How Science Communication Can Help Build Public Support for Science Funding

Photo by Tom Arthur.
Photo by Tom Arthur.

Any scientist can tell you that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get research grants, which are the lifeblood of research programs at universities and other institutions. But there are things that can be done to boost public support for research funding, and they all involve science communication.

As a percentage of gross domestic product, research and development funding stayed relatively constant (and even increased slightly) in the United States and European Union between 1995 and 2011 (according to this chart from the American Association for the Advancement of Science).

But, anecdotally, many scientists feel that things have actually been getting worse. And there are plenty of news stories (like this one) that drive the point home. This post from Johnna Roose reflects the position of many in the research community that the U.S. needs to significantly increase its investment in research (and she supports her argument with plenty of facts and figures).

And researchers aren’t alone. For example, a 2011 report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (a think tank) argued for more federal R&D funding, noting that “in 2008 the United States ranked 22nd out of 30 countries in government-funded university research.”

This is a big deal for both universities and the state of science in the U.S. It’s a big deal to universities because, as the Association of American Universities (AAU) reported in 2011, the federal government supports about 60 percent of the research conducted at universities. It’s a big deal to the state of science in the U.S. because, in the AAU’s words: “While U.S. universities perform just 13 percent of total national R&D, they perform 31 percent of the nation’s total research — basic and applied — and 56 percent of the nation’s basic research.”

Things may get better in the next budget year, but that’s not guaranteed. And even the rosiest scenarios wouldn’t promise major boosts to research funding.

By now you may be wondering where science communications comes into this. Good question.

Building Public Support

Photo credit: Crnjanski (click for more information)

To protect public funding for research at the state and federal level – much less increase that funding – you need to have broad public support. Public support can put pressure on lawmakers to recognize the importance of research funding and, in turn, increase the amount of money budgeted and appropriated for science and technology research.

A paper published last month in Science and Public Policy takes a look at which factors are most likely to predict public support for government funding of science and technology research. The paper, “Citizens’ support for government spending on science and technology,” was published online Dec. 23 and authored by Luis Sanz-Menéndez, Gregg G. Van Ryzin and Eloisa del Pino.

The major qualifier here is that the work was done using data from a Spanish survey, so there are, perforce, questions about its applicability in the U.S. or E.U. However, I think the findings are fairly interesting, so let’s look at them.

The researchers used a number of models and approaches to crunching the numbers, but there were several things which consistently came out as good predictors of willingness to support public research funding.

First, people who “express an explicit interest in science” are “much more likely to choose [science and technology] as a preferred area for government spending.” No surprise there, really.

Second, those who score higher on a 10-item battery of science knowledge questions are more likely to support research spending. That’s not too surprising either.

Third, “those who believe that scientists are motivated primarily by altruistic purposes” are more likely to support government funding for research. This, too, makes sense.

One thing worth noting here is that all three of these variables are influenced by science communication efforts.

Using This Information

Science outside
Photo credit: WikiXray. Click for more information.

People can’t be interested in something unless they’ve heard of it. Increased efforts to let the public know about research activities and outcomes are essential to increasing public interest in science. Scientists may be doing wonderful work and discovering fascinating things, but most people won’t know about it unless the work is discussed in places outside of peer-reviewed literature and professional conferences.

I know that most scientists don’t have a ton of free time, and that outreach isn’t for everyone. But finding the time (or making the time) to engage in science communication is important. And research institutions (including, or especially, universities) need to be more engaged in facilitating the science communication efforts of researchers who do want to participate in science communication efforts. Let me be clear: researchers who don’t want to take part in outreach activities can still make a meaningful difference by supporting their colleagues who do take part. I’ll be even more clear: If you are critical of scientists for choosing to communicate with the public, you are part of the funding problem.

There is evidence that outreach efforts make a significant difference in public attitudes, particularly when scientists take an active role. For example, last year I wrote about a zoo study showing that the mere presence of a scientist at work made people more willing to learn about science – and that people then learned more. I also wrote about findings showing that people at science festivals “who intermingled with STEM practitioners…had more fun, were more interested, and learned more than attendees who did not interact with a scientist.”

And this doesn’t have to be a selfless sacrifice for the greater good of the science community. Science outreach efforts could actually be professionally advantageous (though not always).

Heck, some scientists might even enjoy it.

Note: This post is one of an occasional series of posts about why science communication is important. You can find others in the series here.


4 thoughts on “How Science Communication Can Help Build Public Support for Science Funding

  1. David Funder

    How about the way we teach science? How many students finish their required college science courses eager to learn more? Then they get elected to Congress.


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