Strategic Science Communication on Environmental Issues

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A growing number of researchers across social science fields are investigating
the factors that influence public perceptions of climate change and other environmental issues, evaluating the implications for effective outreach on the part of scientists. Much of this research has conceptualized communication as a two-way iterative dialogue involving experts, the public, and stakeholders. By way of formal contexts such as meetings and consultation exercises, in this “dialogic” approach, members of the public are invited to be active participants in deciding what is discussed, contributing to the production of expert knowledge and/or the formulation of policy options and decisions (Nisbet & Markowitz, 2015; Dietz & Stern, 2008). A second but distinct area of research has examined “informal learning” approaches to communication across contexts such as science museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums (Bell et al., 2009).

Over the past decade, there has emerged a third, “strategic” approach to science
communication. In this line of research, social scientists examine the social and political context within which science communication and outreach takes place, identifying the factors that influence public perceptions and behavior. Drawing on this understanding, they empirically test specific messages or communication strategies that can be used by scientists and practitioners (Fischhoff & Scheufele, 2013). Research often focuses on attaining specific outcomes such as gaining public attention and generating concern about a problem; maintaining trust and overcoming cognitive biases; responding effectively to false and misleading (mis)information; and/or encouraging the public to discuss an issue and to become involved in addressing a problem.

Yet, to date, few integrated reviews of this rapidly growing field of strategic
science communication research exist that clearly emphasize the practical implications for scientists and their organizations. This lack of integration persists despite the fact that many of the studies in this area have the potential to directly inform and enhance the communication and outreach activities of the scientific community. To address this gap, focusing on the U.S. context, we review four evidence-based approaches that are particularly relevant for scientists seeking to communicate with the public about climate change and other potentially contentious environmental issues. These multi-faceted strategies relate to the goals of maintaining trust in politicized debates; countering misinformation and false beliefs; tailoring information to audiences; and promoting informal conversations about environmental problems. Our review is written in a style intended to be accessible and relevant to scientists, communication practitioners, and other non-specialists.

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