The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons about how not to communicate scientific information to a public audience. From those early days of fear and social isolation, when information was rapidly evolving, to the distribution of vaccines months later, public trust (or lack thereof) in science played a pivotal role in our individual and collective responses.
The scientists leading the response stumbled many times when trying to explain our developing understanding of the virus and how to prevent infection. Rochelle Walensky, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently told a Boston University audience that one of the biggest mistakes she and many other scientists made was to assume the American public would understand that, through the scientific process, evidence continually changes. Scientists and academics, who often speak to each other in specialized technical language, were suddenly expected to speak directly to the American public. And few had the training to do that concisely and effectively, which exacerbated growing misinformation and distrust in science.
The pandemic pushed the importance of trust in science and public health to the forefront of our collective consciousness. Everyone who works in science, medicine, and academia has a role to play in cultivating public trust, reducing misinformation, and communicating our work in ways that are meaningful to a broad audience. And, crucially, academic institutions need to do more to encourage this kind of public scholarship.
The question is, how can we do so successfully?
Academics engage in research and scholarship that addresses some of the most urgent challenges of our times, such as the climate crisis, racism, and pandemics. However, the faculty promotion and tenure process values peer-reviewed publications (most of which are inaccessible behind expensive paywalls) over public engagement. It’s little surprise that only 7.2 percent of those reading clinical medicine journal articles work outside of universities.
We have a responsibility to put just as much time and attention into sharing our scholarship in public venues. This means engaging readers from all backgrounds, translating technical jargon into clear, succinct language, and actively anticipating the needs and interests of a real-world audience. But individual scholars cannot carry this weight alone.
Our institutions also need to change expectations for scholarly publication to include communicating research in ways that are engaging, relevant, and accessible to public audiences. Our recent commentary in Translational Behavioral Medicine highlights the ways in which traditional tenure and promotion policies prevent many faculty researchers, clinicians, and educators from engaging in public scholarship. We argue that rebuilding trust in science requires a collective shift in what counts as scholarship. This will only happen if university presidents, deans, department chairs, promotion and tenure committees, budget offices, research funders, peer reviewers, and journal editors are on board.
Our call for academics to translate their work in ways that engage public audiences is not new. Neither is our proposal that academic institutions expand the definition of what counts as scholarship. In 1990, former US education commissioner Ernest L. Boyer urged academic institutions to move toward “a more inclusive view of what it means to be a scholar.” He outlined four types of scholarship—discovery, integration, application, and teaching—as the core, equal functions of academia. He urged higher education leaders to think more creatively about what scholarship entails and adapt promotion and tenure expectations accordingly.
More than three decades later, little has changed. This is not to say that public scholarship is discounted entirely within the academy. Developing a public voice and reputation is often congratulated, but it does not count for much with promotion and tenure committees. In other words, we are mostly talking in an echo chamber with other experts. The price we pay is the limited societal impact of our work.
We can change the status quo by implementing creative initiatives and partnerships.
Institutions of higher education can invest in public scholarship training, ranging from writing op-eds, personal essays, and explainer articles, to producing podcasts, collaborating with journalists, and engaging with social media through Instagram reels, TikTok videos, and other multimedia formats. Organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Behavioral Medicine, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, and The OpEd Project offer communication training to scientists, clinicians, and scholars from all fields.
Boston University hosts several initiatives—including the BU Medical Campus Narrative Writing Program, the Program for Global Health Storytelling (a collaboration between the College of Communication, the School of Public Health, and the Pulitzer Center), Public Health Post, and the Public Scholarship Shop—all of which we help lead. At the national level, we spearheaded science communication trainings and initiatives through the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s Public Engagement Committee.
Governments also have a critical role to play. Several strategies can be implemented to accelerate knowledge dissemination and build an informed and engaged public. These include increasing data and study transparency requirements and establishing timely open access to government-funded research. Investment in clear communication protocols and guidelines around public health is also critical—not only during crises, but also in the context of health promotion and prevention. Embracing such measures demonstrates a commitment to open dialogue and can strengthen the public’s connection with the scientific community.
Successful science and public health communication requires understanding our different audiences and tailoring accordingly. Mandy Cohen, the new CDC director, has identified building trust in science, medicine, and our federal health agencies as a key priority. She used the word “trust” 56 times during a May graduation speech at Guilford College. “Change happens at the pace of trust,” she said. To inspire change we must “think intentionally about trust.”
As we set out to rebuild public trust, we must remember Cohen’s words. Change can only happen at the pace of trust. We must communicate effectively, engage with empathy, and ensure that scientific knowledge reaches everyone, not just experts. Doing so demands a collective effort. The time for change is now.
Jennifer Beard is a Boston University School of Public Health clinical associate professor of global health and leads the Public Health Writing Program. She’s the author of Teaching Public Health Writing (Oxford University Press, 2022), associate editor of Public Health Post, and codirector of the BU Medical Campus Narrative Writing Program.
Monica L. Wang is a Boston University School of Public Health associate professor of community health sciences. She is an expert in science communication and health misinformation and has served as a consultant to one of the largest social media companies in the world on COVID-19 health misinformation management. Her work and insights have been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe, and CBS.
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