Using surveys to connect science and society
Science and society have always had an essential relationship, and with science advancing at a more rapid pace, the need and opportunity for dialogue between the two has increased. I have seen this firsthand by attending a number of CiRA outreach events. But these events are mostly attended by people who hold a strong interest in science. Reaching out to those uninterested or unaware of our work is more difficult.
Nevertheless, it is crucial to reach these people too because of the effects science can have on their lives. In general, scientists must communicate not only with those who are enthusiastic or positive about science but also with those who are skeptical and have concerns or even have no interest at all.
The opinions of these people are rarely heard, however. For example, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) regularly invites comments from the public whenever it changes scientific guidelines. But as with the CiRA outreach events mentioned above, respondents are most likely to have a strong opinion or interest on the topic.
To reach all people, my colleagues and I at the Uehiro Research Division for iPS Cell Ethics have been using questionnaires that inquire about opinions regarding research related to iPS cells. Depending on the survey, we have contacted thousands of people, finding a wide range of interest and knowledge about the research. The information gathered from these questionnaires is influencing decisions in academic debates and government policies. But for me, they provide a perspective on the views of people who hold a lesser interest in science.
Of course, these questionnaires should not be confused for science communication. Moreover, we cannot use them to generalize the entire public. At the same time, they provide a perspective on the diversity and complexity of opinions held by the public. This may be the most important outcome of questionnaires, as they bring to light voices that are not normally heard from science communication alone.