Sunday, November 17, 2013

Science has a relationship problem

Yes, that's a provocative title, and an over-simplification. At the same time, over the past few years it has been one of the main ideas I put forward in conversations and presentations and papers, and it does seem to resonate with many people (particularly practitioners) - the idea that science has not so much (or just) a communication challenge as a relationship challenge.

As I wrote in a previous post, I come from an engagement-focused science background. Most of my research has been done in the context of community engagement with natural resource issues. This very much frames my perspective, which is that we have reached a time where talking "at" people about science is less and less useful (there is a lot written and debated about this deficit model of communication), and that this invites a major shift in how we think about communication. Straight up information provision, and the accompanying skill to provide it via compelling talks, writing, and visuals, is still vital. At the same time, information provided outside the context of a relationship is, in my experience, becoming less important. People want to know where information is coming from, who developed it, how it was created, who it impacts, what it means, and the ways in which we have traditionally understood some of those issues are changing.

Scientists and communicators have been responding to this shift more and more, and there's more work to be done. For me, the largest transformative potential exists around shifting from communicating, past engaging, and into relating. What this has meant for me, in practice, is moving between one-way communication (e.g., "expert" to "public"), multi-pathway engagement (e.g., acknowledging information feedback), and relatedness (e.g., breakdown of the expert paradigm, focus on reciprocity, mutuality). The first two I've had a lot of practice with, the third I'm still figuring out how to integrate professionally. And, part of the work to move between these modes of connection also means discerning which is appropriate at any given time -- I'm still working on that too (hence my ode to practice).

For me, the biggest changes that focusing on relationships between people has brought into my own work in the natural sciences are:
  • deep recognition of the role of our emotional, embodied selves in our work as scientists and practitioners, 
  • an appreciation of the opportunity provided by conflict, and 
  • desire to further cultivate my individual capacity to fully participate in my work in a related way through, for example, listening and contemplative practices like mindfulness. 
And, at a larger level, I am also interested in how focusing on relationships between people changes the very practice of science itself.

The sciences are hardly alone here - there seems to be a much larger shift taking place in various disciplines and professions to focus more directly on the role of relationships between people. In law, medicine, and business in particular, making relationship skills a more explicit part of training and practice has been happening to varying degrees over decades. Clearly, nobody has it perfected, but the good news is that there is a wealth of information that might help us start - that's where I'm headed next.

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  1. Love this! We need more people who view science as not a sole factor to change. Environmental education and community engagement are the first steps in making science and our environment more personal to everyone.
    Great read! You have my support Ms. Kearns! :)

    1. Thanks for reading Tiffany! I deeply appreciate your interest and support - it means a lot.