A few recent thought-provoking posts in the science blogosphere have argued that scientists should do more public outreach. According to David Dobbs’s recent post in the Guardian, scientists
“need to offer the larger world not just a paper meaningful only to peers, but a friendly account of the work’s relevance and connections to the rest of life. That means getting lucid with letters columns or op-ed pages or science writers or science cafes or schoolchildren or blog readers.”
This conversation is of particular interest because it resonates strongly with Gov2.0 calls for more direct government communication and engagement with the public.
The Science Blogosphere
There is already a well-established and rapidly expanding science blogosphere. Scientists from around the world and in a variety of sectors, roles, and disciplines are blogging about science online, every day. Sometimes they talk among themselves, sometimes with citizen scientists, and sometimes with the general public. But the sector we hear the least from is scientists blogging specifically about publicly funded science; this includes government scientists as well as scientists in academia and industry doing science with public funds.
Brian Romans (Clastic Detritus on Wired) joined in the discussion with:
“What I would like to see is scientists communicating the importance of their contributions at a slightly higher level (perhaps at the level of most larger grant proposals?) through blogs. Then, when the specific papers do come out they can be put into this broader context as examples of new results chipping away at much larger questions.”
I agree with Brian on this point, as well as on the point that not all scientists need to be blogging about every aspect of their research or work.
Government science agencies, however, have an obligation to communicate to the public in plain language about the science being conducted with public funds. Papers and reports are great for their intended audiences, but for key issues, timely matters, and general overviews of government research and its relevance, blogging is the perfect tool . Blogs can provide short, timely summaries that put the science in the context of current events and important issues facing the public. Blog comments also allow the public to ask questions about the science, and the answers are then available online for others to find.
Some of the major issues facing us today – climate change, energy policies, and water resources management, to name a few – are issues where science must inform our decision making. President Obama has even said,
“The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.”
One step toward this trust would be to improve the public’s awareness of, access to, and understanding of the science government is actually doing.
The Internet is an Important Science Resource
One could argue that these are idealistic issues. Yes, in theory, government science blogging would be a great tool. But can agencies justify the expense, given limited budgets and staffing? In other words, if you build it, will they come?
Luckily, there are data for that question! A 2006 Pew Internet survey concluded the following:
- Among adult home broadband users under the age of 30, the internet is the most popular source for science news and information.
- The internet is the source to which people would turn first if they need information on a specific scientific topic.
- 40 million Americans rely on the internet as their primary source for news and information about science.
In addition, the same Pew survey concluded that people who use science resources online are more likely to have positive attitudes about science, irrespective of education and other demographic characteristics.
This survey was published in 2006. Given the increasingly pervasive presence of internet access in our lives, it is reasonable to assume that current internet usage for science information would be at least comparable to the 2006 survey results, if not higher.
If the internet is already a primary source of science information for most internet users, how can the government justify not providing public science information online in a manner that is easily findable and understandable by the public?
But Why Government Blogs?
There are many non-government web sites focused on science. With so many science web sites to pick from, are people really going to visit a government web site? The 2006 Pew study provides information on this question, too: When asked whether they had ever gone to websites where the content is predominantly about science, half (49%) of internet users said they had been to at least one of the following sites:
- 23% of internet users have been to NationalGeographic.com.
- 23% have been to USGS.gov.
- 19% have been to NASA.gov.
- 14% have been to the Smithsonian Institution website.
- 10% have been to Science.com.
- 9% have been to Nature.com.
Look at that list again: Similar percentages of users reported having visited USGS.gov as had visited NationalGeographic.com. Almost one in four of the internet users reported having visited USGS.gov, and almost one in five had visited NASA.gov
A 2010 Pew Internet survey (conducted in 2009) provides us with additional data:
- Fully 82% of internet users (representing 61% of all American adults) looked for information or completed a transaction on a government website in the twelve months preceding the survey.
- 48% of internet users have looked for information about a public policy or issue online with their local, state or federal government.
People are already coming to government web sites and going online for science information. Prioritizing easily findable and understandable public science information will better serve existing users and while bringing in new users searching for reliable and accurate science information online.
What do you think?
What do you think? Should government scientists and agencies be blogging? Should scientists be blogging directly, or should it be left up to the communications folks? Should government scientists also be blogging or guest blogging outside of agencies’ web sites?
Stay tuned! As a follow up to this post, I’ll be rolling out a post with examples of existing government scientists blogging in their official capacity.
Horrigan, John, 2006, The Internet as a Resource for News and Information about Science: Pew Internet & American Life Project. November 20. Accessed on 05 October 2010 at http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2006/The-Internet-as-a-Resource-for-News-and-Information-about-Science.aspx
Smith, Aaron, 2010, Government Online: Pew Internet & American Life Project. April 27. Accessed on 05 October 2010 at http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Government-Online.aspx