 million hectares of biotech crops produced worldwide, what are the known and unknown implications of innovation in biotechnology and genetic engineering? With the WHO predicting over 1 billion smoking-related deaths this century, is tobacco harm reduction the greatest public health imperative we face today or is their quit or die message enough?

Accepting that societal problems are not necessarily problems with purely scientific solutions, speakers argued that calculated risks are fundamental to realizing proven benefits and that innovative science is ever more prevalent and important. They strongly urged the wider scientific community to think – and act – in the global interest, while pressing the re-set button for ‘evidence-based policy’ above ‘policy-biased evidence’.

Keen not to assume that scientific consensus can exist or to frame issues as science versus the public with science in the right, the overriding consensus was that more needs to be done to guard against the misuse of science in policy-making.

Scientists must sharpen their message and engage the public

The Vancouver and Dublin discussions underscored how the role of scientific advice in policy-making worldwide is growing. Yet, governments face challenges in terms of how science is viewed and used with the trust gap between public perceptions and scientific realities widening.

Recent episodes, such as the Japanese tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster, the volcanic ash crisis in Europe, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the failed Russian Mars probe are prominent examples in the public eye. Yet, daily legislative decisions about the foods we eat, the forms of nicotine or tobacco we use, or how the energy we require is produced are just as important. Impartial policy-makers want to know the facts and receive independent advice.

Faced with claims and counter claims from interest groups – including science – this is not always obvious. And when the scientific evidence is ‘indisputable’, decision-making is often muddied by a constant information/misinformation battle-ground. Panelists framed this as a Cain and Abel contest between those supporting “evidence-based policies” (establish the science first, then inform the policy) versus those supporting “policy-biased evidence” (establish the policy first, then find the science to support it).

Speakers used thematic case-studies to explode popular myths about nuclear energy, crop innovations and tobacco harm reduction. The focus was less on the pros and cons of each, but more on how the influence of science could be sharpened.

Dr Roland Schenkel, nuclear energy expert highlighted that: “Historically in debates on nuclear energy, the public plays the critical role in affecting policy. It’s a straight ‘for’ or ‘against’ issue. Yet, the evolutionary science behind reactor safety and waste management solutions is poorly explained”.

He added: “A key role of science leaders today is to accurately inform the public and policy-makers and aid in their understanding of policy implications. The basic question for consumers is: how can I be sure that this energy source is safe? The basic question for scientists is: how can I untangle the basic facts from values and social and economic considerations?”

Dr David O’Reilly, harm reduction advocate stressed that: “Science must guarantee that it is guided by values of integrity and transparency, with its work underpinned by continuous peer review and evaluation”. He added: “We scientists, in turn, must seek to provide a complete and accurate assessment of the potential risks in scientific research and policy. Although challenging to do so, science leaders and politicians should avoid creating unnecessary angst as a means of motivating public support for particular science policies or indeed to obtain funding or votes.”

Dr Guy van den Eede, plant science expert commented that: “The evolution versus revolution debate in biotechnology and engineering often misses the profound interconnectivity between decades-long advances in science and addressing global challenges in climate, energy, agriculture and health”.

He added:“The GMO story in Europe versus other regions of the world lays bare how government decisions are ultimately political with science just one element in decision-making”.

Dr Carl-Johan Sundberg, communications expert concluded that: “From the ripples of the Japanese nuclear disaster to a smoking cessation campaign in Australia or a GMO ban in Austria, information and misinformation are instant”.

Dr Istvan Palugyai, science journalist expert added: “The challenge for science journalists in an increasingly global knowledge society seems to be that if you can’t convince them, confuse them”.

Then Irish Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Patrick Cunningham, in summing up, said that:  “In policy decisions, important factors beyond the reach of science are often involved: fear, hype, ignorance, profit, resentment, economic and political advantage. And science does not always have clear answers. However, science and scientists have a special claim to be heard, provided they are committed to:

  • Integrity: to uphold the inherent honesty of scientific enquiry and debate
  • Openness: to keep the lab door open, and making clear any special interests
  • Clarity: to speak in terms the public can understand
  • Engagement: to demonstrate that we take our duty to society seriously”

He added: “At the same time, policymakers should encourage scientists to speak out even when their research or assessment may be unpopular. As one vocal participant put it, scientists should learn to stand up, shout up and when necessary, shut up. The voice of the rational middle ground should be louder.”

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