Flowing from a renaissance of scientific dissemination, the public is hungry for knowledge. The increasing accessibility of information right at our fingertips (or keyboards) has caused a surge in media-based public dissemination of science. This dissemination may occur in the form of press released and national news interviews as has been the case for Dr. Brian D’Onofrio, Director of Clinical Training and a Professor within the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
Dr. D’Onofrio and his lab study the causes and treatments of child and adolescent psychological problems. Mainly, his media-based public dissemination occurs in the form of press releases and national news interviews. As Dr. D’Onofrio explained, press releases are typically aimed at journalists who have some understanding of the subject matter or statistics he uses. But, this is not always the case. Unfortunately, Dr. D’Onofrio explains, there is great variability in the familiarity of the public with the underlying issues of his research and not all journalists are trained to understand and convey such information to a non-expert public. To help with knowledge gaps, “we go above and beyond to provide resources for those interested in the topic,” including FAQs and explanatory documents.
Fifth-year graduate student Richard Slivicki, who has already had some experience disseminating his research through news sources, has similar experiences. Much like Dr. D’Onofrio, Slivicki’s research has been picked up originally as press releases (see a ScIU original post by Rachel Skipper on Slivicki’s research that also includes links to his press releases, including one by IU Newsroom’s Kevin Fryling). Slivicki reported that his experience with the process was incredibly collaborative, allowing him to ensure the final press releases were accurate. Slivicki finds it helpful to “not overstate findings, keep information general to avoid confusing the public with details, compare concepts to what the public is already familiar with, and keep the information accurate.” Slivicki also sang the praises of other community-based dissemination venues, such as the online Pain Research Forum, which Slivicki frequently checks for updates and advances in his field, and the local Science Café Bloomington.
Direct education can be another means of interfacing with the public. Dr. Ehren Newman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, regularly attends community science fairs and events to teach students from elementary school to high school about the brain and the scientific process. Moreover, he has instituted an initiative in his own lab in which his undergraduate research assistants “go back to the high school they graduated from, the same science class they were in, and present how they decided to get involved in research and what it means to be involved.” According to Dr. Newman, this makes the “path length between people doing science and those hearing about it as short as possible.” In addition, Dr. Newman teaches multiple undergraduate courses ranging from large lectures to intimate seminars or labs. When teaching, Dr. Newman says his goal is to excite students about science and promote the general skill of critical thinking, an important goal of disseminating science to students who have not yet chosen careers and may not have a solid understanding of what science is .
The three aforementioned examples briefly highlight the ways in which scientists try to disseminate to the public, but this is by no means exhaustive and is also not always the case.
In my quest to understand the state of dissemination in science, more specifically psychological science, I’m left with a final question: whose role is it to make science accessible and digestible to the general public? I review four major roles below:
The Role of Scientists
Slivicki, and Dr. Sporns (from Part 1), clearly reminded us that it is the primary role of scientists to make information as accurate as possible. Dr. Newman stated that there is an “important boundary between people at the frontier of knowledge and the average consumer, who will not appreciate when the story changes and should not have to; the public wants to know the take-home point.”
Once the knowledge is accurate, it is clear that there are things we as scientists can do to help disseminate our work, such as teaching, says Dr. Newman, with his caveat that “the public is a far broader front than college students represent and most people are not good at building a public face and getting people to listen.” Additionally, “working with major organizations that carry a lot of weight with the general public and have direct goals to disseminate work and knowledge” can be a large asset, as D’Onofrio pointed out. Some such organizations are universities, the Center for Disease Control, and the National Science Foundation. All of these organizations have strong public relations (PR) teams and established, interested listeners. Slivicki also draws on an incredibly important outcome of dissemination : having a political voice as a scientist helps to educate the public and politicians and stimulate interest in science, which can increase positive political support and funding.
The Role of Educators
It is in part the role of the education system, which can include scientists, to better educate the public on what science is and is not . So, what is it? It is a continual process that is the basis of psychological research and understanding today. As Dr. Newman outlined, “we have some observations, we make up some stories [hypotheses and theories], then develop an experiment to test that story, and gather some data that helps us modify and improve our story. We cannot just make up facts; science is fallible and based on observations.”
The Role of Intermediates
It is the role of intermediates (see Part 2), including reporters and medical professionals, to accurately and accessibly report scientific findings. The media can misconstrue or not fully represent research by publicizing small, uninformative clips for a long and nuanced interview or changing headlines in a way that garners public approval or outrage. Dr. D’Onofrio himself becomes the receiver for public concerns and questions, though he is not a physician. Interestingly, this takes us back to Part 2! That is, one would hope that physicians are informed of the type of epidemiological research Dr. D’Onofrio and his colleagues conduct. Indeed, he often disseminates his work and the implications of his findings to large teams, which include physicians, on the risks and benefits of medications.
The Role of the Public
Finally, it is the role of the public to seek out knowledge, acknowledge their limitations, and inform themselves. Dr. D’Onofrio warned, “it is hard to disseminate psychological science because everyone has experience with mental illness and the things we talk about, so everyone has thoughts and are interested in what we study. The bad thing is they think they already know. A big portion of the work is counteracting misconceived notions.” Slivicki has also had this experience stating, “negative feedback can come as a reaction to something that the public thinks they have seen before.” Another big part is avoiding jargon, which Dr. D’Onofrio highlighted is “done well in the clinical area – we are getting better at explaining therapy to people.”
Regardless, the truth of the matter is that these roles for dissemination are not entirely clear. It is likely the responsibility of everyone to keep others accountable for their contributions. This brings me to you (yes, you!), the reader. Although we cannot change the field of science as a whole, we here at ScIU would like to know what we should or can do to promote and facilitate your consumption of scientific knowledge. Please comment or email us your thoughts, concerns, ideas, etc.
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Dr. Brian D’Onofrio, Dr. Ehren Newman, and Richard Slivicki for their hard work to disseminate science and their insight into interfacing with the public.
 Eagleman, D. M. (2013). Why public dissemination of science matters: a manifesto. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(30), 12147-12149.