Our work often takes place at the interface between science and society: managing stakeholder relations surrounding catastrophic environmental disasters; advising a national public health organization on garnering support from state and county lawmakers; advising a governor about his state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic; helping a life sciences company account for and prioritize responsible business operations.

It's impossible to overstate the intricate connection between science and technology. From the telescope to the transistor, technological inventions have always enabled dramatic leaps forward in the realm of scientific discovery. In the time of the Roman Empire, the introduction of the astrolabe led to a dramatic expansion in geographical knowledge and cartography. In the mid-20th Century, the invention of particle accelerators enabled detailed study of subatomic particles and fundamental forces, leading to the development of quantum mechanics along with medical applications like radiation therapy. And in the present century, the invention and deployment of mRNA vaccines during the COVID pandemic simply would not have been possible without the development of computational biology and bioinformatics.

Just as scientific advances follow technological ones, the relationship between science and society is colored by public perceptions about technology. To put it bluntly: growing public mistrust of technology is having a dampening effect on our attitudes about science.

So while the scientific community is understandably excited about the possibilities brought about by the commercialization of generative AI, this is occurring at a time when the chasm between science and understanding is growing wider. Take, again, what happened here in the United States during the COVID pandemic: Rather than leading to a renaissance in public trust, the pandemic rendered public health toxic.

Science is a process – a vibrant, shared, exploratory debate that spans time, geography and culture. For people seeking a simple, black-and-white assemblage of facts, however, the vigorous back-and-forth that takes place within the scientific community is disturbing, fueling confusion rather than clarity.

But misunderstanding science is only part of the problem. A larger, and more troubling part is the unintended consequence of another technological advance: the proliferation of algorithm-fueled mis- and disinformation via digital media platforms. Unfortunately, momentum is on the side of individuals, groups and nation-states sowing mistrust; inaccurate or outright false science messages reach more people than legitimate science possibly can. 

And the problem is growing worse. Generative AI will strengthen the bad actors much more than it will the legitimate ones. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that over the last 24 months Wiley, the scientific publisher founded some two centuries ago, retracted more than 11,300 scientific papers, and is shutting down 19 journals. That’s a symptom of another problem – the decline in academic publishing review standards – though one could argue that it’s a kind of co-morbidity.

As communicators, we have both the capability and the responsibility to help counteract this trend. Our understanding of the dynamics of change enables us to help CEOs, CFOs and CTOs express sophisticated strategies in ways that others can understand and act upon. The same principles can be applied to the scientific community.

For example, in our work, we actively bring together business and community leaders, lawmakers, investors, suppliers, customers and employees to address complex challenges. Actively drawing scientists, educators and technologists into these discussions can lead to initiatives that strengthen the general public’s scientific literacy and critical thinking while advancing business and economic interests.

Meanwhile, a growing number of prominent scientific institutions are investing in training and resources for effective science communication. Programs such as the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science are making important contributions in this area; others should follow their lead.

Federal and state policymakers are engaging with growing urgency in efforts to identify and mitigate the spread of misinformation on digital media platforms. Scientists need to be active participants in these discussions, implementing robust fact-checking mechanisms and other means of bringing the peer review process into the 21st Century.

These and other interdisciplinary approaches can lead to innovative solutions that move us towards healing the rift between science and society, ensuring that scientific advancements continue to benefit humanity while maintaining public confidence and trust. The responsibility lies not with scientists alone, but with all of us to champion and protect the integrity and accessibility of scientific knowledge.