NCDC238: Integrating Team Science into Science Communication
(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)
NCDC238: Integrating Team Science into Science Communication
Duration: 04/20/2023 to 09/30/2025
Statement of Issues and Justification
(1) The nature and significance of the issue(s) for which multistate coordination is proposed
McDaniel et al. (2018) said “collaborations among researchers and across disciplinary, organizational, and cultural boundaries are vital to address increasingly complex challenges and opportunities in science and society” (p.1). However, the call for these collaborations has outpaced the policies, structure, cultures, and processes to support functional team science (McDaniel et al., 2018). We are proposing in this multi-state research activity to create a strategic structure and culture that prepares and enables AFNR science communication faculty to provide science communication research and expertise to team science projects. By providing needed expertise and research to interdisciplinary teams, while also putting a mechanism in place to elevate the communication and engagement practices of all scientists, there will be an increase in dissemination and impact of scientific progress, thus leading to an increase in science literacy as well.
Science literacy in the United States has been a growing concern in recent years due to the spread of misinformation (Howell & Brossard, 2021) and Americans’ declining trust in higher education (Fingerhut, 2017). This apparent decline in science literacy has made it challenging for members of the public to make informed decisions related to science that can impact personal health, community vitality, and local and national policies (Miller, 2010; Takahashi & Tandoc, 2016). Science communication, which is communication from science experts about science to non-scientists (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008; Pearson, 2001), can help diminish the impact of science misinformation while strengthening trust between the public and scientists at universities. By addressing these issues, the public and key stakeholder groups can then engage in decision-making supported by science and research opposed to being motivated by feelings, skepticism, and misinformation.
The public has consistently indicated that scientists are their most trusted sources of information when it comes to science (Brewer & Ley, 2012). However, scientists have been accused of not actually understanding the needs of their stakeholders (Besley & Tanner, 2011; Weerts & Sandmann, 2010) and prioritizing research productivity over outreach activities (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004). Even when scientists do engage in communication and outreach, they often converse with other researchers at conferences or highly motivated stakeholders who follow them on Twitter or read their blogs (Heleta, 2017; Ruth et al., 2019). Communicating within these homogenous networks creates echo chambers, which limits the ability to communicate scientific information with diverse audiences (Ruth et al., 2019).
This limited approach to science communication also reflects the Deficit Model, which relies on one-way communication with the purpose of distributing knowledge to stakeholders. While this approach is rooted in good intentions, its impact is limited compared to two-way communication between scientists and stakeholders. Implementing two-way communication allows mutual knowledge-building and learning, which can increase public trust in science, positively inform science policy, and assist researchers in contributing to meaningful changes in society (Hopfensperger et al., 2021). One of the reasons university faculty members struggle to engage in effective, two-way science communication is simply a lack of proper training, structure, or support in this area (Ruth et al., 2020). Agricultural, food, and natural resource (AFNR) scientists can partner with science communication scholars to address these issues and develop impactful communication and engagement strategies to promote scientific understanding and acceptance (Ruth et al., 2020). This interdisciplinary team approach to research will be necessary for future advancements in AFRN sciences (NAS, 2018).
Interdisciplinary Team Science Projects
Grant funding agencies have identified the need for AFNR scientists to effectively communicate and disseminate their work to key stakeholder groups, and there has been a push in recent years to incentivize collaboration across AFNR disciplines to promote interdisciplinary team research (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NAS], 2018). However, faculty with expertise in science communication and outreach may not be invited to participate in the development of the proposals until most of the work has been completed – treated almost as if they are an afterthought (Gunn et al., 2022). This approach to collaboration can be ineffective, and there is a need to strengthen the symbiotic relationship between researchers across the disciplines of AFNR sciences (McDaniel et al., 2018). Scholarly collaboration and integration lead to heightened productivity and scientific impact when scholars work across disciplinary, geographic, and boundaries to form teams (McDaniel et al., 2018).
A team science approach, when realized to its full potential, “holds great promise for accelerating scientific progress” (McDaniel et al., 2018, p. 533). Team science is defined broadly as, “scientific collaboration, i.e., research conducted by more than one individual in an interdependent fashion,” (National Research Council, 2015, p. 2). Such teams, which differ in membership size, vary in their approach to facilitating collaboration which may include unidisciplinary, multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research (National Research Council, 2015). Interdisciplinary research is “information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or field of research practice” (NAS, 2015, p. 26). This approach requires integration and synthesis of the team members’ individual contributions to address a complex problem. Therefore, for the purpose of this multi-state project, our approach is integrating science communication interdisciplinary team science.
When team science projects in the AFNR sciences include science communication scholars early in the process of developing research proposals and plans, an effective feedback loop to improve the quality and impact of the research can emerge (Hopfensperger et al., 2021). This feedback loop can be effective because not only does science communication help facilitate the adoption and application of research outcomes, but the two-way communication can also allow stakeholders to provide feedback, identify problems, and describe barriers to adoption (Hopfensperger et al., 2021). By engaging in two-way communication throughout the entirety of research programs, team science groups can ensure their work is utilized and increase the overall impact of their findings. Additionally, partnering with science communication scholars can lead to increased public support for science, as well as additional funding opportunities (Hopfensperger et al., 2021).
Over the last 10 years, AFNR science communicators have been called on to participate in interdisciplinary team science projects, at varying levels of success. However, the consensus among our experiences is that our roles in team science projects are often misunderstood, underappreciated, and unable to reach their full potential. During one of these interdisciplinary team science projects, AFNR science communicators developed a model for science communication that can be adapted to other team science projects to increase the impact. This model serves as the foundation of our multi-state project and a key piece to our strategy for more successfully integrating science communication into team science.
Decision-Making Framework in AFNR
The Decision-Making Model for Agricultural and Natural Resources (ANR) Science and Technology (Ruth et al., 2018) is one framework that science communication scholars can use to help increase the impact of team science projects in AFNR. This framework was developed based on concepts from the Diffusion of Innovations (Rogers, 2003), Spiral of Silence (Noelle-Neumann, 1974), and the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM; Petty et al., 2009). The model proposes that people’s decision to accept or reject ANR science and technology is largely guided by how they perceive the characteristics of the ANR science and technology (observability, complexity, compatibility, relative advantage, and trialability) and how they perceive the social environment surrounding the science (perceptions of others’ attitudes, perceived future trends in attitudes, and willingness to expose their own attitudes). Personal characteristics, like age, gender, and race/ethnicity, can inform these perceptions, but initial attitudes are not necessarily everlasting.
Persuasive communication can change attitudes and in turn either acceptance or rejection of science and technology. However, not all persuasive communication is created equal, and people do not have the time to give equal consideration to every piece of communication they see. When communication elicits high levels of elaboration because the receiver is motivated and able to engage in the content, central processing occurs, which leads to lasting changes in attitude that are predictive of behaviors. When people are not motivated or able to thoughtfully consider the communication, they engage in peripheral processing and rely on peripheral cues, like sources and imagery, to inform attitude. These changes in attitude are often not long-lasting nor are they predictive of behavior. This peripheral processing route is also what is most identified in AFNR science communication research.
Science communication scholars are uniquely qualified to apply this decision-making model to team science research projects. If science communication scholars can identify how stakeholders perceive the science/technology in the research and understand the social environment around discussing the topic, they can more effectively develop and test messages to elicit high levels of elaboration. By understanding which messages will be most effective for specific audiences when communicating about AFNR science and technology, science communication scholars help increase the overall success of the team science projects. Additionally, by engaging key stakeholders throughout the research process and identifying how they perceive innovation characteristics of the science or technology, science communication scholars can work with AFNR scientists to ensure the final product will be more easily adopted by the end user.
Framework for Enhancing Science Communication Expertise
While science communication scholars may be able to utilize the previously described decision-making model to guide their research, there is not a clear framework to help these scholars collaborate with other AFNR researchers in a meaningful way (Gunn et al., 2022). Organizations and programs such as the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (2016), provide recommendations and steps to move interdisciplinary teams through an integrated research process, but not distinct guidelines for how science communication can or should be integrated into the research planning and execution process. There is a need to understand the best practices for science communication scholars to offer their expertise to these team science groups and ensure their skillset is being appropriately applied. Developing this framework to engage science communication scholars in team research projects can lead to increased numbers of successfully funded projects, enhanced science communication activities, and improved impacts of team science projects due to increased adoption and acceptance of AFNR science and technology.
Unique Contribution of this multi-state project
Many projects, including other multi-state projects, focus on agricultural literacy (W3006) or efforts to advance agricultural communication (S_Temp1095). However, to the best of our knowledge, no work has been done to strategically integrate team science into science communication research. While these projects may have similar interest in increasing science or ANFR literacy and awareness, our project differs in approach by focusing on doing so at the beginning stages of interdisciplinary team research and through developing a strategy for our AFNR science communication discipline to intentionally engage, contribute fully, and evaluate the success of our roles in team science.
(2) How the proposed activity addresses national and/or regional priorities
The USDA (2019) Science Blueprint for 2020-2025 outlines five thematic program areas intended to frame and drive agricultural science initiatives. Our objectives align closely with Ag Science Policy Leadership, a theme focused on the human dimensions of scientific advancements in agriculture. This theme highlights the development of strategic communication for world decision makers, building transdisciplinary teams, and evaluating the social impacts of new technologies, all of which align well with our proposed project (USDA, 2019). Furthermore, within the USDA (2019) blueprint, public perception of science is cited as a current interdisciplinary movement in agriculture in need of attention to enhance trust in science while reducing political polarization of scientific discoveries.
Our objectives also align with initiatives in the broader scientific community, including the National Academy of Sciences (2019) whose 2020-2025 strategic plan prioritizes science communication as one of three major goals.
Goal 2: Improve public understanding and appreciation of science
2a. Expand new, diverse, and effective channels of communication
2b. Promote the understanding of science
2c. Build an understanding of and confidence in science and the scientific method.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018) identified a convergent approach is needed to increase the capacity of food and agricultural science to solve complex problems. The breakthrough opportunity is, “a systems approach to understand the nature of interactions among the different elements of the food and agricultural system can be leveraged to increase overall system efficiency, resilience, and sustainability” (para. 5).
By creating a strategic structure and culture that prepares and enables AFNR science communication faculty to provide science communication research and expertise to team science projects we will be contributing to the national priorities discussed above. Our project will provide needed expertise and research to interdisciplinary teams, while also putting a mechanism in place to elevate the communication and engagement practices of all scientists. These efforts will result in an increase in dissemination and impact of scientific progress, thus leading to an increase in science literacy and decision making as well.
The objective of NCDC238 is to convene a writing team to prepare a full, five-year multistate committee in NIMSS.