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How to tap into the renewed public conversation about science and technology

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Not since the first moon landing in 1969 has there been so much science and technology talk around the dinner table.

The dual threat of the pandemic and global warming created an entirely new public lexicon in which ordinary people talk about technical advances in MRNA sequencing, fossil fuel substitution, lab-grown meat, civilian aerospace and more.

This is prompted by, and also fuels, scientific and technological debates previously hidden in peer-reviewed journals and now taking place in real time on social media and in the news.

But the new ubiquity of this debate – and the growing participation of lay people – increases the responsibility of the scientific community to help guide this conversation productively, by adhering to the following principles.

Take people on a journey

Science and engineering communication must encompass more than just cold hard data if the community hopes to engage capital markets and wider society. It must also conquer hearts and minds.

A prime example of this is Sir David Attenborough’s awe-inspiring documentaries that are respected as much by scientists, investors, entertainers, activists and politicians as they are by ordinary viewers.

In fact, so many Chinese viewers downloaded Attenborough’s Blue Planet II that it temporarily slowed down the country’s internetin a country with no real environmental movement or activists!

This demonstrates the ability of beautiful stories to powerfully get “infidels” on board.

Beware of nurturing or creating disbelief

There are two equal and opposite ways that can help to feed unbelief.

On the one hand, scientists and technologists are trained to be highly skeptical about their own work. Being too bearish about the chances of success, or focusing too much on the limitations of research, is not appropriate for a wider audience unaccustomed to this level of academic research.

But on the other hand, entrepreneurs tend toward bullish optimism naturally and habitually because of the need to impress investors and others. Speculative or hyperbolic language can cause a useless reflex eye roll response in many listeners.

Neither approach is likely to win over a layman. Instead, a realistic middle ground must be found.

Tackle all fears

People are afraid. The planet hurts and people die. But jobs are also being lost and ‘change’ can harm some who oppose it.

Debate and education should always include two-way communication, including listening and community involvement, and more than just the first item on a triage list.

For example, the debate on climate change should focus on the future of the planet, but also on job insecurity due to inevitability such as the energy transition.

We must also emphasize that the scientific method is a dynamic process in which the scientific community pools resources and knowledge in order to achieve ever better results.

The public should be better informed that reaching a new and superior conclusion does not mean losing faith in the process.

Any new finding or deep technology is science in action, not science in failure.

Talk to the changemakers of the future

We see a growing number of younger people speaking out on the big issues, such as climate change and ethical food production. These hearts and minds must be met where they are now.

For example, a campaign for ongoing agreement to protect the ozone layer by banning aerosols containing CFCs includes a animation film specifically aimed at adolescents who are likely to drive social change in the future. Schoolchildren around the world have taken part in climate action and are some of the most vocal advocates on the planet.

Also, there is now more climate engagement on social media with a highly motivated youth audience.

Because if we want to bring complex technologies to market and tackle the world’s most pressing problems, we ultimately need to convince the media to believe us, the average person who trusts us, and investors to write big checks.=

Our planet, economies, societies and human lives depend on it.

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