LAS faculty aim for improved science communication during controversies

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LAS researchers, from left, Jean Goodwin, Clark Wolf and Michael Dahlstrom. Scientists often receive little training on how to communicate their science and protect their communication from being politicized during policy controversies, such as global warming and evolution.

Now an interdisciplinary team of researchers, led by faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Iowa State University, will explore science information that has become questioned or rejected within policy decisions. The team aims to develop teaching materials focused on communicating science during those policy controversies.

The project, called Teaching Responsible Communication of Science, is funded by a new three-year $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Ethics Education in Science and Engineering program. The researchers will interview scientists involved in public controversies then design teaching modules to help future scientists better navigate the conflicting expectations they will face when contributing to controversial policy.

"Successful science communication is more than just simplifying or communicating clearly," said Michael Dahlstrom, assistant professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication and one of the project’s researchers. "Often, the lack of scientific influence within policy-making is a problem of violating some unspoken expectation that damages trust and credibility even if the information is accurate and understood."

Avoiding the hype Dahlstrom said scientists must know how to promote their work while avoiding perceptions of hype and spin.

Jean Goodwin, professor of English and the project’s lead researcher, said that while climate change and evolution are prominent examples of science being questioned within policy, questions of appropriate science communication exist whenever scientists and non-scientists communicate.

"As scientists leave their labs and enter the public sphere, audiences will already expect them to communicate in specific ways," Goodwin said. "How can scientists be expected to successfully contribute to policy if they are not trained on what is expected from them?"

She said an increasing number of resources are available to help scientists develop effective communication skills. The NSF-funded project aims to complement the resources by developing, testing and disseminating teaching materials focused on communicating science during policy controversies.

"Appropriate communication in these complex and often heated debates can be challenging," Goodwin added. "So our goal is to help scientists use communication techniques appropriately, avoid the appearance of politicization and share their results without hype."

Other researchers on the project are Clark Wolf, professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies and director of the ISU Bioethics Program, and Mari Kemis, assistant director of the Research Institute for Studies in Education at Iowa State.

A deeper understanding "It is becoming increasingly important for our scientists to engage with the public and policy-makers and be more involved in policy decisions," said Chitra Rajan, associate vice president for research in Iowa State’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development (VPR/ED). "It appears that effectively communicating scientific information is far more challenging than one would expect and demands a lot more than good communication skills. This project will attempt to provide a deeper understanding of successful science communication."

Rajan explained that the research methodology and the dissemination of results and its application in practice are multidisciplinary. "This project can help develop interesting partnerships among the scientists and humanists. It is a broad enough topic that interested faculty from any science or engineering discipline can work with this group of faculty members."

The Office of the VPR/ED and ISU’s Center for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities also provided support for the project.

Teaching materials will be developed for graduate students in science fields and will be made available to research ethics or science communication courses. The materials will first be pilot tested in 14 universities across the country. A workshop, titled "Science: Becoming the Messenger," will be held on the Iowa State campus Oct. 16-17.


NEWS RELEASE College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Iowa State University

Contacts: Michael Dahlstrom, Greenlee School, 608-469-9602, Jean Goodwin, English, 515-294-7670, Steve Jones, Liberal Arts & Sciences Communications, (515) 294-0461,