SSB Chair: National Academies Must Adjust to Communications Revolution

SSB Chair: National Academies Must Adjust to Communications Revolution

Space Studies Board (SSB) Chair Charles Kennel believes the National Academies — the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council (NRC, of which SSB is part) — need to “adjust to the revolution in communications and the new media.”   His comments were part of a workshop held by the SSB in November 2010; a summary of the workshop has just been published.  (Editor’s note:  in the interest of full disclosure, I was the rapporteur for the workshop and have been eagerly awaiting publication of the report for quite some time as it worked its way through the lengthy, but thorough, NRC review, editing and printing process.)

The workshop, Sharing the Adventure with the Public:  The Value and Excitement of “Grand Questions” of Space Science and Exploration,” was held by the SSB to encourage interaction between the space science and engineering communities and professional communicators about how to better engage with the public about NASA activities.

In a keynote address, Miles O’Brien, formerly with CNN and now with PBS’ NewsHour, noted that few major media outlets have science correspondents today and social media tools like Twitter offer new ways for the public to learn about NASA and the space program.  He congratulated the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for pioneering the use of Twitter to portray planetary science missions in the first person as was first done by Veronica McGregor for the Mars Phoenix mission.   While some of the scientists at the workshop already were avid social media users, others were reluctant.    Christie Nicholson of Scientific American later implored everyone to at least try Twitter and Facebook to see if they could help in communicating with the public rather than rejecting them out of hand.

The remainder of the two-and-a-half day workshop consisted of six sessions in which scientists presented papers on five “Grand Questions” identified by the workshop organizers and interacted on panels with professional communicators about how to better engage with the public about NASA’s efforts to answer them.   The tables were turned for the final two sessions, where the professional communicators presented papers and then interacted on panels with scientists. NRC workshops like this are not allowed to present findings or recommendations.  Instead, the report simply describes what transpired, including the individual viewpoints of participants, which varied widely.

Kennel cited the Climategate controversy as “a dramatic lesson” of where scientists did a poor job of communicating with the public.  He said that the climate science community thought it had “discovered the key for communicating with decision-makers” through the “elaborate peer review process” of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  Instead, after hackers released email exchanges among climate scientists questioning each other and a lapse in fact checking regarding snow melt in the Himalayas, there was “a profound loss of confidence in the whole process.”   That showed “how fragile the trust had been,” said Kennel, and the “weaknesses in what the scientists thought was a perfectly wonderful way to communicate.”

The idea for the workshop predated Climategate, and climate was only one topic discussed.  The five “Grand Questions” were:  

  • Understanding the universe-how did it begin and how it is evolving?
  • Are we alone?
  • Understanding the solar system-how did it begin and how is it evolving?
  • The Earth:  Will it remain a hospitable home for humanity in the future?
  • What could the future hold for humans in space?

Joan Johnson-Freese, a political scientist and professor at the Naval War College, and an SSB member, asked a key question — what are scientists really seeking to do in sharing the adventure with the public?   Linda Billings, a research professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University who works with NASA’s astrobiology program stressed that there “is no monolithic public.”   She disagreed with those who believe that better communications might translate into more public support for NASA.  “Public information, public education, public interest, public engagement, public understanding, and public support are all different social processes and phenomena, and one does not necessarily lead to another,” she said.  Billings advocates including the public in decision-making about NASA including “community consultations, citizen advisory boards, and policy dialogues,” while acknowledging that it would be “complicated and time-consuming” and require “power sharing.”

As for the human exploration program at NASA, Marc Kaufman of the Washington Post said he could not imagine a worse scenario than what has transpired over the past 10 years, starting with the Columbia tragedy.  He said that President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, though endorsed by Congress, was not adequately funded, which implies the government was not serious about it.  When the Obama Administration determined there was not enough money it “understandably decided to blow up the whole process,” he said.   SSB member Joan Vernikos added that actions speak louder than words and if they are disparate the result is “disastrous,” which was her assessment of the situation.  Some participants were excited about the prospect of commercial crew and believe that it will help engage the public’s interest; others bemoaned the confusion and discord that followed the Obama Administration’s abrupt cancellation of the Constellation program.

As many of the scientists criticized themselves and their colleagues for poor communications with the public — not only about Climategate, but in other areas, such as why Pluto no longer is a planet — some of the non-scientists gave them a break.   Johnson-Freese said the scientists “have been way, way too hard on themselves….I think you’ve been doing a heck of a job, but we can always get better.”

In his remarks at the end of the workshop, Kennel said that over the last 20 years there has been a revolution in communications, which he believes “has the potential, combined with science, … to produce a second Enlightenment” in this century.  Hence his clarion call to the National Academies to embrace new communications technologies and “adjust to the revolution in communications and the new media” or risk the fate of institutions that “did not react to this revolution and have failed….”

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