Alternate Realities: This Funder Wants to Close the Gap Between Scientists and the Public

When Pope Francis recently called the world out on climate change, several U.S. politicians admonished him to "leave science to the scientists." Of course, politicians have never left science to the scientistsand neither can the rest of us.

That's why $350,000 in recent grants from the Rita Allen Foundation to improve understanding and engagement among scientists, policymakers, media, and the public makes so much sense—now more than ever.

According to an unsurprising Pew Research poll cited by the foundation, there are "considerable gaps" between the views of scientists and the general public on lots of issues, like genetically modified foods and nuclear power.

The Rita Allen Foundation has supported scientific and medical research for 40 years, and now, to its credit, it's expanding efforts to improve the general public's understanding of science, as well as scientists' skills at getting their ideas across to a non-Ph.D. audience.

"The research investments and policy decisions we make today will have impacts on our health and our environment for generations to come," says Elizabeth Good Christopherson, President and CEO of Rita Allen Foundation. "We are extending our work to not only support scientists, but also to empower citizens to become informed participants in a strong democracy."

Supported programs include Media Impact Funders, which builds relationships among funders and creators of science communication projects. Its recent event, "Maladies and Miracles: Funding Media to Illuminate Health and Science," discussed research comparing the views of scientists and the general public, as well as health and science reporting, and storytelling in science communication.

Also supported is the WGBH Educational Foundation, a veteran producer of science-themed public media programming like the documentary series NOVA. The Rita Allen Foundation is a key supporter of the upcoming 2016 Science Media Symposium (SMASH16), a collaboration of WGBH and the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival that will convene scientists, media professionals and educators for a three-day symposium to improve public engagement in science through film, digital media, and audio/radio.  

Of course, when it comes to our ability to misunderstand and misrepresent science, nothing comes close to medical research. The Rita Allen Foundation funding also went to the Pain Research Forum, which will create website functionality to educate the general public about chronic pain management.  

The Rita Allen Foundation is also working to improve scientists' ability to reach lay audiences through efforts like its recent workshop, “Connecting the Dots: Effectively Communicating Science to Non-Scientists,” co-sponsored with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Research!America and the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.

On another front, as we've reported, the foundation has supported the Fact-Checking Project at the American Press Institute. 

You can't separate science and civilization, but it's our responsibility to manage technology for the long term, not just the next fiscal quarter. The democratic decision-making process needs real information, not slogans, to flow between the people who do science and those who do policy. Hopefully, meaning and nuance won't be lost in the creation of this new, safe-for-civilians content. The Pope wouldn't like that.