"Scientists must cooperate with the media for the benefit of science, for the benefit of the institution where they work and for the benefit of society," said Bruce Levinstein from the Department of Communication at Cornell University, at a meeting held at the Technion in June 2011
Public opinion leaders in the scientific community are concerned about the state of science communication. In science journals there are many articles about the need to explain science to the public, and about the need for scientists to cooperate and make science accessible. Scientists can fulfill many public needs, and they must listen and respond to public needs.
According to surveys, 70% of the European population is interested in new scientific and medical discoveries and new inventions. In the US this part of the population is 80%. There is a high level of interest, but despite this, people also continue to believe things that most scientists would say are unscientific. For example, 40% of Americans believe in the existence of an out-of-body experience (down from 50% in 1990), 40% believe that houses can be haunted, 35% believe that you can communicate telepathically, and 20% believe in witches.
Levinstein presented an image of the Eagle Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope 15 years ago. It turns out that it is an example of a very different interpretation of parts of the public and of the scientists. When a photo was taken NASA did good PR and distributed it to many magazines and TV channels. CNN showed the picture for 30 seconds, and talked about the beautiful things that NASA does. Later in the day CNN got calls, and the BBSs, which were the humble version of the Internet in those days, wrote about seeing Jesus in the picture. Here the scientists began to worry about what the public knows, and how they can provide the public with knowledge.
Since then, many more issues have accumulated that made the scientific establishment interested in the scientific knowledge of the general public. George Bush, for example, was not known for his sympathy for science. He supported teaching creationism in schools and did not believe in man-made climate change. Scientists feared this, they also feared a reaction to genetically modified food products and nanotechnology. A current example is the triple disaster in Japan - the public response depends on what people know about radiation, earthquake and tsunami hazards.
The traditional way to mediate scientific knowledge is formal education. But in this framework there are a few hours a day from the age of 5 to the age of 18, and not the rest of the time. That's why we need to look for other ways to communicate with the public such as an "open day at the lab", science museums, going to shopping malls and creating activities there, and of course mediating science in the media - in articles, movies, video games. The examples are many. In the suspense series NUMBERS, for example, a pair of researchers solve problems using mathematics. Movies such as "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" discussed the issue of near-Earth objects hitting. As a result of the films, funding was increased for further research of these objects. There are examples where scientists who consulted for films, influenced funding for their field of research.
Popular science sometimes has a direct impact on research. In the movie "Twister", for example, they showed equipment that did not exist. Scientists who saw the film decided to build such a device. "Avatar" has an environmental message that led director James Cameron to dedicate resources to talk about environmental awareness. Another example of the interaction between science and the media is the film "The Day After Tomorrow", which about seven years ago dealt with climate change. Although the scenario is impossible, the very presentation of the idea of climate change has been used by scientists as a tool to accelerate the public debate. Studies have shown that people who saw the film remained interested in climate change. Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, led him to share the Nobel Prize with the IPCC. As far as I know, this is the only Nobel Prize for Science Communication awarded to date.
There are all kinds of science communication. One approach is to engage the public and promote public involvement. According to this approach, what the public has to say about decisions that are going to be made should be heard - for example, about the risks of nanotechnology or genetically modified food. This can be done in a variety of ways. Citizens can be helped to collect information to be used by scientists - for example bird watching. There are cases of direct testimony of scientists before parliament, meaning direct involvement in the political process.
But not everything is rosy. One of the problems that bothers scientists who help explain science is the question of accuracy: will the article/museum show the science accurately. Another problem is the reaction of colleagues. The colleagues may ask you why you are not in the lab. A common belief among American astronomers is that Carl Sagan was denied membership in the Academy of Sciences because of his excess of public activity.
On the other hand, scientists communicating with the public report satisfaction. The public knows your name, and so does the president of the university. Sometimes other scientists in your field also know you and your work better because of your public activity. Benefits to the academic institution include donations, public budgets, and political support for requests for large resources (such as large laboratories). The more people who learn about science, the more people will be interested in becoming scientists. A recognized university also attracts the best students. Beyond the personal and institutional benefits, science communication has benefits for society as a whole. Creating practical scientific literacy for personal needs, for the needs of social decision-making and cultural literacy.
So why should you be involved in science? Because it is good for your institution, it is good for you as people and it is good for society as a whole.