Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, RWTH Aachen University; Blair Paulik, Maul Foster & Alongi, Inc.; Walter Berry, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and Annegaaike Leopold, Calidris Environment BV
At the SETAC North America 40th Annual Meeting in November, we convened a special forum on “Effective Science Communication in a Science Unfriendly World.” With this session, we created space for discussion about how scientists can continue to communicate about their work with non-scientists despite the increasing scientific skepticism in the public and in politics.
Recent years have seen an increasingly skeptical or even hostile environment toward science. In this session, we brought together scientists from around the world to share their experiences addressing this challenge. We heard stories and learned about strategies to use when you encounter science skepticism or dismissal, and how to avoid it before it happens.
The session had two parts, and it did not follow the standard SETAC schedule. The first part featured five short presentations and a panel. This part of the session set the stage for the importance of scientific communication and established some of the effective ways to use it in the current climate. We devoted the second part to three longer interactive presentations which demonstrated science communication tools. The audience practiced using grassroots organizing techniques and social media.
The first part of the session started with Blair Paulik, Maul Foster & Alongi, Inc., introducing the session and reminding us of the need to communicate effectively with the public about science. Sandra Toquica-Diaz, Globalomics Enterprises, Inc., shared lessons that can be learned from France, where it took quite some time for E 171 (a food additive that contains TiO2) to be banned under the precautionary principle despite ample scientific evidence of potential health risks, especially for children. The manufacturers had been assuring the public that there were no safety issues, so she shared this as an example of a time when effective communication from scientists has a direct impact. Next, Ralph Stahl, who retired from DuPont, spoke about a cloud-based risk assessment exercise program for human and ecological receptors called “Risk Challenge” that he and his colleagues developed at DuPont. This program addresses difficulties DuPont was encountering when conducting interactive training exercises on risk assessment and risk management. Anne Alix, Corteva Agrisciences, then explained how industry is working to increase visibility of their data to match the upcoming General Food Law in Europe. She described how industry data are provided online to characterize potential risks, define conditions of use that represent negligible risk, and provide context to issues that might cause controversy. Finally, Maria Rogers, University of Southern Mississippi, and Laura Langan, Baylor University, introduced us to ways to use social media to communicate science. Rogers explained how to set up a successful toxicology blog. Important tips that she gave were to post early in the day, post often, be consistent, decide which niche fits you best and stick to it, adjust the title of your blog to your intended audience, add pictures, make sure you maintain your social media presence, and collaborate (with Rogers – she is looking for blog authors to team with!). Langan covered the entire scope of social media sites – more than 65 in total! Different parts of the world prefer different social media platforms. She presented different examples of Twitter styles from around the world and introduced the audience to the concept of “Skype a scientist” – an online resource that matches scientists with classrooms and groups of adults for Q&A sessions and video chat.
Coming back after the break, the room remained full, with people standing at the back until the end of the session. Meaghan Guyader, Earthjustice, took us on a journey to our inner selves, giving us a mini workshop on how we can build trust with others by articulating our own self-interest and by expressing what drives us to ourselves and each other. We split into groups of two, one person telling their story of why they are engaged in science communication and the other listening and asking questions. Meaghan showed us how articulating one’s self-interest is key to building relationships and networks that are essential for a successful grassroots movement. Austin Gray, University of North Carolina– at Greensboro, then gave us a better understanding of how we scientists can use social media to our advantage. He has used social media for effective science communication of his research at a local, regional and national level. Gray challenged us to tweet about what we had learned in this session and soon everyone in the room was working hard at tweeting (some for the first time!). Tony Williams, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had prepared an excellent interactive talk summarizing the benefits of developing an online profile and communicating your science to a networked audience in an age when potential employers and collaborators increasingly research scientists online. Williams could unfortunately not be present to give his talk, but we did show some of his slides and encourage him to give his talk in a future SETAC science communication session!
Further, we had a small, well-attended poster session on Wednesday, with three presentations following the newly proposed “better poster” design. The three posters were linked to one another visually and conceptually, telling one overarching story about how scientists can build trust with their audiences. The posters generated discussions with the presenters about experiences in various forms of communication, be it email correspondence with colleagues, organization of community events to discuss issue of environmental concern, communicating with policymakers, or engaging with the public.
Our session inspired lively and fact-based discussions. We hope the content and the outcomes of these discussions help the attendees to better understand the issues at hand and develop strategies to handle them. With the wide range of science communication tools covered in this session, we hope that the more than one hundred people who attended left with ideas and tools to help them effectively communicate their science to the public. Collectively, we hope these efforts will help counter conspiracy theories, suggesting that scientific research empowers the elites and other reasons to reject scientifically proven facts.
This science communication session was co-chaired by Walter Berry, Thomas-Benjamin Seiler, Blair Paulik, Namrata Sengupta, Carrie McDonough, Sarah Bowman, and Annegaaike Leopold, and it was sponsored by the SETAC Science and Risk Communication Interest Group (SCIRIC).
In conclusion, as Laura Langan reminded us in her talk, “Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated. The communication to wider audiences is part of the job of being a scientist, and so how you communicate is vital.”  Sir Mark Walport U.K. Government Chief Scientific Advisor.