What We Do

Congress, the National Science Foundation and many disciplinary organizations are calling on researchers to engage more fully with citizens and policy-makers. Initiatives such as the AAAS “Communicating Science” program have responded by offering researchers effective techniques to increase clarity and comprehension. Training focused on communication techniques, while valuable, will not fully prepare scientists to contribute their knowledge in the context of controversies over policy characteristic of the democratic process. In such contexts, undisputed scientific information can become entangled in the legitimate, but often heated, conflicts among values and worldviews. Scientists communicating in the course of policy controversies have thus faced accusations of “politicizing science,” bringing the integrity of their work, and sometimes of science itself, into question.

To communicate science successfully in policy contexts requires more than effective techniques. It requires attention to appropriate means for maintaining the public’s trust and earning science’s “rightful place” in civic deliberations—that is, it requires a normative approach to science communication.

The overall research goal of the Science Communication program at Iowa State University is to deepen our understanding of the normative and practical challenges of communicating science in controversial settings and of appropriate methods for addressing these challenges. The interdisciplinary team brings to the project expertise in science journalism/mass communication, environmental communication, and normative theories of argumentation. We propose to examine the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders involved in the successful communication of scientific information from lab to legislature: researchers themselves, the traditional and new media, advocacy organizations, and citizens and policy-makers. We will employ multiple methodologies to illuminate the norms of science communication: quantitative content analysis, surveys and social scientific experiments as well as qualitative case studies of successful and unsuccessful science communication, and philosophical analysis of key concepts.

The educational component of the Project translates this research into practice. We develop educational materials and training opportunities for young scientists combining ethical reflection and communication exercises; one that will fulfill the call for research-based broader impacts training in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010. We also help young communication professionals in both traditional and new media sharpen their skills at meeting the challenges of communicating scientists.

Finally, we disseminate our research and curricular materials through symposia and conference meetings. We look forward to building a national network among communication scholars interested in partnering with science faculty to develop similar research agendas and curricula at their institutions.

More science communication resources at ISU