From public outreach to peer review, UW–Madison scientists find value in social media

By Kelly April Tyrrell, UW-Madison University Communications

Social media has erased many of the boundaries between leaders and the people they represent, between experts and the lay public, between scientists and nonscientists. It has enabled people to communicate directly and interact in unprecedented ways.

At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a survey of 372 scientists engaged in biological or physical science research shows that scientists are increasingly using social media to communicate with nonscientific audiences.

Nearly 75 percent of the scientists surveyed at UW–Madison between April and June 2016 believe that nonscientists add valuable perspective to discussions about scientific research, which came as a surprise to Dominique Brossard, professor and a leader of the group that administered the survey, the Science, Media and the Public research group (SCIMEP) in the UW–Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication. A report from the survey is published on the SCIMEP website.

“Scientists think lay audiences have something important to say,” says Brossard. “It really reflects the reality of complex science today, where often there are ethical dimensions to consider.”

Dominique Brossard

Dominique Brossard

At the same time, the SCIMEP team found scientists at UW–Madison are also using social media more often to communicate with their peers.

“The norms are changing,” says Brossard. “UW–Madison is representing this quite well.”

Indeed, a non-UW–Madison study published in October in the journal PLOS One shows that scientists from a variety of disciplines around the world report that while they have not widely adopted social media, they believe there are numerous advantages to using it in their work.
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SciMep research group teaches real-world research skills

Each Friday during the semester a group gathers in Hiram Smith Hall to discuss ongoing research projects, many lead by graduate students, surrounding public opinion on controversial science issues. The group is the Science, Media & the Public (SciMep) research group which explores issues relating to the social, legal, and ethical implications of scientific issues and emerging technologies.

The group is housed in Life Sciences Communication and the principle investigators include LSC chair Dominique Brossard, LSC professors Dietram Scheufele, and Neil Stenhouse, and chair of the Department of Communication Arts and LSC faculty affiliate Michael Xenos.  In addition, graduate students from different departments, including LSC, the Department of Communication Arts and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, participate.

LSC master’s student Chris Wirz presents research findings to the group.

The group’s focus is unique.  According to LSC chair Dominque Brossard, “SciMep is one of the only research groups looking into these types of issues.  We are in an era of rapid technological change and media convergence, so it is important to look at the intersection of science, media and public opinion.  Many of scientific issues we talk about are complex and they don’t happen in a vacuum.  The public is an integral part of the conversation, whether they know it or not.”
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