Archive for July, 2011

Post by : Vijayalakshmi Kalynamaran edited by Henderson

When scientific issues that directly affect human lives – climate change, vaccination and nuclear waste- are discussed and decisions have to be made at the political level, there are times when scientists encounter resistance from members of the public who oppose the scientific basis for political action.  Why is this?  What is it that makes the non-scientist think that the scientific data is wrong, or that we should not take actions based on their findings?

One can think of the public’s lack of scientific knowledge or the inability of most scientists to effectively communicate their work to non-scientists, but recent findings have uncovered another reason, one that may not be as obvious as these two seem to be.

An article published in last year’s Washington Post looks at the reasons why people oppose scientific findings based on studies conducted by several U. S. organizations.  One of the main reasons people oppose scientific findings?  Because of their personal political views.

When the Pew Research Center conducted a poll of sentiments on the issue of global warming, it revealed that college-educated republicans are less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate science versus democrats or independents.

Research also shows similar findings when raising questions dealing with vaccination or nuclear waste storage. So, for highly controversial subjects as these, it seems that politics comes first.  Providing more information to groups does not appear to change their over-arching political views about the subject.

What these findings do provide scientists is information to approach the issue of opposition to science-based findings in a different way.  And it means that one of the first steps in presenting science would be to understand the underlying reasons for opposition.

What are the motives behind the opposition?  On the surface, a scientific explanation of the effects of global warming should be acceptable to the majority of the public.  The consensus espoused by the vast majority of the scientific community, including the IPCC,  should be enough to “seal the deal” for real conversations about actions to combat global warming.  In a perfect world, these explanations would move the public and policy-makers into action.

But the world is not perfect and the political views of the public, fortified by their legislative leaders, has more to do with their ideas than that of scientific consensus.

So what is the next step? Listen to the public. Yes, scientists should engage the non-scientists in a conversation, in–depth exploratory conversations, not involving debates.

This strategy has shown great promise in dealing with nuclear waste management in Canada. The nuclear management organization engaged the public in a conversation regarding the nuclear waste storage and listened to them for 3 years. The organization also promised that it will not dump waste on the community without its consent. As a consequence, even the critics engaged in the conversation were supportive of the efforts to come up with possible solutions of nuclear waste management.

This is just one example of how engaging the public in a constructive dialogue is the key to understanding.  As scientists, policy-makers, and the public learn to be more receptive of messages from each other, there will be many more.

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Post by Vijayalakshmi “Viji” Kalyanaraman

Why should laboratory science capture the attention of the general public and the politicians? Why is it important these days?

Contemporary societies rely heavily on science and technology for everyday life, economic growth, political stability and social well-being. Science influences everything we do as human beings. It is extremely important to arrive at good science policies for the betterment of the society. First of all, for the policy makers to make informed decisions, they should be able to gather the scientific information easily. In the democratic society, not only policy makers are involved in making decisions but also the general public plays a significant role. Therefore citizens also need to understand how science is linked to society in order to provide sensible input to policy makers. To reach out to both the communities, effective science communication is the key. It is the way the populous and the politicians will be able to grasp the issues that require attention and understand the personal and behavioral changes required for living in the 21st century.

Successful communication depends on who is receiving the message.  Whereas the public is interested in how the science would affect them and their life, politicians would be interested in cost related issues and how the other entities in the society, as industries and other businesses would be affected. Scientists often discuss about their research to their fellow scientists but seldom to non-scientists. Many times the interaction between the three concerned parties (scientists, politicians and the public) is insufficient or non-existent. This is not a healthy situation to be sustained. Hence it becomes essential to talk about the motives and benefits of the science to the public and talk about political interest and economic issues as well to policy makers effectively that would facilitate a three-way conversation among the three parties.

There are numerous subjects that connect scientists with policy makers and the public. Environmental sustainability, climate changes, healthcare, clean energy, biodiversity, agriculture – these are only a few from the long list of topics linking science with society and policy makers intricately.

Al Gore, the former vice-president of the United States who had won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to understanding global warming, delivered a speech at the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and is worth listening. It is a fine example of how he addressed both politicians and the citizens in illustrating the issue and his research.

On one side, he was able to attract the public as he was able to relate global warming to the everyday life of the people. He was able to articulate his ideas to make an interesting story about global warming showing good examples filled with a pinch of humor. On the other side, he could influence the policy makers as he himself was a politician and had good connections with his fellow politicians; he also laid out that global warming is a global issue which needs the attention of policy makers and how can the government help alleviate the problem.

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