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July 12, 2010
Science Evidently Doesn't Get It
Sometimes it's not principles that are lacking but the will to practice them successfully. So, it seems, is the case with the communication stance of many American scientists and engineers. Communication principles they appear to be flouting are part of Public Relations 101 and have been around for decades, if not generations.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences ("founded during the American Revolution ...") issued a report on science communication with findings that are astounding. The Academy's report suggests (between the lines, of course) that many scientists and engineers just don't get it, don't see themselves as part of the rest of us, with our common humanity. 

"Scientific issues require an 'anticipatory approach.' A diverse group of stakeholders – research scientists, social scientists, public engagement experts, and skilled communicators – should collaborate early to identify potential scientific controversies and the best method to address resulting public concerns," says one of three key recommendations from the project "Improving the Scientific Community's Understanding of Public Concerns about Science and Technology."

This is news? Rather, it's straight out of the public relations planning process as championed by the Public Relations Society of America ("objectives, strategies tactics and tools"). Don't they accept scientists as members? More likely, scientists and engineers don't apply.

Here's another rocket from the Adademy's news release: "Communications solutions differ significantly (note the italics in the original) depending on whether a scientific issue has been around for a long time (e.g., how to dispose of nuclear waste) or is relatively new (e.g., the spread of personal genetic information). In the case of longstanding controversies, social scientists may have had the opportunity to conduct research on public views that can inform communication strategies. ..."

Ever try listening, guys? It's what ears, and public relations principles, equip us to do. Seriously, rather than take years holding august conferences, the American Academy might champion relational techniques that are basic to learning what people are thinking and what it takes to be understood by them. 



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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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