American scientists believe they face a challenging environment and the vast majority of them support the idea that participation in policy debates and engagement with citizens and journalists is necessary to further their work and careers.
A survey of 3,748 American-based scientists connected with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and published by Pew Research Center, finds that 87% agree with the statement “Scientists should take an active role in public policy debates about issues related to science and technology.” Just 13% of these scientists back the opposite statement: “Scientists should focus on establishing sound scientific facts and stay out of public policy debates.”
This widely held view among scientists about active engagement combines with scientists’ perspectives on the relationship between science and society today in several ways:
- Most scientists see an interested public: 71% of AAAS scientists believe the public has either some or a lot of interest in their specialty area.
- Many scientists see debates over scientific research findings in the media: 53% of AAAS scientists say there is a lot or some debate in the news about their field.
- A sizable share of scientists believe careers can be advanced by media coverage of their work and social media use: 43% of AAAS scientists say it is important or very important for scientists in their specialty to get coverage of their work in news media, up from 37% who said that in a 2009 survey. Some 22% described it as either “very important” (4%) or “important” (18%) for career advancement in their discipline to promote their findings on social media such as Facebook or Twitter. Still, a majority of AAAS scientists say it is not too or not at all important for career advancement to have their research covered in the news (56%), and 77% say it is not too or not at all important for career advancement to promote their findings on social media.
- At the same time, most scientists believe that science news coverage can pose problems for science: 79% of scientists believe it is a major problem for science that news reports don’t distinguish between well-founded and not well-founded scientific findings. Further, 52% of scientists say that simplification of scientific findings is a major problem for science in general.
How scientists are engaging: Half talk to reporters and 47% use social media
Nearly all the AAAS scientists (98%) say they have some level of interaction with citizens at least from time to time, and 51% have at least some contact with reporters about research findings.
In addition, nearly half of AAAS scientists – 47% – use social media to talk about science or read about scientific developments at least some of the time. Some 24% of these AAAS scientists blog about science and research.
The scientists who are most likely to be involved in public activities show distinct patterns by age, by the level of public debate and public interest they perceive in their specialty, and by discipline. Virtually all scientists engage with citizens. Mid-career and older scientists are especially likely to speak to reporters. Younger scientists are more likely to use social media. And blogging is something that equally spans the generations under age 65.
There is also evidence in the survey that the most engaged often use multiple methods and platforms to connect with the public. In other words, those who want to engage tend to do so in multiple ways.
Some 41% of AAAS scientists report that they “often” or “occasionally” do at least two of these four activities: 1) talk with non-experts about science topics, 2) talk with the media, 3) use social media or 4) blog. Nearly half, 48%, do one of these four activities either often or occasionally, and 11% do none of these on an “often” or “occasional” basis. Those who are more engaged by this metric are slightly younger; 46% of those ages 18 to 49 and 44% of those ages 50 to 64 are more engaged, compared with 33% among those ages 65 and older. A somewhat larger share of women (44%) than men (39%) report doing at least two of these activities on a more frequent basis.
Scientists include digital communication tools as they try to stay up-to-date in their work
Both Traditional and Digital Tools Help Scientists Stay Up-to-Date Traditional information and peer networking activities are the most common ways scientists stay up-to-date. However, digital methods are now a common part of the learning toolkit for many scientists.
Fully 84% of AAAS scientists read journal articles outside of their primary fields or scientific discipline. In addition, 79% say they attend professional meetings, workshops and lectures.
At the same time, digital communications are also a common part of the learning activities of scientists as they connect with peers: 58% get email alerts from journals in their specialty; 56% get emails from general science journals; 32% belong to email listservs; 19% follow blogs by experts their fields; and 12% follow tweets or other postings in social media by experts in their field.