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SCIENCE COMMUNICATION

Ending the Crisis of Complacency in Science

To survive the Trump administration, scientists need to invest in a strategic vision that mobilizes social change.

Matthew Nisbet

2017-01SciCommF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAs newly elected president Donald Trump takes office, the scientific community faces the likelihood not only of unprecedented cuts in government funding for research, but also of bold new attacks on scientific expertise as a basis for policy making and decisions. Trump campaigned on a pledge to eliminate as much as $100 million in “wasteful climate change spending,” and there have been reports of plans to severely cut funding for NASA and other agencies. For the National Institutes of Health, Trump and the Republican-led Congress are likely to revisit funding for embryonic stem cell research and to take a closer look at restricting gene editing.

Major regulations designed to protect the environment and public health will also come under fire. Environmental Protection Agency rules limiting emissions from coal plants, which President-elect Trump has called “job destroying,” may be rescinded; current bans on oil and gas drilling may be lifted; and the United States’ participation in the historic United Nations climate change agreement may be canceled. Behind the scenes at scientific and regulatory agencies, political appointees are likely to block or delay other environmental and public health regulations, to edit or censor scientific agency reports, and to restrict the ability of federal scientists to communicate with the public and the media. By way of his speeches and Twitter remarks, President-elect Trump will likely spread dangerous scientific falsehoods and conspiracy theories, similar to his past claims that climate change is a “hoax,” or that childhood vaccination is linked to autism.

Some among scientists might dismiss the brutal 2016 election and Trump’s victory as an aberration and historical outlier. The next four years or more will be tough times, they might say, but as has been the case in the past, some areas of science will thrive, others will struggle, but ultimately better times will come again. They may argue that no major course correction, new way of advocating for scientific funding, or emphasis on communicating the importance of expertise is needed.

But such arguments are grossly misguided. The 2016 election should be a wake-up call for the scientific community and its leaders. We are not living in normal times. Over the next few years, if there is to be any possible silver lining, it will be that leaders of the scientific community break out of a culture of complacency, ending a long-standing reticence to confront the profound, dire problems we now face.

An examination of the deeper trends that have enabled Trump’s election to the presidency reveals troubling signs that America’s civic capacity to engage in informed decision-making has been overrun by widening income and educational disparities, anxiety over the speed of cultural and technological change, and critical weaknesses in our mainstream news media system.

Each of these problems is too complex for the scientific community to try to manage and mitigate on its own, but for the most part scientists and their organizations have watched on the sidelines as other sectors of civil society have tackled these issues. Yet, in fact, there is much that scientists and their organizations can contribute, and they can do so in a manner that remains nonpartisan.

Over the past decade, many scientists have enthusiastically sought out communication training opportunities, honing their skills at presentations, media interviews, and social media. Social scientists have joined the effort, systematically studying the “science of science communication,” evaluating the many factors that shape individual and societal decisions, and considering the implications for effective communication. During the Trump years, enthusiasm for these activities and new directions will justifiably deepen.

But each of these tools and insights remain just tactics, limited in their effect, if they are not applied and coordinated on behalf of a larger vision of social change. What is needed is broader strategic thinking about the handful of policy goals and investments that scientists can join with others in pursuing that would have an enduring impact on problems such as income inequality and political polarization, and on the threat they pose to the scientific enterprise.

Tackling Inequality

Consider first the challenge of economic inequality, particularly how the problem has manifested itself in recent politics. The past year has brought wider attention to the deep anxiety among less-educated, predominantly white Americans about their economic security in a world that seems to have left them behind. These anxieties have fueled support for right-wing populist leaders such as Trump, as well as extreme distrust of what they see as institutional elites, including scientists and other experts.

The struggles and anxieties of working class whites are not unique to the United States and are reflective of global dynamics and trends. In the May 2016 “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom, those without a university degree voted in a large majority to leave the European Union, whereas the better-educated individuals in cosmopolitan London voted to remain. Despite an overwhelming consensus among experts that leaving the European Union would severely damage the UK economy, a leader of the Leave campaign rallied public support by declaring that the “people of this country have had enough of experts.” Trump and his surrogates expressed similar sentiments during the 2016 election as they railed against political insiders in Washington.

2017-01SciCommF2.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageYet, paradoxically, the very success of scientists and engineers has contributed to these conditions. Scientific innovations have generated vast wealth for those professionals at the top of the knowledge economy, just as those same innovations have eliminated millions of jobs among those at the bottom, transforming entire industries and regions. Those most affected are not only whites without college educations, but also many people of color.

Scientists and their organizations, therefore, have both a strategic and an ethical imperative to help society cope with the negative effects of globalization, forces that some of their advances and innovations have helped set in motion.

So where to begin? Making public higher education more affordable and accessible was a major campaign issue, one that Trump expressed support for, although he did not offer specifics. Republicans in Congress and across state legislatures have also advocated for lowering the cost of higher education, proposing several different plans. Scientists and their organizations should join with leaders of both parties along with others in refocusing the conversation back to enhanced funding for higher education and related strategies for lowering costs. They can do so by identifying and conveying the various policy choices, benefits, and trade-offs. This focus should go beyond just the STEM fields, to emphasize the need for affordable higher education across majors and careers.

Research suggests that support among non-college-educated whites for anti-establishment rhetoric is rooted in more than just economic anxiety, but also reflects racial resentment and anti-immigration attitudes. It is not just the economy that is changing around us, but also society and culture, challenging conceptions of identity. There is no obvious solution to racial resentment and cultural bigotry, but for future generations, greater access to higher education will help promote more diverse interactions and experiences that may start to erode such feelings.

In addition, the speed of scientific advances and technological innovation may be directly contributing to cultural anxiety and unease in other ways, reflecting concerns that do not conform to traditional left or right political ideologies.

According to one survey analysis, about a third of Americans can be characterized as scientific optimists. They have respect for the intentions of scientists, and they believe that science and technology drive societal progress. Not surprisingly, optimists tend to be highly educated and financially well off, and they are disproportionately white. Most can realistically expect that their careers, fields, and industries will benefit from scientific advances and that, as consumers, they will be able to afford most innovations.

2017-01SciCommF3.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIn contrast, about a quarter of Americans can be classified as scientific pessimists. They hold concerns about the speed of change in modern life and have a sense that science poses conflicts with traditional values and belief systems. Compared with optimists, members of this group score much lower in terms of educational attainment and income, are more likely to be female, and are more likely to be minorities.

With advances in gene editing, robotics, and artificial intelligence, and the likely return of debates over stem cell research, scientists and their organizations will need to effectively address the legitimate concerns that such pessimists and others may hold about the social implications of these advances. Like past high-profile debates over stem cell research and cloning, these issues are likely to play an increasingly prominent role in our polarized national politics.

Taking News Local

As they rise to broader attention, however, debates in the national news media over gene editing, stem cell research, climate change, energy, and other topics too often distort these issues; simplistic left-right distinctions are made, which are overhyped by some and dismissed as repugnant by others. At national and regional newspapers, budget cuts and layoffs limit the opportunity for in-depth coverage and analysis. In recent years, innovative for-profit media organizations such as Vox.com and STAT out of the Boston Globe have been launched to help fill the gap at the national level, expanding ways of covering complex science-related policy debates, although such sites have yet to demonstrate their long-term financial sustainability.

Many more journalistic outlets, however, are needed in order to restore America’s civic capacity to engage in respectful debate about complex problems and trends and what they mean for society. The place to start may be in the cities and regions where, because of the decline of local newspapers, the information needs of local residents and voters are not being met. In these communities, people lack a trusted local source of news that can explain, contextualize, and vet conflicting claims and interpretations. When news consumers become skeptical of “elite” outlets such as the New York Times, without other known sources to trust, it becomes that much easier for them to turn to their ideologically preferred outlet, whether a cable news network such as Fox News, a talk radio show, an online site such as Breitbart News, or a fake news story circulated on their social media feeds.

2017-01SciCommF4.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageTo begin to meet the information needs of communities across the country, scientists need to join with others in calling for greater financial investment in local nonprofit media. One place to start is public radio stations that are expanding their reach by way of digital news platforms. Examples of other promising nonprofit ventures include the Texas Tribune, an online newspaper that runs the largest statehouse bureau in the country. Another endeavor, launched in 2010, is Midwest Energy News, which features a staff of six journalists reporting on the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy across Midwestern states. Their stories are freely syndicated and republished by newspapers and other outlets.

Many research universities also have the capacity to launch their own digital nonprofit news organizations, seeding partnerships between journalism schools and computer science departments, and drawing on the perspectives of expert faculty as contributors. For example, since 2013 the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota has published Ensia, a multimedia magazine featuring originally reported stories and commentaries focused on environmental problems and solutions, articles that can be freely republished by other media organizations. In a second example, Yale Climate Connections produces daily 90-second radio shorts about climate change that air on 260 public, university, community, and alternative radio stations nationwide.

But sparking substantive growth in the nonprofit news sector will take money. Lots of it. In the wake of massive layoffs at regional and local newspapers, a 2011 Federal Communications Commission report estimated that somewhere between $265 million and $1.6 billion is needed annually to fill the gaps in just local public affairs reporting alone, without consideration of the cost of meeting national needs.

Yet funding agencies and philanthropic organizations make risky investments when they devote, for example, billions of dollars to research on climate change or biotechnology, or millions of dollars to training scientist communicators and funding communication research, but they do not also invest in making sure that major cities and regions across the country have full-time, experienced reporters who can draw attention to these issues, explain their complexity, and hold those in power accountable, including scientific institutions.

Mobilizing scientists and their organizations to coordinate their actions on behalf of combating economic inequality, promoting affordable higher education, addressing emerging concerns about scientific advances, and investing in local nonprofit media are just a few examples of goals that might define broader, longer-term thinking. The path forward is ultimately up to scientists and their leaders. But to stay focused on tactical approaches, rather than on social change, puts much at risk.

Bibliography

  • Drutman, L. 2015. The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Inglehart, R., and P. Norris. 2016. Trump, Brexit, and the rise of Populism: Economic have-nots and cultural backlash. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Working Paper. https://ces.fas.harvard.edu/uploads/files/events/Inglehart-and-Norris-Populism.pdf
  • Nisbet, M. C., and D. Fahy. 2015. The need for knowledge-based journalism in politicized science debates. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658:223–234.
  • Nisbet, M., and E. M. Markowitz. 2014. Understanding public opinion in debates over biomedical research: Looking beyond political partisanship to focus on beliefs about science and society. PLoS ONE 9(2):e88473.
  • Thurber, J. A., and A. Yoshinaka (eds). 2015. American Gridlock: The Sources, Character, and Impact of Political Polarization. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Waldman. S., and the Working Group on Information Needs of Communications. 2011. Information needs of communities: The changing media landscape in a broadband age. Washington, D.C.: Federal Communications Commission. 


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