Connecting Scientists and Engineers with Their Local Community
The National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering are partnering with the Pittsburgh community on a new initiative. This pilot program is designed to bring science and engineering research to bear on important questions and concerns in the Pittsburgh community , with the initial focus being the topic of energy. The program involves scientists and engineers performing energy-related research in the Pittsburgh region at universities, in government and for private industry. If successful, the program will expand to cover other important topics in contemporary society, such as infectious disease and climate change, and the Academies will work to establish similar programs with other cities across the nation to make science and engineering available to address their community concerns.
The Science and Engineering Ambassador program will address the need for scientific perspectives in public discourse by facilitating scientific dialog with public audiences. The program’s mission is twofold:
- For the community and its leaders to think critically about complex issues in science, engineering, and medicine, engage with these issues, and make informed decisions in their lives. For the Pittsburgh pilot phase, the focus is energy.
- For the scientific and engineering community to understand how the larger social, political, and cultural context is connected to their work and to incorporate that understanding into their public communication.
Many of the most important issues of our time—energy, infectious disease, and climate change to name a few—are steeped in science. The Ambassador program was created to build on the respect people hold for scientists and engineers, and to address the need for a greater general understanding of the science relating to such issues.
The aspirational goal of the Pittsburgh pilot program is for science and engineering professionals to achieve a dynamic, dialog-based relationship with the Pittsburgh community over energy topics that are of interest to business, consumers, and others. It will succeed when community members are more conversant with energy topics, can explain energy information to others, and are better equipped to assess the validity of others’ claims and conclusions. Through the process of dialog, we expect that the Ambassadors will gain valuable insights into the perceptions and concerns of their local communities, as well. The program is oriented to be responsive to current public understanding of energy issues and to topics of greatest concern to the Pittsburgh community, in order to assure the information is relevant to people’s lives.
Encouraging members of the scientific and engineering communities – particularly those who are willing to listen to fellow citizens and share with them what they know about energy issues – will raise awareness in Pittsburgh of valuable and reliable local resources for information on this important topic. Facilitating such positive interactions is paramount if science is to take a larger place in people's lives and be part of our culture rather than separate from it.
The target audience for the work of the Ambassador program is individuals whose ideas and opinions influence others in the community. These opinion leaders represent diverse professions and walks of life, including teachers, business leaders, policymakers, neighborhood leaders, students and the media. They include those who participate and have reach within the local community, as well as those who have a platform for disseminating knowledge and fostering community relationships. Their areas of activity may include:
- Formal education (K-12 and secondary education)
- Informal education (museums and other informal science education institutions)
- Organizations representing underserved audiences
- Community organization
By reaching out specifically to opinion leaders in Pittsburgh who have the capability to spread the word easily, the pilot program hopes to achieve a greater impact over a shorter period of time.
Southwestern Pennsylvania is a focal point for discussions about energy. The region has companies and activities in several relevant areas of the industry – coal, natural gas, nuclear, solar and wind. Pittsburgh is also home to an impressive number of top scientists and engineers who teach and conduct research at some of the nation’s leading universities. The city has active business leaders with a keen interest in community development and is also endowed with a strong network of museums and other cultural outlets. Importantly, Pittsburghers have proven success at collaboration. The city is big enough to offer the key entities necessary for an effective program, yet small enough to allow for dialog, with a population that displays an impressive participatory spirit.
Events for the Ambassador program in Pittsburgh will be developed around the goal of dialog, to promote not only public understanding of energy science, but also greater understanding among scientists and engineers about what the public wants to know. Program administrators are working closely with representatives of the audience segments listed above to determine the energy topics and questions that are of greatest interest locally. That information, combined with input from the Ambassadors regarding energy information they believe is important to share with the community, will help direct which topics serve as focal points for events. Working with community partners, the administrators will then develop programs suited to the partners’ missions and the audiences’ interests, with an emphasis on interactive events that encourage conversation and dialog.
Selection and Preparation of Science & Engineering Ambassadors
We have selected a team of accomplished scientists and engineers from academia, industry, and government to serve as Ambassadors. Each was invited to choose one or two graduate students or early-career scientists to mentor through the program, for a total of 25 Ambassadors.
We are providing the team with a series of communication enhancement workshops designed to increase their skills in communicating with general audiences. These include media training, the effective use of narrative techniques in presentations, an overview of the scientific evidence for effective science communication, presentation training, and dialog training. Additional training sessions will be developed, according to the program’s needs.
View the first class of Ambassadors, here.
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