Scientists hear over and over again that they need to be more effective in explaining their work to the public. However, many researchers feel insecure—often with some justification—about their ability to talk about science in ways that will engage a nonspecialist audience. Perhaps what is needed is not more encouragement, but some practical help. At its annual meeting in San Diego in late October, the Society for Neuroscience attempted to fill this need by providing a wallet card with 'talking points' on how basic research has led to clinical advances. “Translational Neuroscience Achievements” (available at www.sfn.org) lists twelve areas of neuroscience research that have had an enormous influence on people's lives.
There is a clear need for better public awareness of science. According to a report from the US National Science Foundation (http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind04/start.htm), although most Americans profess interest in science and technology issues, most do not think that they are well informed on the subject. In a 2001 survey, fewer than 15% said that they felt very well informed about scientific discoveries; 30% considered themselves poorly informed. The situation was worse in Europe, where 61% of respondents said that they were poorly informed.
In such surveys, people who are better informed about science and technology are more likely to say that they believe in its benefits. This has obvious advantages for both scientists and the public: the public is more likely to support funding for research and less likely to believe (and support) falsehoods put forth by animal-rights activists. However, according to the same report, 42% of scientists say that they engage in no public outreach.
How can we make scientists more comfortable with talking to the public? Publicizing success stories that effectively sell the benefits of basic science to the media and public is a good start, but in practice this turns out to be harder than it would seem. For example, the paragraph in “Translational Research Achievements” titled “The Brain's Chemical Code” tries to explain how studying the synapse has led to the development of drugs to treat disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Despite the value of the science, the weak linkage between the basic science and the clinical results reduces the example's impact; a narrower focus and more detail might have made this case more convincingly. In contrast, one of the better examples explains the benefits, for dogs as well as humans, of gene therapy experiments in dogs that possess the genetic defect responsible for human Leber congenital amaurosis, a form of retinitis pigmentosa. The emotional appeal of treatments for pets is a proven winner in the court of public opinion.
Of course, we can only evaluate basic science contributions to clinical advances in retrospect. If science is to continue to contribute such advances, voters will need to trust that although basic science as a whole has a proven track record, individual advances are unpredictable and often come from unexpected directions. This approach is unfamiliar to most people, who are accustomed to being told exactly what their money is buying. They want to know how this work will affect them in the immediate future, and are impatient with the longer timetables and statistical outcomes of science.
Unfortunately, even basic research that is directly focused on a disease may not translate directly into clinical treatments. This problem may be especially acute in neuroscience, where the complexity of the nervous system increases the difficulty of developing therapies. According to John Morrison, a member of the Society for Neuroscience committee on translational research, “one of the biggest problems facing neuroscientists interested in translational research is why only certain populations of neurons are susceptible to a genetic defect, even when the defect is expressed widely in the brain.” Devising good models to mimic human diseases is another challenge; valid rodent models for disorders such as autism or dyslexia are hard to come by.
Being aware of these difficulties, however, can go a long way in helping scientists devise effective strategies to get their message across. Understanding how the public obtains scientific information can help. For example, successful communication need not involve personal, face-to-face communication between scientists and the public. The NSF survey concluded that the internet is the preferred source when people seek information about specific scientific issues, making it possible for scientists and research institutions to bypass intermediaries such as television and newspaper reporters and communicate their findings directly to the public.
In doing so, however, scientists must recognize that messages should be tailored to the needs and knowledge of specific audiences (patients, policy-makers, the science-attentive public) and take care to view the topic from the audience's point of view, rather than simply presenting what the scientist or research institute feels the public 'should know.' Developing more comprehensive websites, which feature research that was done outside the sponsoring institution, would also provide a valuable service to the community. Indeed, some institutions, such as Harvard's Center for Neurodegeneration and Repair, are revamping their web sites to make them more public-friendly, says center director Adrian Ivinson. Such efforts can also be used not only to highlight the science but also to give the public a better understanding of the scientific process.
Although 'translating' science for the public is difficult, we cannot afford to give up. In the NSF survey, 86% of American respondents said that science has helped improve society and 72% agreed that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any harmful results. In contrast, only 50% of Europeans agreed with this statement, and one in five Europeans felt that science and technology has not helped make our lives easier. Even more alarming, more than half of European respondents said that they were not interested in science and technology. Addressing this trend now may protect against much more dangerous consequences—for science, education and public policy—in the future.