Research Shows How to Advance Public Understanding of Science

Originally published by the Rita Allen Foundation.

In a time marked by scientific discovery and technological advancement, a new report identifies a promising area for greater investment by science philanthropies: communication.

The report, Identifying Best Practices for Communications Workforce at Science Philanthropies, was developed through a collaboration by the Rita AllenAlbert and Mary Lasker, and John Templeton Foundations to identify challenges and opportunities in science philanthropy communications. Philanthropy’s contributions are critical to advancing scientific research, providing essential support for new ideas and major initiatives. However, the report finds, science philanthropies can amplify their impact considerably by investing more purposefully in communications as a central part of their strategy.

Elizabeth Good Christopherson, President and CEO of the Rita Allen Foundation, Claire Pomeroy, President of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, and Heather Templeton Dill, President of the John Templeton Foundation, have written a joint op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy highlighting takeaways from the report for philanthropic leaders.

“Advancing the public’s understanding of science and its role in society, and ensuring that the important work being conducted by our grantees and their colleagues informs broader public debate, is a collective responsibility,” they write. “Scientists and their supporters must learn to have more meaningful conversations—rooted in listening—with a wide range of people, including parents, patients, local officials, nonprofit executives, business owners, and people from communities that have historically been excluded from decision-making about science.”

Two scholars of science communication, Anthony Dudo of the University of Texas at Austin and John Besley of Michigan State University, conducted interviews with 19 professionals working at U.S.-based science philanthropies. The insights captured from these interviews point to a growing consensus that, in today’s rapidly changing scientific and cultural environments, communications must be central to any philanthropic strategy. However, current practice lags in involving communications in every step of philanthropic efforts, beginning in the earliest design stages.

The report’s recommendations to advance effective communications as part of science philanthropy include:

  • Consider communications goals, audiences, and tactics from the beginning of philanthropic initiatives and throughout their implementation.
  • Diversify communications teams to provide a wider range of insights and experiences and reach broader audiences.
  • Increase shared learning and partnerships, including with science communications trainers and social scientists.
  • Prioritize communications-centered professional development to respond to rapidly changing information environments.

The report notes that communications professionals of all levels of experience value connecting with colleagues from other foundations to share learning and align efforts, with the Communications Network and Science Philanthropy Alliancehighlighted as providing important opportunities for interaction.