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«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»

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More than 60 percent of American adults now believe that human beings were created as whole adults directly by God and are not a part of any evolutionary process (Miller, Scott & Okamoto, 2006). The entire scientific community bears some responsibility for this result. For too many years, too many physical scientists looked the other way while biology teachers were being attacked on the evolution issue. Now, of course, the same fundamentalists are attacking the Big Bang. If the trend toward the politicization of science continues, the scientific community will need to learn to stand together and to argue for the preservation and integrity of science in ways that we have not had to do for centuries.

Looking to the future, it is essential to increase the proportion of scientifically literate adults in our society. As these results demonstrate, formal education and informal science learning are partners in the process of advancing scientific literacy. Without a solid foundation of reading and basic scientific constructs, even the best science journalism and communication will fall on deaf ears. And no amount of formal science education will prepare adults to make sense of new and emerging science throughout their lifetime.

60 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA Scientific literacy is not a cure or antidote by itself. It is, however, a prerequisite for preserving a society that values science and that is able to sustain its democratic values and traditions.8 REFERENCES Ahmann, S. 1975. The exploration of survival levels of achievement by means of assessment techniques. In Reading and Career Education, ed. D. M. Nielsen, 38–42. Newark, Del.: International Reading Association.

Baldi, S., Y. Jin, M. Skemer, P. J. Green, and D. Herget. 2007. Highlights from

PISA 2006: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Science and Mathematics Literacy in an International Context (NCES 2008-017). Washington, D.C.:

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8. The U.S. national data sets for the years 1985 through 2007 were collected with support from the National Science Foundation (awards SRS8105662, SRS8517581, SRS8807409, SRS9002467, SRS9217876, SRS9732170, SRS9906416, ESI0131424, ESI0201155, ESI0515449). The 2008 wave of the Science News Study was funded by Dean Charles Salmon of Michigan State University. The 2008 participation in the American National Election Study was funded by Vice President Ian Gray of Michigan State University. The author gratefully acknowledges this support, but any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author and not of the sponsors or any of their staff or officers.

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Managing the Trust Portfolio:

Science Public Relations and Social Responsibility Rick E. Borchelt, Lynne T. Friedmann, and Earle Holland Science came late to the practice of public relations, owing in large part to a culture of science journalism in the 1950s and 1960s that bordered on cheerleading: who needed PR when you already had many journalists who uncritically reported breakthrough after breakthrough with little of the healthy skepticism we have come to expect from contemporary media?

But times change, and cultures change. The reverent praise-singers who dominated science writing fifty years ago have been replaced by two generations of increasingly wary journalists who substitute news judgment and enterprise reporting for the adulatory stories scientists were accustomed to seeing in print or hearing on radio or television news.

Little wonder then, many scientists believe, that science as an enterprise no longer inspires unalloyed public trust. A survey of U.S. adults in 2004 commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), for example, finds that only 34 percent of respondents trust scientists to put the well-being of society over their personal goals (AAAS, 2004).

This “trust gap” is especially pronounced on issues of great social concern and scientific uncertainty. For example, when respondents in a European poll were asked whom they trusted to tell the truth about genetically modified crops, only 6 percent said they trusted university sources. “National public authorities” garnered the trust of 4 percent, while industry captured a scant 1 percent. By contrast, 26 percent of respondents trusted environmental organizations (Haerlin & Parr, 1999). Kafoglou and colleagues (2004) noted in focus groups on the social implications of scientific advances in reproductive technologies that participants frequently thought scientists would forgo ethical behavior for prestige or money.


Mistrust in scientists and/or the scientific enterprise has been noted elsewhere by many observers (Royal Society, 1985; House of Lords, 2000), leading some communications researchers to postulate that scientists are beginning to develop a culture of “institutional neurosis” (Bauer et al., 2007) about having lost the public’s mandate. The response has been the propagation of myriad schemes for harnessing the presumed power of glitzy advertising firms to “sell” science the way they might hawk a political candidate or promote a new clothing line.

The buzz at research universities is about “institutional advancement” using “integrated marketing” and “branding.” Scientific organizations routinely now turn to industry to fill communications positions in their ranks, assuming perhaps that the person who can instill confidence in consumer goods can do the same for scientists (Nelkin, 1995).

So, for some time now, many scientific institutions have unadvisedly relied on retooled scientists and former reporters to crank out an increasing blizzard of peppy news releases, driven by the axiom—now rejected by communications theorists—that “to know us is to love us” (Bauer et al., 2007). This new Madison Avenue–driven approach has a dim chance of regaining public trust. The scientific community needs to understand what ethical practitioners of public relations have long known: trust is not about information; it’s about dialogue and transparency.

As practitioners use the term, public relations is the art and science of developing meaningful “relations” (or relationships) with the “public” (or publics) necessary for the continuing work of an organization or the scientific enterprise itself. As the Public Relations Society of America affirms in its statement of principles about professional practice, “Public relations helps an organization and its publics mutually adapt to each other” (http://media.prsa.org/prsa+ overview/faq/#a40; accessed June 1, 2009). Public relations helps an organization demonstrate its commitment to and work toward becoming a socially responsible entity. In the context of science, public relations signals the willingness of scientists to come down from the ivory tower and engage the public with language that the public can understand. Practiced this way, public relations on behalf of science or scientists has a different set of ethical constraints and responsibilities than do the practices of marketing and institutional advancement that form today’s prevailing model for promoting science and scientific understanding. The best way to understand these differences is by understanding how public relations evolved and what now constitutes bestpractice public relations.



The development of effective means of mass communication in the nineteenth century created an entirely new field of play for publicists, and this initial “publicity” phase of public relations continues to this day, benefiting from new technologies to reach mass markets faster with more targeted messages. Historians of public relations refer to this kind of public relations as “press agentry,” so named because its practitioners often went by the name “press agents” and were the marketers that hawked press releases and news tips to a willing media enterprise (Grunig & Hunt, 1984).

At its heart, press agentry PR seeks to maximize awareness of a product, an idea, or an institution. “Making the news” or “getting ink” are the primary benchmarks of success for press agentry, and “placement” of stories about one’s organization in media outlets still is the primary—albeit shortsighted— goal desired by many scientific organizations. The myth of communication clung to by many scientists holds that sending a message is the same as communicating a message. Dissemination is confused with communication.

What is most significant about press agentry is the direction of information flow: it is overwhelmingly one-way, from the organization to its public or publics, with few feedback loops from the public to the laboratory bench.

PR practitioners soon learned, however—even if the CEOs of their client organizations did not—that public attention was no guarantee of public support. Being known for the “right” things was as important as simply being known. This required a certain amount of explaining to the public just what you were up to, and a new phase of public relations—the “explanatory” phase —developed early in the twentieth century (Grunig & Hunt, 1984).

In the scientific world, explanation—often under the rubric of “public information”—is the prevailing model of practice.1 A less flattering term that many people use in referring to explanatory PR of this type is “spin control”—making sure the public knows a lot about the science or the scientists, but only the “right” things the organization or institution thinks the public should know.

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