Do scientists understand the general public?

Posted on Mar 07, 2017

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences organized four workshops for experts from the scientific community and representatives of the public to explore how scientists currently understand their obligation to the broader social and cultural contexts in which their work is received, and to examine ways to improve engagement between the scientific and public communities.

The study made four recommendations as stated in their report, Do Scientists Understand the Public published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, for scientists and engineers in an effort to improve public communication including:

1. More scientists and engineers need to seek input from the public at the earliest stages of a project and should continue to seek consensus through a participatory process.

  • One attribute of an effective participatory process will be for experts to demonstrate to the public that the scientific community is taking the public’s views into account.

2. When assessing the risks and benefits of technologies, scientists and engineers should account for the non-technical and value-based concerns of the public in addition to technical concerns.

  • Scientists and engineers should perform a thorough and publicly accessible evaluation of non-technical concerns.
  • Scientists and engineers should clearly articulate the ethical values that will guide their work, build those values into all aspects of their work, and consequently build all relationships around those ethical principles and values.

3. The expert community should value and utilize data from social scientists in order to better understand public attitudes toward science and technology.

  • Science and engineering journals should include regular columns that present data from social science studies regarding public attitudes toward science and technology.
  • Professional scientific meetings should include discussions of current public attitudes toward new scientific discoveries and why those attitudes are vital to scientific research.

4. Scientists and engineers need to create more opportunities to establish the trust and confidence of the public.

  • Open forums, tours of facilities, and science cafés are existing ways the public can interact with the expert community; these options provide the expert community an opportunity to build the trust of the public.
  • Scientists and engineers should develop effective communication strategies based on authoritative information from independent scientists and government officials. This strategy can be used both when creating new regulatory guidelines and during times of crisis.


Robert Simpson, President of PR Associates, a Communication Firm based in Vancouver & Toronto.

Robert Simpson is an experienced trainer and communicator who helps scientists, engineers and project proponents assess political, social and public risk.

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