Dispelling the myths

Despite the considerable evidence that the most commonly employed science communication and educational outreach approaches designed to raise awareness have little or no effect on attitudes, perceptions and behavior, they remain central to most knowledge transfer and dissemination plans in grant proposals.

Why is so much invested in approaches to environmental education and science communication that are ineffective without stakeholder engagement?

Part of the reason may be that those writing the proposal are not aware of the benefits of stakeholder engagement and participatory research. Part may be a lack of familiarity with to concepts underlying participation and engagement, and the tools, techniques and methods. And part of the reason is linked a number of false assumptions which many of us have about how knowledge is acquired and decisions are made. The intention of this page is to capture these, and shed light on their influence.

Time for a quiz!

t%20or%20f%20stamp.jpg Many involved in scientific research feel they are not responsible for ensuring broader societal impact and knowledge transfer.

TRUE! In fact, the majority of scientists report that their responsibilities (and what they are evaluated on) end after their data are validated and the results are published in peer-reviewed journals. Outside of academic teaching, only a minority have responsibilities related to knowledge transfer.

t%20or%20f%20corkboard.jpg Science publications that explain how research results can be used typically enable their use.

FALSE! Science papers that explain how research results can be used rarely enable their use. This approach is called the "Loading Dock" Model of Knowledge Transfer, which puts the entire onus of responsibility for knowledge transfer on purported end-users (managers, policy makers, land users and other stakeholders).

t%20or%20f%20question%20marks.jpg Scientists generally receive very little reward for work beyond validating their research results, and particularly early in their careers, investing time ensuring their research gets used is considered professionally risky.

TRUE! Generally speaking, relatively few scientists pursue knowledge transfer beyond peer-reviewed publications when they perceive a professional risk in investing time outside of their research…and few institutions dedicated to research reward anything else.

t%20or%20f%20sphere.jpg Science reduces complexity in a way that is conducive to decision making.

FALSE! Science does reduces complexity, but not in a way that is conducive to
decision making. It is important to consider how different science and decision making really are:

  • Science is reductionist and/or frequentist.
    • Researchers strive to define or delineate the subject of interest, estimate an impact or predict a probable outcome.
    • Scientist try to find answers to questions.
  • Decision making is synthetic.
    • Decision makers often must act with whatever information is available, often drawing from many (and potentially incommensurate) sources.
    • Decision makers decide what to do.

The good news is there are ways to solve this! There are numerous methods for integrating indicators, data, and the judgments of individual stakeholders, and groups of stakeholders.

t%20or%20f%20inlay.jpg There is a clear line between “local” and “scientific” knowledge.

FALSE! Both "local" and "scientific" knowledge are regularly used in combination. In many contexts, scientific assessment and monitoring would not be possible without local participation and local knowledge.

t%20or%20f%20redgreen.jpg New ideas / products / technologies spread primarily through good communication and marketing.

FALSE! Ideas/products/technologies spread among and through people.

  • Many scientists assume ideas spread based on the message, through good advertising or extensive and effective media coverage ( mass marketing )
  • But actually successful marketing is driven by people. Ideas spread among people ( marketing that targets agents of change ).
  • In other words, a good message and effective communication is a good start, but engaging the right people at the right time is essential.
t%20or%20f%20stickfigure.png There is an overwhelming lack of interest in the Earth and environmental sciences, which impacts the potential impact of related scientific discovery.

FALSE! There are plenty of people who are interested in the Earth and environmental sciences. For example, according to the 2008 Eurobarometer, only a minority of young people (15-25 yrs old) report an interest in science, yet 40% expressed interest in the Earth and the environment and new inventions and technologies.

t%20or%20f%20chalkboard.jpg People were much more scientifically literate in the past.

FALSE! Though arguably starting from low levels, scientific literacy is actually on the rise, however it is failing to keep pace with an increasingly science and technology driven – and dependent – society.

t%20or%20f%20fact.png The key to learning is a skilled and entertaining teacher.

ONLY PARTIALLY TRUE! While great teachers make a big difference, and therefore the assumption is that learning results from teacher-centered approaches. But the most effective approaches are actually learner-centered, meaning the key to learning is a great facilitator.

t%20or%20f%20cloud.jpg Most learning takes place inside the classroom.

FALSE! And it is not even close – most learning takes place outside the classroom. And that learning, which is termed informal learning, is voluntary, self-motivated, self-controlled and personally guided by an individual's needs and interests. Thus it is not only about transmitting the right message; it is about creating opportunities to learn.

t%20or%20f%20greenred.png Scientists must teach stakeholders.

FALSE! Scientists are also stakeholders, and stakeholders learn from each other.

  • Learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context. It can occur purely through observation even in the absence of direct reinforcement.
  • Mutual/Social learning is participating with others to make sense out of new ideas.
  • With the teacher-as-learner , the process can result in the co-production of knowledge.
t%20or%20f%20notf.png Social networks are for personal use.

FALSE! Social networks are for much more than personal use, and it is where more and more people get their information.

t%20or%20f%20chalk.jpg Participation inevitably leads to the dominance of special interests that may not embrace good science.

FALSE! It is certainly possible, but it is certainly not inevitable. If participation is part of the strategy, all interests should be represented. How the process is structured & conducted ultimately determines the power relationships. Participatory researchers have plenty of tools to attempt to manage dominance and power that is part of any process. There are also methods that help ensure a comprehensive and representative mix of stakeholders. This is a case of "use the right tool for the job"!

Perhaps the most important myths that require attention are associated with knowledge and the motivation to gain knowledge.

Question 1 Which of these is a strong predictor of one’s knowledge and/or motivation to gain knowledge on a topic?
Just%20A.jpg ** Subjective norms (social pressure, social trends)**
Just%20B.jpg Interests (personal relevance)
Question 2 Which of these two hypotheses forms the basis for the vast majority of “outreach” / “dissemination” / “knowledge transfer” strategies?
Just%20A.jpg ** Subjective norms (social pressure, social trends)**
Just%20B.jpg Interests (personal relevance)
Question 3 What is the first thing that should be done in events targeting stakeholders?
Just%20A.jpg Carefully explain the scientific topic/idea/technology you are introducing.
Just%20B.jpg Ask the stakeholders about their experiences.

Most people assume the answer to all three of these questions is "A". But actually knowledge and the motivation to gain knowledge both correlate with interests (personal relevance), and thus. And this is the core of why most "outreach" / "dissemination" / "knowledge transfer" strategies fail. Investing in mass-audience media, no matter how professional and polished, without a fully integrated stakeholder engagement program that helps define the content of the science communication will have limited or no impact. And if personal relevance is the key to motivating the acquisition of knowledge, then all processes must start with questions – if not, the solutions are already on the table, and the chances of generating interest fall dramatically.

Personal relevance matters.

  • There is both a theoretical and empirical basis for the role of personal relevance in determining whether or not an individual will respond to a stimulus.
  • Whether or not a stakeholder perceives what is being presented as personally relevant is an essential characteristic of involvement.
  • Involvement is the activity between interest and action.
  • Involvement is exactly what we are looking for!

To put this another way…

  • If you tell someone what your science/innovation is before you ask them questions about their interests , the product you are selling is yours. And it will remain forever yours!
  • If you ask them all about their farm, their ranch, their soils, their realities, and then you suggest you may have some ideas, co-development of the idea/product you are introducing begins.

These assumptions, taken in aggregate, lead to a perception of knowledge transfer that was elegantly captured by Groffman et al. (2010), who describe the typical approach as the "Deficit Model" (where the key to success is perceived to be making up a deficit in knowledge among stakeholders), and the alternative approach as the "Engagement Model". Here is how things look when these are compared side by side:

Groffman et al. 2010. Restarting the conversation: challenges at the interface between ecology and society. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8(6):284–291.

The Deficit Model The Engagement Model
Hypothesis: knowledge acquisition is motivated by subjective norms (social pressure, social trends) Hypothesis: knowledge acquisition is motivated by interests (personal relevance)
Method: awareness raising / outreach Method: engagement / outreach AND inreach)
Process: supply driven designed to remedy a perceived deficit in knowledge Process: demand driven processes designed to help scientists engage stakeholders

Proposed solution to societal inaction

The Deficit Model: The Engagement Model:
Science literacy Values, trust, identity, and social networks

Communication is a process of…

The Deficit Model: The Engagement Model:
…transmission, which means "popularizing" and "simplifying" technical information that flows from experts to the public …dialogue and the two-way exchange of perspectives; both the public and experts learn from this process

The definition of "reaching the public"

The Deficit Model: The Engagement Model:
Increasing the amount and technical accuracy of science news coverage (popular press, public service messages, television programming) Reframing a complex issue around relevant and familiar dimensions (community forums, multi-stakeholder platforms, interactive and social media)

Scientists and their organizations…

The Deficit Model: The Engagement Model:
…are under attack in society; any communication failures are blamed on public ignorance, the media, or "politicization" and "anti-science" …hold almost unrivaled trust, authority, and respect in society; scientists need to use this communication capital effectively and wisely

Question 4 Who should participate in events targeting stakeholders?
Just%20A.jpg As many stakeholders as can reached.
Just%20B.jpg It depends.

It depends!

  • Where you + the stakeholders you hope to reach are in the idea/technology adoption cycle.
  • Where are you + the stakeholders + the land/resources in question are relative to achieving desired outcomes.
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