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date: 21 February 2018

Scientists’ Views about Public Engagement and Science Communication in the Context of Climate Change

Summary and Keywords

Scientists who study issues such as climate change are often called on by both their colleagues and broader society to share what they know and why it matters. Many are willing to do so—and do it well—but others are either unwilling or may communicate without clear goals or in ways that may fail to achieve their goals. There are several central topics involved in the study of scientists as communicators. First, it is important to understand the evolving arguments behind why scientists are being called on to get involved in public engagement about contentious issues such as climate change. Second, it is also useful to consider the factors that social science suggests actually lead scientists to communicate about scientific issues. Last, it is important to consider what scientists are trying to achieve through their communication activities, and to consider to what extent we have evidence about whether scientists are achieving their desired goals.

Keywords: public engagement, trust, warmth, competence, advocacy, deficit model, attitudes, science literacy, communication strategy


To describe the current thinking about the role of scientists in communication about issues such as climate change requires a focus on both normative and pragmatic discussions about what role scientists could play, as well as the limited available evidence on what role they are actually playing. Specific knowledge about climate change communication is relatively limited, but the broader science communication literature seems largely applicable to the case of climate change.

Overall, there are substantive reasons for scientists to heed widespread calls to engage with fellow citizens on scientific topics such as climate change, but communication efforts may be ineffective if not done strategically. Strategic science communication, in this regard, involves a careful discussion of goals that the scientists might want to achieve—and that research suggests they might realistically achieve—followed by the development of plans for how to achieve such goals in ways that are consistent with the principles that the scientific community values (e.g., honesty, transparency, inclusiveness). Nonstrategic communication, in contrast, might involve activities such as ad-hoc communication that has limited potential to help realize stated goals and that therefore wastes resources, such as scientists’ time and money, or hurts the scientific community’s hard-earned trust. Similarly, it is important to understand why scientists get involved in science communication, because doing so allows strategic recruiting of promising communicators while identifying types of scientists who may be less inclined and motivated to participate in effective public communication.

The argument for strategic communication by scientists first focuses on a review of reasons why scientists may, or may not, need to get involved in communicating about contentious issues such as climate change. Strategic communication is likely important no matter what role scientists see for themselves. Next, the social science evidence related to the currently known predictors of whether a scientist chooses to communicate is reviewed. Then the limited evidence regarding what scientists are seeking to accomplish when they communicate is examined. Finally, areas for future research are proposed.

Before the initial review, some important concepts need to be defined. First, science communication is understood to include a wide range of activities wherein there is sharing of information, ideas, and/or opinions about topics that involve science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). This communication could include one on one communication between two people up to communication between millions of people of any age. The communication could be direct (e.g., face to face or as part of a live event), or mediated through a range of channels, including those associated with traditional news and entertainment media, as well as social media. In many cases, the relevant science communication could be understood as “public engagement” about science, inasmuch as there is an attempt to get someone to “engage” in more-than-surface-level cognition about a topic, particularly through some effort to encourage meaningful dialogue. The dialogue, however, could also be direct or mediated, real-time or asynchronous. Scientists, in the current context, might equally include anyone who is meaningfully involved in natural, physical, or social research, whether theoretical or applied. This definition would exclude, for example, those who spend the majority of their time in education, communication, or advocacy roles, even if such person has scientific training.

Calls for Scientists to Become Science Communicators on Issues such as Climate Change

While scientists themselves often appear to have been involved in communication activities, such as writing magazine articles for nonscientists in the 19th and early 20th centuries (Bowler, 2009; Burnham, 1987), journalists became a primary communication bridge between scientists and citizens by the middle of the 20th century (Friedman, Dunwoody, & Rogers, 1986; Nelkin, 1987). This shift occurred with the support of a cadre of professional communicators in places such as university public relations offices and museums and a move away from “great men” of science (Burnham, 1987). In recent years, however, many leaders of the scientific community have called on a broad range of scientists to increase the quantity and quality of their own communication efforts through a range of channels. For example, as with his predecessor (e.g., Leshner, 2007), current American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) President Rush Holt has written that “science needs the support of the society it serves” and that “communication and education among scientists, engineers, and the public must improve” as one element of earning that support (Holt, 2015, p. 807). Similarly, Ralph Cicerone, former president of the United States’ prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS), called on scientists to “do a better job of communicating directly to the public” in response to less common quality science journalism. In doing so, he appeared to define better communication as activities that stimulate, interest, and educate the public and select opinion leaders about the “valuable role science plays in the world.” The goal, he wrote, was to “reinforce positive attitudes toward science and the scientific process” (Cicerone, 2006, p. 2). A range of NAS committees have similarly called on those involved in communicating about science to take communication seriously (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016; National Research Council, 1989). Of course, such calls are also notunique to the United States (Department of Science and Technology: South Africa, 2014; European Union, 2002; Jia & Liu, 2014; The Royal Society, 1985).

Pielke (2007) went so far as to argue that “if scientists ever had the choice to remain above the fray, they no longer have this luxury” (p. 8). The choice, in this view, is not whether to communicate, but how to communicate. Pielke laid out four options that he contended scientists typically choose among. He wrote that some scientists would like to remain “pure scientists” and do their work without regard for policy issues and, if asked, just point those making decisions toward the available evidence. Slightly more active would be the “science arbiter,” who might be willing to respond to science-specific questions that a decision maker might pose. An “advocate” role would involve choosing a side and using the scientist’s status and expertise to argue for a position. Finally, an “honest broker” role would have scientists help decision makers understand available evidence so as to help them make choices that fit their “own preferences and values” (p. 1). While all options are available, Pielke argued the key is that scientists’ need to choose and that the choices have consequences for “the individual scientist and the broader scientific enterprise” (p. 4). Donner (2014) suggested a simpler model that encourages scientists to think about where they wish to place themselves between a focus on basic science questions and a focus on advocacy. What is important, however, is simply the idea that scientists—especially those who are taking on roles oriented toward advocacy and honest broker—are being asked to communicate about their science, and this opens up questions about how they can fulfill their chosen roles most effectively. As Donner (2014) noted, those choosing to advocate for things such as climate action can benefit from research on how to increase the odds of having the desired impact.

Scientists are not the only ones who can communicate about science, but there appears to be a clear suggestion that working scientists should be central to science communication efforts. There is an undeniable role for professional science educators, communicators, and advocates, such as those who are employed by a museum, science center, zoo, aquarium, theater group, think tank, or other organization. On the other hand, while the degree to which specific types of science communicators have different effects does not seem to have been directly studied, it seems important that working scientists themselves participate in outward-facing communication. Why might this be the case? It is tempting, perhaps, to assume that one answer may be because scientists themselves possess the most up-to-date understanding of scientific topics and should therefore be able to provide the most accurate communication. However, the nature of public communication about science rarely hinges on specific details of research akin to that which would be communicated at an academic conference. Furthermore, trained professional communicators (i.e., public information officers, public relations specialists, etc.) may be more likely to have the requisite skills needed to convey scientific information effectively. In this regard, it could be argued that public science communication be left to the professional communicators.

While leaving science communication to professional communicators may have certain logistical merits (e.g., it may save scientists time), it would leave scientists on the sidelines while interactions about crucial scientific topics occur between professional communicators and external audiences. Crucially, it would keep scientists removed from the information exchanges at a time when many members of the public have said they want to be playing a role in decision-making involving health and environmental risks (National Science Board, 2012). And, in the case of climate change, it would ignore the surfeit of calls for scientists to develop increasingly active, strategic, and collaborative voices in the ongoing public debate that continues to enshroud this issue (Bailey, 2010; Corner, Markowitz, & Pidgeon, 2014; Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, & Whitmarsh, 2007; Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011). Correspondingly, leading climate scientists have sometimes described the factors they say drive their motivations to communicate and how they justify their communication choices in the context of their scientific careers (Hansen, 2009; Mann, 2012; Schneider, 2009).

Recent evidence suggests that the scientific community is inclined to engage. Indeed, this evidence suggests that scientists are more often embracing—or at least nodding toward—public engagement. For example, recent large surveys of members of groups such as the AAAS (Rainie, Funk, & Anderson, 2015) and researchers in the United Kingdom (Hamlyn, Shanahan, Lewsi, O’Donoghue, & Burchell, 2015) suggest that large majorities (at least four out of every five) had personally found themselves involved in some form of public engagement in the previous year. It also appears that a growing number of AAAS members—up to 43% in 2015 from 37% in 2009—see getting coverage for their research as important to career advancement (Rainie et al., 2015). It is difficult to know if success as a communicator can enhance a scientist’s career, but there is some evidence that communication activities can, for example, increase the amount of citations received by an author (Kiernan, 2003; Phillips, Kanter, Bednarczyk, & Tastad, 1991; Shema, Bar-Ilan, & Thelwall, 2014) and that it may be possible communicate research in way that makes it more likely to be shared (Milkman & Berger, 2014). The core challenge with much of this research is that is difficult to know if initial media coverage or other communication activities and subsequent citations are the result of the initial research topic and quality or whether strategic communication efforts resulted in additional citation activity (or both).

Factors That Social Science Suggests Are Associated with Scientists’ Participating in Public Communication

Research suggests that certain factors are associated with scientists’ involvement in science communication, including public engagement activities. Several past literature reviews have sought to cover much of this material (Besley & Nisbet, 2013; Burchell, 2015). The studies reviewed used either qualitative interviews or, more typically in recent years, surveys of scientists to identify variables that are correlated with engagement behavior. Although it is not possible to argue that specific variables cause engagement, the expectation is that one might use such information to identify and recruit scientists who might be more willing to get involved in communication, and to highlight types of scientists who may not be communicating as much as might be desired (e.g., minority scientists). However, in some cases, it might be possible to change how scientists think about some aspect of communication so that they become more willing to engage. For example, as discussed in the section “Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) Variables,” scientists who say they are more skilled (i.e., more efficacious) at communication are also more likely to say they are willing to engage. Such data are consistent with the idea that increasing engagement might increase willingness to engage, although they are clearly not proof of such a hypothesis.

The main variables associated with scientists’ involvement in science communication include demographics and past behavior, attitudes toward engagement, norms related to engagement, and efficacy beliefs associated with engagement. It should be noted that attitudes, norms, and efficacy are the central components of the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991), the theoretical model that appears to have guided much of the research in this area.


Age and Experience

Age is one of the most commonly studied predictors of engagement, and past research suggests that its relationship with engagement varies. Most evidence seems to suggest that, other things being equal, older scientists are more likely to engage than younger scientists. This has been found in samples in the United States (Besley, Oh, & Nisbet, 2013), the United Kingdom (Besley et al., 2013; The Royal Society, 2006), and a range of other countries (Bentley & Kyvik, 2011; Crettaz von Roten, 2011; Kreimer, Levin, & Jensen, 2011; Kyvik, 2005; Torres-Albero, Fernandez-Esquinas, Rey-Rocha, & Martin-Sempere, 2011). One exception to the pattern was France, where younger scholars were slightly more likely to indicate they were involved in science communication activities (Jensen, 2011). However, additional scholarship has also found that patterns vary by different engagement platforms. As might be expected, it appears that older scientists engage more offline (Besley et al., 2013; Rainie et al., 2015) and younger scholars engage more online (Besley, 2014). It may also be that engagement increases initially up to a certain point and then tapers off with age (Besley et al., 2013). A range of studies have shown that various measures of experience, productivity, and status are also regular predictors of engagement activity (Bentley & Kyvik, 2011; Besley et al., 2013; Crettaz von Roten, 2011; Dudo, 2013; Dunwoody, Brossard, & Dudo, 2009; Jensen, 2011; Kyvik, 2005; Marcinkowski, Kohring, Fürst, & Friedrichsmeier, 2013; Torres-Albero et al., 2011). It also appears that scientists are more likely to engage when they have the autonomy to decide on their own activities (Dudo, 2013; Dudo, Kahlor, AbiGhannam, Lazard, & Liang, 2014).

These findings suggest that it makes sense to recruit older, more experienced scholars because of their general experience and younger scholars because of their online skills. Alternatively, the findings might suggest that not enough is being done to recruit or to support younger scholars. Indeed, one study found that, while older scholars were more likely to have engaged, younger scientists are more willing to engage (Besley et al., 2013).


The research to date is pretty clear that male scientists are somewhat more likely to engage in various ways (Bentley & Kyvik, 2011; Besley, 2014; Besley et al., 2013; Crettaz von Roten, 2011; Kreimer et al., 2011; Torres-Albero et al., 2011), although data from France showed the opposite (Jensen, 2011). Research from the French-speaking part of Switzerland suggests that a challenge may be that female scientists were more likely to express a desire for engagement-specific funding, teaching-load reductions, and employer recognition (Crettaz von Roten, 2011). Together, the results suggest that, while it may be easier to get male scientists to engage, there may be a clear opportunity to help female scientists get more involved in science communication activities.

Field and Funding

A range of studies have included field as a potential predictor of engagement and have generally found similar patterns. First, those involved in the social sciences (Bentley & Kyvik, 2011; Jensen, 2011; Kreimer et al., 2011; Kyvik, 2005; Rainie et al., 2015) and the environmental/earth sciences (Jensen, 2011; Rainie et al., 2015; Torres-Albero et al., 2011) appear somewhat more likely to engage. Several studies have also suggested that those in biology or medicine may engage relatively more often (Besley et al., 2013; Marcinkowski et al., 2013; Torres-Albero et al., 2011). Inasmuch as certain fields are associated with funding, it is also noteworthy that some research supports the idea that those with more research funding are more likely to engage (Jensen, 2011; Marcinkowski et al., 2013). In the United States, specifically, there is limited evidence that those with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—which funds nonmedical science—were slightly more likely to report having taken part in online public engagement (Besley, 2014). One important aspect of the NSF is that it also requires those with grants to ensure their work has “broader impacts,” such as effects that might be achieved through science communication beyond academic audiences.

The aforementioned findings related to environmental sciences seem particularly relevant to individuals focused on climate change communication. On a related topic, it also appears that scientists who believe their area of research is of interest to the public are the most likely to engage (Rainie et al., 2015).

Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) Variables

Only a small number of studies include theory-derived variables (i.e., nondemographic variables) as predictors of engagement. However, it is clear from these studies that drawing on theory about why people engage in specific behaviors is crucial to understanding engagement practice. From a practical standpoint, those who may want to empower scientists to communicate more often need to consider whether the barriers that exist are associated with variables such as scientists’ attitudes toward engagement, perceived engagement norms, or issues of efficacy.


As might be expected, scientists with positive attitudes toward public engagement are more likely to engage. Typical TPB direct measures of attitudes that focus on affect toward engagement (Poliakoff & Webb, 2007) or engagement enjoyment (Dudo, 2013; Dunwoody et al., 2009) are consistent with this argument. Perhaps of more utility is research showing that scientists seem to engage more when they believe their organizations or themselves benefit from engagement (Besley et al., 2013; Dudo, Kahlor, Liang, & Ghannam, 2014; Marcinkowski et al., 2013) and that scientists generally see either neutral or positive outcomes from communicating (Peters et al., 2008). What is more, the numbers could be low if we assume that many scientists are reluctant to say that they communicate to achieve personal benefits. Conversely, views about whether online audiences might hurt a scientists’ work or treat the scientist disrespectfully do not appear to be related to engagement willingness (Besley, 2014). Further, some research has failed to find a relationship between perceived rewards from engagement and engagement behavior (Dunwoody et al., 2009).

Two other views that might be considered attitudes include scientists’ personal goals for science and their objectives for engagement. First, evidence from the United States suggests that scientists who chose their career to pursue the public good (rather than something personal, such as solving interesting problems) are more likely to engage (Besley et al., 2013; Dudo, Kahlor, Liang et al., 2014). A perceived moral duty to engage also seems important (Tsfati, Cohen, & Gunther, 2011), perhaps especially for climate scientists (Sharman & Howarth, 2016). Similarly, scientists who see contributing to a debate as an objective for online engagement were more likely to have engaged online. Other objectives, such as informing the public, building trust, or fostering excitement, were not associated with past online engagement (Besley, 2014).

Altogether, past results related to attitudes suggest that stakeholders who want to increase scientists’ engagement activity may need to emphasize to scientists the degree to which the activity is likely to be a positive experience, either in terms of the experience itself or in the ultimate outcome. Further, the most amenable scientists are likely to be those with a public mindset. To this point, studies have shown that scientists who consume more news about science (Dudo, 2013) and who perceive professional benefits from generating publicity about their research (Dudo, Kahlor, AbiGhannam et al., 2014; Nisbet & Markowitz, 2015; Tsfati et al., 2011) are more likely to engage the public.


The idea that scientists think being in the public eye might expose them to negative sanctions from colleagues—the so called “Carl Sagan effect”—appears common (Ecklund, James, & Lincoln, 2012; Gascoigne & Metcalfe, 1997). However, past survey research has found little evidence of widespread fear of normative sanction or evidence that norms were associated with willingness to engage (Besley, 2014; Besley et al., 2013; Dudo, Kahlor, AbiGhannam et al., 2014; Poliakoff & Webb, 2007), although Poliakoff and Webb (2007) found that scientists who believed their colleagues were engaging (i.e., descriptive, rather than subjective norms) were more likely to say they intend to engage in the future. The main take-away from the lack of relationship between beliefs about norms and engagement activity is that it is important to empirically test hypotheses about why (or why not) scientists may be engaging.


Beliefs about whether or not an activity is likely to be effective can influence whether someone undertakes that activity. Past research has consistently demonstrated that scientists who believe they could be do a reasonable job at public engagement, and who have time, are more likely to engage (Besley, 2014; Besley et al., 2013; Dudo, Kahlor, Liang et al., 2014; Dunwoody et al., 2009; Poliakoff & Webb, 2007). One study similarly asked about scientists’ perceptions of the difficulty of explaining their work and found that those who saw their work as more difficult were more less likely to have engaged (Kreimer et al., 2011). The belief that engagement will have an impact (i.e., external efficacy) may also matter (Besley, 2014), although this has not been widely tested. One study, however, found that nuclear scientists who felt that public opinion was split on nuclear energy were more likely to see value in getting the public involved in decision-making (Li et al., 2015).

Additional research has similarly shown a benefit to engagement training (Dudo, 2013; Dunwoody et al., 2009), which would seem likely to increase efficacy. Indeed, the value of efficacy as a potential predictor of engagement activity is that it is a variable that seems amenable to change through things such as training. Training, however, could pose a danger if it leads potential science communicators to recognize how difficult having a measurable impact can be for any given communication activity.

What Are Scientists Actually Trying To Achieve Through Their Communication Activities?

Once a scientist decides to communicate, the challenge becomes figuring out how to do so in a way that meets that scientist’s needs or desires, and possibly the needs or desires of those with whom the scientist is communicating. Those who study science communication have indicated that scientists would benefit from training that would help them better connect with their fellow citizens (Besley & Tanner, 2011). A wide range of practical books have been published in recent to provide such guidance (e.g., Baron, 2010; Dean, 2009; Kuchner, 2012; Olson, 2009, 2015) and in-person training programs have also emerged (Besley, Dudo, Yuan, & AbiGhannam, 2016; Fahy & Nisbet, 2011). While the books have not been formally critiqued as a group, they appear consistent with interviews of trainers that found that much of the training is focused on improving technical communication skills (e.g., clear, jargon-free speaking, or the development of coherent, entertaining narratives) but not communication strategy. Communication strategy, in this regard, might involve developing a realistic logic model that connects communication efforts to specific near-term objectives that can be achieved through communication as well as a clear connection between those objectives and the actual goals scientists want to achieve (Besley et al., 2016). This type of explicitly strategic approach to communication is common in areas such as public relations (Hon, 1998) and health communication (Rice & Atkin, 2013), but does not seem to be common in the realm of science communication. The closest widespread discussion that the science communication community has had in this area is the debate over the role of science literacy. Specifically, a primary historical trajectory in the study of science communication has been the shift from a focus on increasing science literacy toward a focus on strengthening the relationship between science and society through activities such as public engagement (Bauer, Allum, & Miller, 2007). While not typically discussed as a strategic shift, it is possible to understand the move as a shift in priorities away from teaching as a communication tactic with the objective of increasing knowledge toward objectives that might be possible from meaningful dialogue between scientists and nonscientists.

Objective: Science Knowledge

Increasing knowledge and dispelling myths have long been the aims of scientists who choose to communicate (Burnham, 1987). However, while the science education literature (e.g., Lederman, Bartos, & Lederman, 2014) continues to focus on increasing knowledge of science-related facts and processes, a wide range of communication and sociology scholarship has cautioned those who expect substantial impacts from increased knowledge about science among individuals or societies. Critiques include some that emphasize that narrow definitions of science knowledge fail to capture the unique, contextual knowledge that is often deployed by nonscientists to understand new challenges involving things such as health and risk (e.g., Wynne, 1999) and a call to recognize that people, often working in groups, can develop substantial capacity to understand issues when faced with a threat (e.g., Epstein, 1996). The other primary critique is evidence that the positive relationship between science knowledge and pro-science attitudes is typically quite small (Allum, Sturgis, Tabourazi, & Brunton-Smith, 2008).

More recent research has further demonstrated that the relationship between science knowledge and attitudes often varies as a function of respondents’ worldviews, as measured through variables such as religiosity, ideology, or cultural values (Brossard, Scheufele, Kim, & Lewenstein, 2009; Hart, Nisbet, & Myers, 2015; Ho, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2008; Kahan, 2009, 2015, 2016; Kahan, Braman, Cohen, Gastil, & Slovic, 2010; Kahan, Braman, Slovic, Gastil, & Cohen, 2009; Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011; Kahan et al., 2012). Additional work, however, shows that science knowledge remains a reasonable predictor for many issues not associated with cultural worldviews (e.g., risk perceptions associated with radio waves from cell phones, artificial food coloring, genetically modified food, nanotechnology, etc.; Kahan, 2016). Unfortunately, climate change is not one of these issues and thus communication efforts where the implicit or explicit strategy is to share knowledge are likely to have only small effects. (See Public Knowledge, Scientific Literacy, Numeracy and Perceptions of Climate Change; Cognitive Biases, Non-Rational Judgments, and Public Perceptions of Climate Change; Strategies for Countering False Information and Beliefs about Climate Change.) Indeed, a range of studies of climate change specifically have demonstrated the limited relationship between climate change knowledge and associated attitudes (see also Kahan, 2015).

One challenge to fostering more effective climate change communication is that scientists appear to prioritize education over other potential objectives. As previously reviewed (Besley & Nisbet, 2013), a range of qualitative studies (e.g., Besley et al., 2016; Burningham, Barnett, Carr, Clift, & Wehrmeyer, 2007; Davies, 2008; Petersen, Anderson, Allan, & Wilkinson, 2009) and several quantitative studies (Besley, Dudo, & Storksdieck, 2015; Peters et al., 2008; The Royal Society, 2006) indicate that scientists see their main communication role as informing citizens of things they may need to know or helping them make sense of things they do not understand. One study (Besley et al., 2015) showed that, within the context of online communication, scientists were also likely to view training focused on enhancing message understanding as relatively more ethical than other potential objectives, and to see this objective as the one for which they had the most existing efficacy (i.e., skill). A follow-up study corroborated these results, finding that scientists viewed defending science from misinformation and building knowledge as the most important objectives for public engagement (Dudo & Besley, 2016).

Objective: Create Excitement or Interest

Beyond knowledge, science communicators sometimes seek to build excitement or interest in audiences about science. To wit, a U.S. National Academies report listed excitement as the first “strand” of “learning” that informal science environments seek to foster (National Research Council, 2009). Building on foundational research in public opinion about science (Miller, 2004), the National Science Board similarly focuses the first section of its biennial chapter on science attitudes and understanding on “interest” in topics such as “new scientific discoveries” and the “use of new inventions and technologies.”

Topics that shape interest include surprise, identification with a communicator, personal relevance, and the nature of a situation (for a review, see Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Museums (Serrell, 2006) and science festivals (Jensen & Buckley, 2014) seek to promote interest by providing a comfortable environment, engaging participants, and personalizing experiences. Health and risk communicators also try to generate interest by tailoring messages to individuals (Hawkins, Kreuter, Resnicow, Fishbein, & Dijkstra, 2008) or by embedding messages within entertainment media (Slater & Rouner, 2002). Similarly, narratives (i.e., storytelling) can effectively spark interest.

In terms of effects, interest should be seen as central to shaping people’s views about science. For example, the education literature indicates that interest drives additional attention, topic-related goal setting, and learning (for a review, see Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Similarly, persuasion research treats interest as an initial predictor of whether or not a person will devote cognitive resources to communication and will ignore messages that do not “motivate them to process” because of personal (i.e., relevance) or situational (i.e., importance) factors (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).

There is limited research on what scientists think about interest or excitement as an objective of communication. One qualitative study suggested that some scientists see the public as uninterested in science (Burningham et al., 2007). Further, interviews with trainers suggested that trainers were not focused on interest as an objective of communication, with some noting that cultivating interest was best left to popularizers, such as Bill Nye, rather than working scientists (Besley et al., 2016). On the other hand, the same interviews suggested that trainers work on skills such as storytelling that are likely to foster interest among people with whom scientists are communicating. And one recent survey found that scientists valued “getting people excited about science” relatively highly, albeit slightly less so than informing people about science and correcting scientific misinformation (Dudo & Besley, 2016).

Communication Objective: Build Trust

Another communication objective for scientists may be to build trust (Dudo & Besley, 2016). Trust, in this regard, however, can be a challenge to discuss because various people use different names for a similar concept (i.e., credibility, reputation, fairness, etc.) and substantial research shows that this concept—whatever it is called—includes at least two unique dimensions, and maybe more. Some scholars (e.g., Earle, Siegrist, & Gutscher, 2007; Fiske & Dupree, 2014), for example, argue that trust can be understood as a combination of both an affective dimension focused on perceived warmth or shared interests and a second dimension related to perceived competence. Another prominent approach divides warmth into benevolence (i.e., care for others) and integrity (i.e., honesty) alongside competence as “ability” (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995; Schoorman, Mayer, & Davis, 2007). Fairness researchers similarly focus on concerns about whether people feel like they received a fair outcome as well as on issues associated with fair process. This can include consideration of the degree to which people feel like they are being listened to during decision-making procedures (i.e., procedural fairness), the degree to which people feel they are being treated with respect (i.e., interpersonal or interactional fairness), and the degree to which people feel decision makers are open and transparent (i.e., informational fairness; Besley & McComas, 2014; Colquitt, Greenberg, & Zapata-Phelan, 2005).

Whatever the theoretical approach used, the central idea is that people’s perceptions of scientists can matter a great deal and that communicators may benefit from behavior that builds (or does not reduce) various aspects of trust. Public engagement efforts, especially ones that feature meaningful interaction between members of the scientific community and nonscientists, can further be understood as particularly desirable because they can allow scientists to show their warmth, willingness to listen, and expertise, while also meeting community members’ desire to hear from scientists.

Limited past research suggests that scientists generally see some value in various aspects of trust building. Interviews with communication trainers revealed little training explicitly aimed at helping scientists build trust, but did find that a range of tactics that would be expected to affect trust perceptions—including storytelling, active listening, and an emphasis on generally positive interaction—are somewhat common (Besley et al., 2016). An earlier survey of scientists also included a general question about the value of science communication training to ensure that online audiences see scientists as “trustworthy or credible.” This question scored as highly as training related to knowledge, but questions on the value of training related to ensuring that audiences see scientists as willing to listen and as caring or concerned people scored somewhat less high (though still well above the scale midpoint). The surveyed scientists were somewhat less likely to see such objectives as ethical or to say they had skills in these areas (Besley et al., 2015). A follow-up study (Dudo & Besley, 2016) found that the communication objective of building trust was prioritized less than building knowledge or interest. The pattern for perceived ethicality and perceived skills, as well as perceived impact on audiences (i.e., external efficacy of the objective) was similar.

Communication Objective: Frame Message to Resonate

The final specific objective discussed here—although many more objectives might be sought through communication—is the objective of attempting to frame or reframe how people see an issue. Communicators are always framing their messages, whether they mean to or not. For example, one could choose to talk about climate change by describing one polar bear’s experiences. Doing so would invite the audience to think about climate change at the individual, episodic level. On the other hand, a scientist could also choose to talk about the same problem in terms of statistics for all polar bears. This would increase the probability that an audience would think about the issues at a broader, more thematic level. The choice, and other similar choices, can be expected to have different effects on views about what should be done, if anything, and who should do it, if anyone (Hart, 2011). Indeed, the ubiquity of framing means it has a wide range of potential effects on attitudes and behavior and has been studied extensively by those interested in a range of topics relevant to science communication, including climate change. (See Framing, Discourses, and Metaphors in Media Representations of Climate Change.)

In the current context, framing can be understood as selecting “some aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient … in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (Entman, 1993, p. 52). However, other scholars have noted that, while salience (i.e., what’s top of mind) is important, framing is unique because it involves making associations between subjects (i.e., suggesting context; Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). Also, while framing is sometimes studied as communicating the same unit of analysis in different ways, such as in the “half full” versus “half empty” glass idiom (Kahneman, 2011), scholars have also studied framing where the unit of analysis was the topic. One of the most cited examples is research on nuclear energy that argued that news stories often invited audience members to think of nuclear energy as an issue of scientific progress or economic development. In other cases, however, stories framed the nuclear issue as a question of whether the technology was likely to “run away” or whether the regulatory process was adequate (Gamson & Modigliani, 1989). Nisbet (2009) adapted such an approach to the study of climate change and began to test related ideas (Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2012). Another common framing subject is the degree to which journalists frame elections or science debates (Nisbet, Brossard, & Kroepsch, 2003) as a “horse race” between multiple sides versus a debate over important ideas.

Despite the popularity of research in this area, it appears that framing is a relatively low priority for most scientists. Qualitative interviews with science communication trainers found mixed results, with some trainers saying that most scientists see the value of thoughtful framing of issues once the concept is explained, while other trainers said the scientists they work with worry about being manipulative (Besley et al., 2016). Several trainers also said that getting scientists to frame messages effectively requires substantial training. Nevertheless, when it comes to surveys of scientists, training related to framing was seen by one group of scientists as having the least value and the least ethicality (though still with means above the midpoint). Follow-up research similarly found that scientists prioritize framing lower than other potential objectives (except trust), and they also felt that framing was relatively less likely to be effective and was relatively less ethical (Dudo & Besley, 2016).

Additional Communication Objectives

The objectives of building science knowledge, fostering interest or excitement, building trust, and framing or reframing of issues are four objectives that past research has studied in the context of scientists’ views. There are, no doubt, many other objectives that communicators could adopt, including those associated with prominent theories such as the theory of planned behavior, such as social norms and efficacy. Indeed, shaping social norms (Rimal, 2008) and efficacy beliefs (Maibach, Flora, & Nass, 1991) are frequently the objectives of health communication interventions. Some other potential objectives include trying to shape the degree to which people identify with scientists or other groups (Hart & Nisbet, 2012) and changing affective reactions to science issues (Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic, & Johnson, 2000; Leiserowitz, 2006). Unfortunately, while these objectives are sometimes studied by science communication researchers, including those focused on climate change, researchers know little about the degree to which scientists would be willing to strategically deploy the types of messages that might be necessary to affect noneducational objectives or the degree to which they have the skills needed to do so. This is fine if we think that professional science communicators are adequate to the task, but less than ideal if scientists themselves are to play a prominent role in communication efforts.

How the Public Might Judge Strategic Science Communication

While strategic science communicators may wish to understand the range of effects they might have through their efforts, we do not know very much about how the public would react to scientists who are seen to be pursuing non-knowledge objectives. Recent research suggests that the non-scientists can likely recognize when climate scientists advocate for specific positions, but that such advocacy may not hurt the credibility of the advocating scientist or more general views about scientists and the value of science funding (Kotcher, Myers, Vraga, Stenhouse, & Maibach, in press). The one case where such advocacy appears to negatively affect views was when the scientist advocate argued what appeared to be an unpopular solution to climate change (i.e., nuclear energy). An accompanying commentary on this research, however, warned that scientists should not take such findings to mean that scientists should cease to worry about how their communication efforts will be received (Donner, in press). Other recent research, in this regard, showed that overly aggressive communication on science topics, including nuclear energy, can hurt perceptions of a science communicator (Yuan, Besley, & Lou, in press). Given that Americans, at least, want scientists to engage on policy issues (National Science Board, 2012; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2009), it therefore seems like the question returns to how scientists who want to communicate can do so most effectively.


There is renewed interest among the scientific community—broadly and within the field of climate science—for scientists to take more expansive, proactive roles in engaging with external audiences about their research and its implications (Bailey, 2010; Cicerone, 2006; Corner et al., 2014; Holt, 2015; Lorenzoni et al., 2007; Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011). And, as evidenced by the impending March for Science and a surfeit of editorials in prestigious science journals (Anon., 2017a, 2017b; Makri, 2017; Williamson, 2016) published since the beginning of the Donald J. Trump administration, interest in scientists’ public engagement behavior is further accelerating. Extant scholarship about the pervasiveness of scientists’ outward-facing communication and about the factors that are associated with partaking in this behavior does not focus specifically on public engagement of climate science, its insights are relevant to stakeholders concerned with communication about climate change. Indeed, many of the key findings from this research—particularly those that have emerged from theory-based studies—cut across scientific disciplines and topics (e.g., scientists with higher levels of communication self-efficacy are more likely to partake in public engagement regardless of their field).

Nevertheless, given the continued dearth of public interest (Gifford, 2011; Weber & Stern, 2011) and policymaking (van der Linden, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2015) associated with the issue of climate change, there is a clear opportunity for researchers to develop a body of work that seeks to specifically explicate scientists’ views and behaviors related to engaging the public directly about climate science. Of particular importance to these efforts is the consideration of strategic communication; that is, efforts that, in addition to clarifying how often and why climate scientists engage in public communication, also aim to understand what the climate scientists hope to accomplish. This approach would help evolve the focus from helping scientists engage with the public more often to helping them engage more effectively.


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