Communication and Public Engagement

AAAS multiplies the impact of research by communicating information about scientific advances and promoting scientific knowledge among audiences worldwide. Each year, AAAS hosts the world’s largest general-science meeting, attracting researchers, policymakers, journalists, and families. It shares information on the latest advances with media, provides communication training to scientists and engineers, and promotes collaboration among researchers across disciplines and borders.

2015 Annual Meeting

Advances in imaging technology and information analysis are increasing the speed of scientific discovery, from light-activated proteins that make neural pathways visible, to 3-D printing of fossil artifacts that facilitate shared exploration of evolutionary advances. These and many other developments were explored in the public lectures and technical sessions during the 181st AAAS Annual Meeting, organized around the theme, “Innovation, Information, and Imaging.”

Visitors at the 2015 Family Science Days explored scientific phenomena and met a diverse range of scientists and engineers, from anthropologists to zoologists. [BOSTON ATLANTIC PHOTO-BOSTON]

Held for the first time in San Jose, California, the 12-16 February meeting drew more than 9,800 attendees, including researchers, journalists, and students. AAAS’s Family Science Days, two days of free hands-on activities and demonstrations for children and adults, attracted more than 5,000 people.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology geneticist and then AAAS President Gerald Fink described during his presidential address how human chromosomes were initially miscounted when researchers first viewed their fuzzy outlines under a microscope. Improved imaging revealed their actual number as well as the small defects that can lead to disease. Later, geneticists learned that only 2% of genes are actively used to make proteins, while the function of the other 98% remains a mystery, he said.

“That new vision is exciting because it reveals an unknown world that stimulates our curiosity and spawns new fields,” Fink said. “But it’s also threatening because a new picture can destroy our past understanding of our universe, a universe we thought we understood only yesterday.”

50 Years of Communicating About Climate Change

In a continuation of the “What We Know” climate-change communication series launched in 2014 (whatweknow.aaas.org), AAAS and the Carnegie Institution for Science organized a scientific symposium marking the 50th anniversary of the first official warning about climate change to a U.S. president. More than a dozen prominent scientists discussed climate-change impacts, including habitat loss and increased extreme-weather events, and how to best respond to, and communicate about these challenges.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisors issued a report saying that the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels would “almost certainly cause significant changes” to the environment. By 1990, “We really knew enough scientifically to justify the kinds of actions that we’re only now talking about today 25 years later,” said John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology.

Following the symposium, supported by the American Meteorological Society and the Linden Trust for Conservation, AAAS organized a briefing for legislators in the U.S. Capitol Senate Visitors Center, in conjunction with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). AAAS also provided live video of the symposium, which celebrated the launch of the Alan I. Leshner Leadership Institute. The first 15 Leshner fellows are all climate scientists and communicators.


CARLA SCHAEFFER/AAAS

AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards

The 2015 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards marked the first time in the program’s 70-year history that entries were accepted from journalists around the world. Almost 40% of all submissions were from international reporters, with a comparable number of international winners. The Kavli Foundation made the change possible by doubling the endowment that funds the awards program.

Independent panels of science journalists selected the two best examples of science reporting for a general audience in eight categories. Winning stories were published or broadcast by The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, PBS NewsHour, Le Monde, Nature, Minnesota Public Radio, and other media outlets. The prizes, $5,000 for a gold award, and $3,500 for a silver award, were given out at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.

Communication Tools for Scientists & Engineers

AAAS is providing tools for scientists and engineers who want to more effectively communicate about their research and its implications. More than 1,500 of them were trained and given a chance to practice, during AAAS Communicating Science workshops held in 2015.

Staff in the Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology organized 33 workshops and 17 invited talks, which were held at universities and government agencies, and at business and professional meetings. Workshop leaders taught participants to use different communication tools to engage a variety of audiences, including the public, reporters, and policymakers. They then had opportunities to refine their messages and build confidence through small-group discussions and practice.

The Center also organized two communication seminars during the 2015 Annual Meeting that drew about 300 attendees. During “Scientists Communicating Challenging Issues,” presenters offered social science research about why some scientific issues, like climate change, are prone to controversy, and how scientists can navigate those tensions. A second workshop, entitled “Public Engagement for Scientists: Realities, Risks, and Rewards,” also drew on research to explore the methods and possible results of public outreach.

The Communicating Science program has reached more than 6,700 scientists and engineers since it was founded in 2008.

EurekAlert! Reaches Out Worldwide

EurekAlert!, the AAAS-operated science news service, continued to expand its international reach in 2015. It saw a dramatic increase in news releases from Japanese universities and science institutions after EurekAlert! staff visited several institutions in Japan. The staff also promoted an updated English-Japanese website. Afterward, Japanese institutions used the site to post four times more often than in 2014, and visits to the bilingual site more than quadrupled.

EurekAlert! also offered its first international training for public information officers, in collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The training, held in Chengdu, China, helped communicators practice linking their news to issues of interest to international reporters and audiences.

The EurekAlert! service provides free access to news about research in science, health, medicine, and technology to about 12,000 journalists worldwide.

CASE workshop

In October, Brian Lin of EurekAlert! at AAAS (standing) worked with public information officers who tried their hands at writing news headlines, at the first EurekAlert! seminar held in China. [CHINESE ACADEMY OF SCIENCES]

AAAS Colloquium Series Takes Off

As part of the association’s ongoing Transformation Initiative, AAAS launched a new Colloquium Series, organized by staff volunteers, to provide a forum for exploring topics relevant to science and society. Initial Colloquium Series lectures, intended to engage staff, AAAS members, and the public, featured topics ranging from the state of Iranian science—the focus of a Science news feature by journalist Richard Stone—and the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq, to U.S. science policy challenges and opportunities, and more.

Trellis: Increasing Research Collaborations

Research efforts increasingly cross disciplines, and they rely upon collaborations between institutions and across international boundaries. Some 80% of AAAS members surveyed said they wanted better ways to connect with other scientists online. In response, AAAS launched an online communication and networking platform called Trellis to promote discussions and research collaborations. A beta version of the website went live in December 2014, and added 5,700 users in 2015.

AAAS will also begin training community managers—people who can help facilitate collaborations between researchers within and outside their fields using platforms such as Trellis. Using a $773,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the AAAS Community Engagement Program will begin a one-year pilot program to train as many as 18 fellows in 2017.