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Stanford University School of Medicine

Science communication in the current political climate: A Q&A

hayden_newsWhen I was a reporter before the 2008 recession, I was surrounded by doom-and-gloom pronouncements about the future of journalism. With newspapers folding, consolidating and slashing staff, and broadcast stations focusing on crime, it was easy to think that journalism as a whole was on its way out. And science coverage would be among the first to disappear.

The recent election — characterized by the absence of discussions about science — only cemented those beliefs. Or did they?

In a recent Stanford News Q&A, writer Taylor Kubota pressed Thomas Hayden, director of Stanford's environmental communication, to defend science journalism's relevance. He more than rose to the occasion, using climate change as an example:

Science journalism and science communication have actually done a remarkable job of connecting the public directly to the most complex, rapid period of scientific advance in history. It isn’t a failure of communication that some powerful, high-profile people still claim to doubt the reality of climate science – it’s a remarkable success that after 30 years of organized pushback and misinformation against climate science, the clear majority of Americans still recognizes the reality of something they can’t really see and that has effects distributed around the world, not necessarily concentrated in our own neighborhoods.

The current political uncertainty makes "brave, forthright science journalism and communication more important than ever," Hayden said.

Universities and scientists also need to be involved to ensure accurate science is reaching the public, he said:

Scientists and institutions of science have everything to gain by continuing to be strong allies for science communication. That means seeking more opportunities for communication and outreach themselves, including working with professional communicators to boost their effectiveness. And it means recognizing the crucial role that robust, independent science journalism has to play in making sure science has its proper place at the table – even when the questions are tough or the stories uncomfortable.

The Q&A is refreshingly free of disheartening prognostication. "I feel a lot of optimism about what’s happening now, and determination to help keep that momentum growing," Hayden said.

Me too.

Previously: On communicating science and uncertainty: A podcast with John Ioannidis, Physician-author Abraham Verghese encourages journalists to tell the powerful stories of medicine and The benefits and costs for scientists of communicating with the public
Photo by L.A. Cicero

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