Scientific advances often provoke deep concern on the part of the public, especially when these advances challenge strongly held political or moral perspectives.
An American Academy of Arts and Sciences' project on Improving the Scientific Community's Understanding of Public Concerns about Science and Technology examined the ways in which scientists engage with the public, and how their mutual understanding could be improved. More than fifty scientists, engineers, public policy experts, lawyers, ethicists, and journalists participated in a series of workshops that focused on four areas of public concern: the siting of nuclear waste repositories; the spread of personal genetic information; the next generation of the Internet; and the risks and benefits of emerging energy technologies. Several common themes emerged:
In Do Scientists Understand the Public?, a new paper based on the Academy study, science journalist Chris Mooney reviews the workshop findings and recommendations. The monograph is available online at http://www.amacad.org/publications/scientistsUnderstand.aspx.
According to Mooney, Scientists and the public often have "very different perceptions of risk, and very different ways of bestowing their trust and judging the credibility of information sources."
"Perhaps scientists are misunderstanding the public…due to their own quirks, assumptions, and patterns of behavior," says Mooney. Laypeople, meanwhile, tend to "strain their responses to scientific controversies through their ethical or value systems, as well as through their political or ideological outlooks."
Leaders of the four Academy workshops were: David Clark, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (The Next Generation of the Internet); Thomas Isaacs, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Stanford University (Public Perception of Nuclear Waste Repositories); David Altshuler, Broad Institute (The Spread of Personal Genetic Information); and Robert Fri, Resources for the Future (The Risks and Benefits of Emerging Energy Technologies).
The Academy's multi-year project, Improving the Scientific Community's Understanding of Public Concerns about Science and Technology, was supported principally by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Complimenting this study, the American Academy will soon release a new volume, Science and the Media, edited by Donald Kennedy (Stanford University) and Geneva Overholser (University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism). The collection of essays will discuss the roles of scientists, journalists, and public information officers in communicating about science and technology.
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