Challenge: Transform the way the nuclear technologies sector thinks about public engagement.
How: To change the way the public views nuclear energy, we must first transform the way the nuclear sector thinks about public outreach, transitioning from a “deficit model” approach toward an “engagement model” approach for outreach.
Background: The nuclear technologies sector’s approach to public outreach is currently not structured. At this time, it relies very heavily on scientists, engineers, and other nuclear professionals to “educate” the public on a volunteer basis, using what is known as the deficit model of communication. This technique assumes that we must transfer our technical knowledge to the public and they will then support nuclear technology. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that this technique is largely ineffective when used outside of an educational setting, and can even backfire.
This is partly influenced by the way which certain scientific issues, such as nuclear safety or climate change, are framed, and by whom, which strongly affects how an issue is perceived.
At the heart of the sector’s approach to outreach is the idea that many members of the public claim that they trust scientists over activists or other public figures. Unfortunately, this approach has a major flaw. Gaining trust has very little to do with occupation, and almost everything to do with “warmth” – an intuitive sense of a person (or brand) we glean before any words are even exchanged. This paradigm was uncovered not by PR specialists or political operatives, but by social scientists, a group that is now driving the consensus around how to best engage on challenging scientific issues like nuclear.
An evidence-based “engagement model” communications approach is the current state of the art, and there is a tremendous amount of research as well as functional models to look to for guidance. As the name suggests, the engagement model shifts from a one-way information transfer with a focus on changing people’s minds in a single interaction, to a two-way dialogue rooted in listening, respect, and building longer-term relationships that would shift understanding on a scientific issue over time. Many other scientific communities have successfully moved to this approach in recent years, with much of the research and dialogue in scientific communication being spearheaded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.