Frame your science to make it accessible, including for your representative

This post is by UT Austin postdoc Tessa Solomon-Lane. Tessa is working with Hans Hofmann (UT Austin), Travis Hagey (MSU), and Alexa Warwick (MSU) on public engagement at BEACON.

BEACON Congress resources (2017)

As a scientist communicating with the public, what if you want to go beyond sharing your science with an interested audience and advocate for Science? What if the audience doesn’t listen or believe you?

Tessa Solomon-Lane speaking at our BEACON Congress sandbox

At the 2017 Congress, we were excited to lead two public engagement sandboxes on topics specifically requested by BEACONites grappling with making their communication goals a reality: framing and public policy. Most scientists already engage with public audiences about STEM topics, from causal conversations to lab tours, blog posts, Twitter, and public talks. These interactions are fun, energizing, and rewarding. They can also be challenging. While many scientists engage because they want to share their science with interested audiences, situations arise when a scientist may want to change someone’s mind. Maybe there’s a vocal creationist in the audience. Scientists themselves may also seek out ‘controversial’ topics (e.g., vaccinations), audiences they disagree with, or complicated issues that do not have a one valid solution (e.g., climate change).

How does a scientist communicate effectively to these different publics? Our first sandbox focused on framing, a way of presenting information that appeals to and resonates with the audience, while ethically maintaining the integrity and accuracy of the science. This is one of the most important parts of effective communication, to the public or other scientists. The second sandbox focused on bridging the gap between STEM and public policy. There is a rapidly growing interest among STEM professionals to engage with public policy and policy makers. Our original data also show that BEACONites are interested in policy engagement; however, rates of engagement are relatively low.

How important is it that scientists engage with policy makers?

Here are some of the highlights from the sandboxes:

Build a Frame: Matching the scientific context to the audience

Frames are “interpretive storylines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it” (Nisbet, 2010).

To effectively frame a message, it is critical to identify your specific goals. What do you want your message to accomplish? Who is your audience, and what do they care about? Keep in mind that facts alone are not convincing! Researchers have debunked the Deficit Model, which imagines that if experts communicate information ‘correctly,’ then the public will automatically accept that information and take on those expert perspectives. It can be easy to forget that this approach does not work because it’s exciting to share data. Decisions about what content to communicate and how to frame it also brings up interesting ethical considerations. In building a storyline, think about what gets left out, what to simplify, and whether the resulting message remains accurate.

Delivery also matters. Humans are highly social animals, and relationships are important. Speak with respect. Be enthusiastic (if appropriate for the topic). Listen early and often. Meet people where they are and be able to go off script and have a conversation. Resist the temptation to view ‘quality of life’ frames as ‘dumbing down.’ Be humble about the skills we develop as scientists and take for granted. We recognize that science generates questions, but the public often wants answers. (Are eggs good for you, or not?!) Separating information from misinformation, or good science from bad science, is not a trivial task. Finally, not everyone wants to engage. Or your effort may not be worth it. Respectfully taking ‘no’ for answer can build trust and credibility, so not engaging can be a beneficial decision.

Bridging the gap between STEM and public policy 

Framing scientific messages for elected officials was the most requested topic at our UT Austin Public Engagement Workshop. There are many strategies for engaging with public policy and policy makers. Dr. Judi Brown Clarke, BEACON Diversity Director and former Lansing City Council president, running in the general election for Lansing mayor, provided insight on these questions, engagement strategies, and more.

Dr. Judi Brown Clarke speaking at our policy sandbox

To get started, know who represents you, from local to the federal government. These elected officials—or in reality, their staff—are who you will be engaging with. Know your audience and build a relationship with the staffers. Politicians hear from all kinds of lobby groups, and they should hear from scientists, too! You could advocate for the institution of science, basic research funding, and/or share the importance of your work. It is also critical to be solution-oriented. Scientists may make decisions based on data, but political decision-making is driven by money and special interest groups. The budget is a zero sum game. Why should money go towards your cause, not someone else’s? Representatives also don’t have the background or the time to be an expert in everything, so it’s important to be specific. For example, rather than expressing disapproval about draft legislation, hoping someone will learn from your teachable moment, provide specific changes to the text and explain your reasoning.

Beyond phone calls and emails, there are excellent opportunities to engage locally and build community relationships. Know your representatives’ positions on issues relevant to STEM fields, and support local candidates. You can offer to serve as a science ‘translator’ for local staffers who can make science accessible and correct misconceptions. You can also invite your representatives for a lab tour. It may surprise you who accepts the invitation! Finally, there are fellowships that place scientists in Congressional offices.

Of the 435 members in the House of Representatives, there is 1 chemist, 1 microbiologist, 1 physicist, and 7 engineers. However, more and more STEM professionals are getting involved in politics. Some are even running for office themselves! If you’re interested, check out 314Action, an organization started by chemist and breast cancer researcher Shaughnessy Naughton, to help scientists run for office.

Learn more from our framing and policy resources here. Resources include calls to action and approaches to engagement; how to’s and recommendations; science communication online toolkits, training, and resources; and STEM & public policy training and resources. We will also be running a day long workshop similar to our sandboxes at UT Austin in the spring of 2018.

Special thanks to our invited speakers Dr. Judi Brown Clarke, Dr. Rob Pennock, and Kim Ward and Jessi Adler, from the Michigan State Communications & Brand Strategy, who contributed to these sandboxes.

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