Scientific discoveries can truly revolutionize human society, even though public perception on this matter might be far behind its relevance. In an increasingly interconnected and technologically advanced world, science plays a pivotal role in shaping our lives, addressing global challenges, and driving progress. This became evident when researchers prioritized the COVID-19 pandemic as a research theme worldwide. In our field, plant research has been increasing the life quality of our society, by boosting crop productivity, food nutritional value and reducing chemical disposal. The Nobel-winning Green Revolution which embraced breakthroughs in rice and wheat production and contributed to reduce hunger (Borlaug, 1968; Borlaug, 2007), is probably the most famous scientific plant research by the public. The use of genetic modification, modern techniques and microorganisms to enhance crops production are now being considered as the future New Green Revolution. Not surprisingly, scientific public funding is usually aligned with scientific impact, regarded as such either by the public or the scientific community (Yin et al, 2022). The taxpayer´s money majorly funds science, so although many researchers succeeded without engaging with the public, this detachment does not seem effective in the modern world (Pham, 2016).
Despite its immense contributions, science often faces challenges in gaining public trust and support. One of the reasons is that sometimes personal feelings weigh as much as scientific evidence for the common public. As researchers, instead of working against it, we need to work with this, showing that science can be thrilling. When information is difficult to understand, as often scientific data are, people tend to base their decisions on values and beliefs, not facts (Cormick, 2020). We have now reached the misinformation age, a time when the capacity to generate information is out of step with the ability, or will, to validate it. Science is a good strategy to fight against misinformation, but lately, fake promises arising from practices that are far from a scientific consensus are being advertised as pursuing a scientific basis, such as DNA reprogramming diets. Scientists are now being called to action, to improve the way science is presented to the wider public, increase critical thinking and build trust in society (Makri, 2017).
Enhancing science public perception is crucial, as it not only fosters informed decision-making but also strengthens the bond between scientific institutions and society. Here, we discuss practical routes that can be followed by researchers to boost science public engagement.
I. Science communication and education. Effective science communication is essential in bridging the gap between scientists and the general public. Researchers must communicate complex concepts in a clear, accessible and friendly manner. Engaging the public through social media and live platforms, enables scientists to connect with audiences on a personal level. By fostering dialogue and answering questions, scientists can demystify misconceptions and build trust.
Promoting media literacy and science education by nurturing critical thinking skills and teaching scientific methods in schools, people can better evaluate scientific claims and distinguish credible information from misinformation. Encouraging responsible journalism and accurate reporting of scientific findings also fosters a more informed public.
According to the scientific communicator Cormick (2020), here are some tips that can be used when communicating science:
- Embrace the public diversity. It is often a mistake approaching the public as a single entity. Usually, we like to speak with people alike, but science communication demands us to skip out of our comfort zone and develop a conversation not only with science fans, but also with someone that don´t know, don´t believe or don´t care about science.
- Consider that only facts and evidence might not convince. Sometimes people search for any information that agrees with their pre established vision of the world and beliefs instead of checking how accurate data was obtained. A good strategy is to discover what are the public´s values and approach this into the conversation rather than insisting on thorny issues.
- Find common points with your audience. People trust who has values in consonance with their own. When talking to a group of individuals essentially different from you, you have to find a common point to connect with, as being a student, or a parent, or even having a common hobby.
- Work your storytelling. Turn your scientific findings into a good story. Using stories as a way to pass along the message increases the chances of being remembered, of being counter-argued and are more convincing than plain data (Green et al, 2000).
The media that is mostly consumed today is presented in extremely short and disposable presentations. Therefore, be aware of making impactful and enticing content that does not leak from the attention of the consumers. Modern-day algorithms will favor the spread of content that follows those characteristics, triggering the exponential visualization of scientific material.
In the same way, we should embrace what people relate to the most. Pop culture references will always be helpful in building effective connections between the actual world and new discoveries. By doing research on what is trending in social media, people can associate their learnings to their day-to-day life.
II. Scientific Outreach and Events: Scientists must actively engage with the public beyond academic circles. Participating in public outreach events, volunteering in community programs, and collaborating with museums and science centers allow researchers to showcase the relevance and excitement of science. Such initiatives make science accessible, relatable, and tangible, enhancing public appreciation for its impact on everyday life.
Data from different fields show that science outreach is effective to increase public scientific engagement. A first step would be reaching family and friends, encouraging them to think about science and comprehend its relevance (Pham, 2016). Furthermore, keep in mind that science needs to be digested and understood by non-specialized audiences. As Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Younger generations are more likely to be receptive and sensitive to a science speech. Facing younger audiences may be very challenging, but it may also be the most impactful way of nurturing critical thinking and an evidence-based worldview. We recommend reaching out to schools as a primary objective. In this way, the materials can be improved accordingly while kids get to have fun and learn some science!
III. Citizen science projects. Working with citizen science projects can be a rewarding and engaging way to contribute to scientific research while involving the public. Citizen science projects might embrace non-professionals to perform a variety of activities to advance in scientific discoveries. This approach has been increasingly used in a wide range of fields. For instance, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is using citizen science as a way to collect data and monitor indicators of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Higher education, the spread of mobile phones, internet data sharing and storage, are key factors contributing to the augmented public participation in science. Participant engagement and retention are challenges to be overcome in order to bring out the benefits of citizen science outputs, such as better policies and legislations, economic impacts and stronger research literacy (Fraisl et al, 2022). A crucial point is the strategy used to engage citizen scientists, which depends on the research topic familiarity, the facilities available at the experimental site and the public gains resulting from the projects (Alexandrino et al, 2019).
A good experimental design demonstrating the public participation not only in data collection but also in the outputs can make the difference in citizen science projects. According to Pettibone et al (2016), before initiating a project, the public interest in the topic, the adequation of methods, equipment and infrastructure, time, special knowledge, the commitment degree, legal issues and the project evaluation are key points to be considered.
In developing countries, it is necessary to consider that access to those activities can be a privilege. Research institutions must consider bringing programs to poorly-reached society sectors in those cases. But the challenge will never finish in that step. Engaging public participation in science is a long-term commitment to continuity and perseverance.
Working the principles of scientific transparency, openness, addressing ethical concerns and involving perspectives from different segments of society fosters inclusivity and reflects the real-world impact of scientific developments on diverse populations. Transparent research methodologies, data sharing, and replication studies build credibility and demonstrate integrity in the scientific process. Additionally, acknowledging uncertainties and limitations in research findings helps avoid inflated claims and unrealistic expectations. A transparent approach instills public confidence, ensuring that scientific advancements are received with informed scrutiny.
Scientific labor is very demanding. Finding the chance to create and employ science communication programs cannot be included in a researcher’s agenda easily. In any case, it will always be worth the effort to set the seed to bring the plant science community closer to society. Engaging stakeholders, policymakers, and community leaders in research endeavors ensure that scientific progress aligns with societal needs and aspirations. Enhancing public perception in science is a collaborative effort that involves scientists, institutions, policymakers, educators, and the media. By prioritizing transparent communication, involving diverse perspectives, addressing ethical concerns, and promoting science education, society can bridge the gap between scientific advancements and public understanding. If the public perception of science is more informed and supportive, it will lead to evidence-based decision-making, greater trust in scientific research, and a sustainable future built on innovation and progress.
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About the Authors
Maria Juliana Calderan Rodrigues is a Postdoctoral Molecular Biologist at Max Planck Institute and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She is researching plant growth in model plants and tropical crops. Science strategic planning, management, and evaluation are also part of her expertise. You can find her on Twitter at @majucalderan.
Dennis Baffour-Awuah is a science communication enthusiast who has many years of experience practicing broadcast journalism in Ghana, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. He loves to be referred to as the pop scientist because he loves to blend pop culture and science as a lifestyle. You can find him on Twitter at @dennisgameplay.
Eddy Jesús Mendoza Galindo is an undergrad student of Agri-Genomic Sciences at UNAM (México). He is studying population genomics of Agave for his thesis dissertation (at LANGEBIO MX and Desert Botanical Garden PHX) and has experienced over 9 research internships where he fell in love with plant science. Since 2016, he has been teaching plant physiology to Mexican high school students and is pursuing a medal at the National and International Biology Olympiad. He uses his developing art, literature, and music abilities to create videos, comics, and songs to share plant science with kids, students, and more. Being part of the foundation of a national network of students has always been his dream, now it is a huge project aiming to communicate science to his whole country (biologosdefrontera.com). You can find him on Twitter at @IamSomnya.