This post studies the parallels between the profession of architecture and the findings of a recent study titled What Are You Saying? Challenges and Opportunities for Increasing Visibility and Understanding of Indoor Microbiological Research.
The study, published in the journal Indoor and Built Environment, identifies some of the challenges indoor microbiologists face in their efforts to increase public understanding and visibility associated with their research. The authors interviewed 79 U.S. scientists and recorded the most frequently mentioned difficulties and concepts relating to science communication. The researchers also contribute suggestions for improving future public communication efforts based on their findings.
Since the 1950s, science communication has emerged as a professional and academic field that studies the public communication of science. Scientists, universities, policy-makers, and funding agencies all desire improved sharing of science research. We benefit from science communication because it informs policy-makers, it guides and illuminates ethical issues, and it increases the amount of funding available for research. Within the profession of architecture, there is currently no widespread push to improve how we share information with the general public. However, architects constantly struggle to make an impact on policy-makers, people suffer from unethical designs impacting public health, safety, and economies, and lower demand for architectural services means fewer projects and smaller fees.
Although there has been no empirical assessment of public communication efforts made by architects, this study reveals that scientists and architects share many opinions regarding their relationship with laypeople and the perceived difficulties of public communication. Specifically, the comparison questions the role of scientists and architects as information sources for laypeople and it suggests that, like architects, scientists struggle to frame their research in a way that people find it relevant. Luckily, the academic study of science communication offers solutions that can be used by architects and scientists alike.
Is there a Responsibility to Educate the Public?
Of the 79 scientists interviewed, 60 identified themselves as information sources for laypeople. There is no empirical evidence indicating how many architects identify as information sources for laypeople, but when I asked graduate architecture students in my studio if they believe architects serve as information sources for laypeople, the overwhelming majority replied “no.” One student responded that he didn’t think architects should worry about educating the public because the public doesn’t generally care about architectural issues and it would be a waste of time–if someone wants to learn about an architectural issue, they should find the information themselves.
The authors of this study found it common for scientists to attribute successful communications with positive internal attributes and failed communications with negative external attributes. That is to say, scientists often say they succeed because of their skill and expertise but when they fail, they blame the audience’s inattentiveness or lack of interest. The authors cite psychological attribution theory as a possible explanation for this phenomenon and suggest that future communication efforts must seek to share the burden of communication more equitably between communicator and audience. In summary, the two parties must discuss what needs to be communicated.
The Issue of Relevance
When asked to identify the research topics that interest non-experts, the scientists mentioned questions about the impact of indoor environments on human health most frequently. This reflects a common belief of mass communicators that audiences are primarily interested in topics that are relevant to them. In the discussion of their findings, the researchers state:
This [observation] suggests that these researchers are aware that although they may not personally study human impacts, this is the relevant information about which the public has questions. This responsiveness may at first seem intuitive and somewhat obvious, but our research team observed many of these researchers as struggling to connect their research in meaningful ways to the audience they were addressing.
As many public communication texts suggest, communication is most successful when the audience finds the content relevant. Both scientists and architects should consider the relevance of their work to non-experts.
Science communication provides many benefits to both scientists and non-scientists. It’s reasonable to argue that architects and the public would also benefit from a similar mass communication practice. This study reveals that scientists deal with many communication issues that architects are familiar with. Both professions question whose obligation it is to educate non-experts and both struggle with framing their work in a way that is relevant to a broad audience. Perhaps architects can take advantage of the communication research already completed by scientists.
Kahlor, L. A., A. Dudo, M.-C. Liang, and N. Abighannam. “What Are You Saying? Challenges and Opportunities for Increasing Visibility and Understanding of Indoor Microbiological Research.” Indoor and Built Environment (2014): 682-88. Print.