Science Needs Public Relations

Robert Simpson

Robert Simpson

President & CEO

For the last 20 years, Robert has specialized in strategic communication and science public relations, focusing his passion for storytelling to help organizations achieve greater impact. As PR Associates’ leader, Robert plays a role in collaborating with clients and our teams to develop strategies and create experiences that deepen audience engagement.

This article was written for and featured in Forbes.com

These days it feels like science is on the losing end of public opinion.

In a recent 3M State of Science Survey, 32% of those surveyed believe their life wouldn’t be that different if science didn’t exist. Around the world, we see basic safety precautions like wearing a mask to prevent the spread of Covid-19 go ignored due to the lack of faith in scientific advice preached by public health officials. As if these examples are not reason enough for worry, a recent paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that, historically, trust in scientists and the benefits of their work is significantly reduced after global pandemics.

So why, despite all the available evidence, does the general public choose not to trust science?

Herein lies the public relations challenge.

A Necessary Meeting of the Minds: Science Public Relations and Communications

As scientist Kate Pratt pointed out in her 2012 essay, one of the biggest and most long-standing issues with public understanding of science is a lack of good communication. By nature, most scientific discoveries are complex, resulting from years of investigation and incremental advances, making it difficult to explain them to a layperson. A scientist who is also a good communicator is a rarity, and scientists often struggle to convey the significance and impact of their work. Unfortunately, however, when the scientific voice is silent, the voices of anti-science — ignorance, fear, rumors — increasingly fill the void.

This must change. As Pratt writes, without clear, concise communication around scientific discoveries and advances, the field “will continue to be seen as a closed off and elitist realm, and the public will continue to feel shut out, disenfranchised, and suspicious. Science has too long ignored public relations, marketing, and personal branding…” I also believe people are now more inclined to believe conspiracy theories on Facebook than their local public health officer. We’re now seeing the impact of all this.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s and ’60s, during the heady days of space travel, vaccines and medical breakthroughs, science was viewed with respect and wonder. We can look to this poignant essay from 2010, in which Rick E. Borchelt, Lynne T. Friedmann and Earle Holland examine why science as an enterprise no longer inspires unalloyed public trust, for insights into this decline. It’s clear we must address the massive trust gap that has emerged between scientists and the lay public, particularly on issues of global concern, such as Covid-19 and vaccination.

The Falling Star of Science Journalism

Another major issue I believe is eroding public trust in science is the decline of strong, investigative journalism. In part because of a generalized downturn and hollowing out of the conventional funding model, traditional media outlets are increasingly letting go of their full-time science journalists along with various other specialists and even generalist reporters.

Nature survey of 493 science journalists showed jobs are being lost across the sector, and the workloads of those who remain are on the rise. Science journalism boomed in the 1980s and early ’90s. In 1989, the U.S. boasted some 95 newspapers with dedicated science sections. However, it became clear quickly enough that newspaper profits weren’t coming from the science pages, and once the Internet began eating into advertising revenue — the lifeblood of traditional media — the days of dedicated science sections were numbered.

In today’s strained conditions, the mainstream media’s need for quick and accurate science content is being met primarily by public relations departments. Nature’s survey shows press releases to be a top source of story ideas for science journalists, with 39% routinely quoting from them directly. And this happens because science is complex and when information is complex, people make decisions based on their values and beliefs, and then seek affirmation for their attitudes or beliefs, no matter how illogical the view is, and reject information that counters those attitudes and beliefs.

Pluralistic Advocacy… or Is It Ignorance? 

The third challenge facing good public relations and science is the fragmented nature of the modern communications landscape — the “echo chamber” we see in today’s media consumption habits, whereby people seek out news and opinions that dovetail and consequently reinforce their own beliefs. Social media algorithms learn our preferences and tailor our content, reinforcing the feedback loop. Thus, those who believe in pseudo-science have their erroneous beliefs validated and, in turn, disseminate the disinformation to their own circles.

While polling indicates that public trust for science has grown moderately since the Covid-19 pandemic, we are still faced with an enormous challenge — and one that we must face together. If we have learned anything in the last year, it is that nothing can be taken for granted and our lives can be upheaved at any moment. We must work to ensure science is valued and taken seriously to ensure it continues to drive advances in human health and public policy. And this means clear, concise communications that everyone can understand — and believe.


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