Friday, 28 January 2011

Scientists, Innovation and the Public:The Case for Risk Communications

Our guest blogger this week is Dr. Andrew Roberts, co-author of "The Lowdown: Dodging the Bullet - Effective Risk Communications"

Scientists are sometimes their own worst enemies: they can produce amazing discoveries, innovative ideas, services and products but their brilliance in the secure corridors of the R&D facility is often not matched by their communication skills.

Scientists often speak a different language and it is when this befuddling approach addresses controversial science that things can go horribly awry. A classic example aired on Nightline with Ted Koppel in the US. A scientist was interviewed on an experimental HIV therapy and proceeded with a highly technical, jargon-riddled “data dump” delivered at a frenetic words per minute count. Koppel’s eyes glazed over and on emerging from his malaise he sternly retorted, “I’m sorry, I did not understand a word that you said and I’m sure my audience didn’t either.”

Technological advancements are often complex and difficult to understand for the average consumer and some are inherently controversial—moral, ethical, environmental, social and economic issues may be raised. As a result these new technologies can generate public fear and mistrust. Add to this freedom of information legislation and the public “right to know,” media savvy activists and NGOs opposing the science, and often hysterical reporting of advancements in the mainstream press and many advances struggle to gain regulatory approval and/or public acceptance. In these situations scientists, who may be excellent communicators with peers in their own field, need to accept the concerns of the public as being real and dismissing these concerns or trying to categorically downplay them with a purely data or fact-driven approach is not going to work. Case studies of communications failures during technology commercialisation delays clearly indicate failings in this area.

This is a key aspect of risk communications, known as Risk Perception Theory. Whatever concerns the public have about a technology, scientists must accept these concerns as real. Perception equals reality. From this point on your aim is to engage your audience in as concise and concrete a manner as possible, and lead them to pertinent information that will enable them to make a more informed decision. Showing you actually care will help you garner trust, an essential element in influencing you audience in controversial situations.

During controversy the rules of communication change, it is not your position, authority, experience or expertise that is going to persuade your audience as it likely would under non-controversial circumstances. Rather, showing empathy and caring for the views of the audience and signalling an intention to engage in dialogue are the keys to building trust. As a first step, risk perception theory guides communicators to adopt a constructive stance, both in terms of verbal and nonverbal communications, which will be a bridging point towards prompting concerned parties to judge controversial technologies from an informed and balanced perspective. - Andrew Roberts, Ph.D

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