The science of science communication is critical to ensuring that people can understand how research can affect their lives and communities, says Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of Science.
The public's understanding of science and technology is more important than ever, Leshner says, but "ethical, legal and social implications are emerging at a rate that seems to be outpacing society's capacity to make sense of the science."
He cites climate change, GM food and evolution as topics which policymakers and the public frequently "misunderstand, misrepresent or disregard." But for many researchers, engaging the public is an afterthought.
Empirical research is now yielding information about attitudes to scientific knowledge that can help scientists communicate more effectively, says Leshner. Some of the findings are surprising — showing, for example, that ideology and cultural background appear to have more of a bearing on an individual's stance on a particular issue, than knowledge of scientific 'fact'.
The way an issue is framed also tends to have a great impact on public views. For example, scientific claims about climate change are given more credit when the issue is framed as a challenge for technology rather than for regulation.
Leshner says that there are lessons to be learned from "antiscience forces", who often oversimplify to tell a convincing story, even when the science is distorted in the process.
Because research shows that people care more about what might affect them personally, Leshner suggests that the most useful approach is to identify a specific audience's concerns and make the message relevant to them in the most objective way possible. Yet to maintain credibility, scientists must "stick to the facts", he says.