Truth from Noise

Science, journalism and democracy

“Science, Journalism, and Democracy.” Those three words together immediately caught my eye. They were the title of a conference organized by the National Association of Science Writers, The Rockefeller University and Science Writers in New York. The topic squarely sits at the intersection of several of our primary areas of investment.

Some people are perplexed by the combination and wonder why a science funder would care about media and civic engagement. Lately, threats to science and evidence have played out in both policy and social circles, and funders increasingly understand the essential connection between science and a thriving democracy.

In his opening remarks at Science, Journalism, and Democracy, Rockefeller University President Richard Lifton said science and journalism “share a critical foundation based on [the] rigorous pursuit of discovery in search of enduring truths.” As we reflect on how much science has improved lives around the world, the disregard for facts covering a variety of topics of great importance to our well-being—from climate change to vaccine safety—confirms that communicating effectively about science and evidence is actually a crucial civic challenge.

Our exploratory investments at the intersection of science and civic engagement point to the power of applying this pair of lenses to rapid advances in both science and communications. As new, miraculous and ethically complex science seems to emerge daily, the media environment is also shifting before our eyes—with nearly seven in 10 Americans getting at least some of their news from social media and vast numbers of media producers and platforms sharing content. Philanthropy has a remarkable opportunity to fuel productive public engagement with science and evidence by encouraging unexpected connections and agile experimentation in media content, distribution, reporting and research.

We are excited to announce the first Rita Allen Fellow for Science Communication, who will be embedded at WGBH Boston, a world leader in creating programming that conveys the importance and also the wonder of scientific discovery. The inaugural fellow, Adnaan Wasey, will apply his background in science and multimedia production to reach new audiences through science media.

We are also greatly anticipating the third Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication this November, which we are sponsoring in partnership with other funders. The convening will present opportunities to form new collaborations between social science researchers, science communicators and philanthropy. Previous Sackler Colloquia have been instrumental in forming a multidisciplinary study of science communication, and this gathering will be key to moving insights into application—whether through more effective communication about the safety of vaccines or more productive communication between scientists and policymakers. (The winners of the Building Capacity for Science Communication Partnership Awards are working on these particular issues, and will present their work at the colloquium.) The event is nearly sold out, so quickly reserve a spot if you would like to join.

The Science, Journalism, and Democracy conference called attention to the goal that drives both scientists and journalists: separating signal from noise. This brought to mind the work of Rita Allen Foundation Scholars, a frequent source of inspiration and ideas for us. Some of these pioneering scientists study communication in the nervous system and quite literally search for signals. We have learned from them that there are more than 10 times more neurons in the human brain than people on Earth, and each is talking to thousands of others. What’s more—these connections are constantly changing. Throughout our lives, every day, our brains are rewiring themselves as they experience, adapt and learn. So too is the case of democracy.

Like the brain, society is continually adapting and reinventing itself. Along with so many in America’s history, we hold to the promise of democracy’s ability to grow and change for the better through thoughtful conversations grounded in evidence.