If you offered people on the street $100 to name a living scientist or an institution where medical or health research is conducted, most could not. A recently released Research! America nationwide survey on Americans’ attitudes about the visibility of scientists and the scientific community found that 81% could not name a single living scientist and over two thirds could not name a single institution, company, or organization where health research is conducted.
If you work around science, these findings are startling and disappointing. My NIH colleagues can generate a long list of scientists and the institutions in which health research is conducted. That should not be surprising since our job requires knowing these scientists and the institutions where they work. But within our scientific echo chamber, we often forget that the general public is much less familiar with scientists and their work than we are.
The good news from this survey is that the public generally trusts scientists, despite not knowing who we are, where we work, or exactly what we do. More than 80 percent of Americans consider scientists trustworthy, and the public expects us to be the primary messengers of scientific information, even information that has policy implications. They also believe that science should shape public policy, not only in health research but in education, infrastructure, and national defense.
When I read this report, I knew my 2018 New Year's resolution needed to be to let more people know about the behavioral and social science research that is conducted and supported by the NIH. OBSSR is committed to communicating the value and importance of behavioral and social sciences research to the public, and our strategic plan includes communication as a foundational process. Early this year we will launch a more streamlined website that will improve our ability to communicate behavioral and social science research and its benefits to the public. Among the new features of the website will be a list of the most highly cited behavioral and social sciences research papers. OBSSR also will begin a crowdsourced-based listing of key public health accomplishments in the behavioral and social sciences, and are working on new ways to tell the story better about how basic research leads to public health impact. We will continue our monthly Research Spotlight blog, which highlights recently published research in the behavioral and social sciences. Our office will be sponsoring a communicating science workshop for NIH staff later this year. OBSSR will continue to consider other innovative, responsible, and effective ways to communicate our science better to the public.
Beyond these formal OBSSR communication efforts, all of us have interesting stories to tell about scientists we know or with whom we have worked. Let’s commit to ensuring that everyone we meet outside of our scientific community knows at least one living scientist by name, where they work, and why her or his research is important to them and to the health of the nation.