Communication and Public Engagement

Through highly accessible meetings, communication workshops, and support for journalists,
AAAS in 2014 helped to make the world of science more accessible to all.

2014 Annual Meeting

Attendees at the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting’s Family Science Days—many of them students in grades K–12—numbered more than 3,300. Going from exhibit to exhibit, the kids extracted DNA from bananas, shot swirls of mist from vortex guns, and experienced entertaining presentations by scientists, including one called “Your Brain on Video Games.”

The two days geared toward young people were just one part of the Chicago meeting, which was the 180th hosted by AAAS. Then AAAS President Phillip A. Sharp (Chair, 2014–15), a Nobel laureate, developed the conference theme: “Meeting Global Challenges: Discovery and Innovation.” In his opening address, Sharp urged scientists to “continue to talk about the link between research and innovation, and economic and global need.” He also referred in a discussion with journalists to the “underappreciated need” for transforming scientific discoveries into valuable, widely accessible products.

The conference program included sessions on new approaches for targeting tumors, the science of mothers’ milk, and the brain in solitary confinement.

The meeting accommodated an attendance of more than 7,000, with 708 newsroom registrants covering news of scientific breakthroughs announced at the event for audiences all over the world.

AAAS Family Science Days

AAAS Family Science Days offered hands-on science fun. [ATLANTIC PHOTO BOSTON]

Communicating About Climate Change

AAAS embarked on a major initiative in 2014 to inform the public and policymakers about the risks of climate change, publishing a clear statement of current climate science in a report, and on a website, entitled “What We Know” (whatweknow.aaas.org).

“We believe we have an obligation to inform the public and policymakers about what science is showing about any issue in modern life, and climate is a particularly pressing one,” said Alan I. Leshner, then AAAS CEO.

The initial release of the report—which was developed by a panel of climate scientists chaired by Nobel laureate Mario Molina; Diana Wall of Colorado State University; and James McCarthy of Harvard—resulted in very extensive media coverage, including several articles in the New York Times. Outreach to Spanish-language media resulted in an additional round of articles in top dailies, and television segments.

AAAS also deployed its Communicating Science coaching team to help scientists and engineers engage with the public on the topic of climate change, organizing workshops for Colorado State University, the National Park Service, the Ecological Society of America, and others.

At an event entitled “The Economic and Financial Risks of a Changing Climate,” AAAS and Resources for the Future convened leading climate and physical scientists and social scientists with expertise in economics and risk. The purpose of the workshop and resulting report was to increase the understanding of climate-change risks in financial and economic terms, in order to improve public policy. (See www.rff.org/ClimateRiskReport.)

Communicating Science (and Science) Globally

Traveling to Shenzhen, China, to hold a multinational, multimedia onsite news conference about research into the avian genome was just one of the many ways in which the AAAS Science press package team brought news of important scientific breakthroughs to a global audience in 2014.

Other initiatives included an onsite media event in Tokyo, which announced news about an unusually bright supernova, and 14 news teleconferences on research published in Science about, for instance, fossils revealing that a dinosaur, Spinosaurus aegyptacus, was aquatic.

The team also held four news teleconferences on research published in Science Translational Medicine, such as the discovery of an oral drug that blocks a measles-like virus.

Top media outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and the LA Times awarded extensive coverage to many of the research breakthroughs published in the Science family of journals, including the international effort to create the avian tree of life, and advances in Ebola therapies and vaccines.

Starting in June 2014, the press package team worked with a web developer to build a password-protected portal on EurekAlert!, where embargoed materials in forthcoming issues of the journal Science Advances could be promoted to nearly 11,000 reporters worldwide.

AAAS Communicating Science

The AAAS Communicating Science program, which has so far served 4,492 participants at 76 workshops and 53 talks across the United States, was expanded in 2014 to help scientists and engineers engage with public audiences about climate change. See www.aaas.org/communicatingscience. [UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND]

EurekAlert! Redesign

Long known as an excellent source of science news, EurekAlert!, the news service of AAAS, made improvements in 2014 in both look and functionality. The redesigned site offers easier navigation and social-media sharing for desktop, tablet, and mobile devices, while continuing to provide the latest science news and multimedia to 11,000 science reporters and 9,000 public information officers.

Following EurekAlert!’s relaunch in November 2014, the number of user sessions, unique users, and page views had approximately doubled by early 2015. The multimedia-friendly design has made news of scientific breakthroughs more engaging.

EurekAlert! also underwent an enhancement of its portal for Japanese media, and 13 prestigious research universities joined the site. The site’s relaunch seemed to boost interest in Multilanguage news: Of the 18 Japanese news releases posted in 2014, 13 were accepted following the site redesign.

Also in November, AAAS announced four winners of EurekAlert! Fellowships for International Science Reporters. This year’s winners, from India and China, were invited to cover the AAAS Annual Meeting alongside other journalists from around the world.

Assessing Attitudes Toward Science

AAAS and The Pew Research Center took an important step toward bridging the communication gap between scientists and the public by assessing where the U.S. public and scientists stand on challenging issues.

The assessment showed strong public support of science and investment in science, but significant differences of opinion between scientists and nonscientists were revealed on key issues, including—

  • 37% of the public said that eating genetically modified foods is generally safe, compared to 88% of AAAS members.
  • 65% of the public believes humans and other living things have evolved over time, compared to 98% of AAAS members.

The survey and report were conducted by Pew with collaboration by the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, which provides scientists with resources for meaningful conversations with the public. “As new information proliferates in areas such as climate science,” said Tiffany Lohwater, director of meetings and public engagement at AAAS, “we also need better information on how scientists and the scientific community can best contribute to productive exchanges with society.”