28 No. 2
Communicating Science Information Clearly
Manuel Carmona Yebra
happens every day: a journalist or a government official needs
scientific information on a thorny subject such as dioxins
or genetically modified food. They go online to look for help,
and thousands of Web pages pop up in response to their query.
they find a long scientific assessment written in technical
jargon by a research institution. Then, they come across a
seemingly helpful industry report, but are unsure of its credibility
because of the financial interests of the corporate author.
Finally, they end up on the Web site of an advocacy group
that offers a message that is overly dramatic, but at least
comprehensible. By this time, the researchers desire
to obtain unbiased scientific information has faded in frustration,
and their hope for a balanced article or informed political
decision with it.
Fortunately, a solution is at hand. Since 2001, clear, authoritative
scientific information on health and the environment has been
available at <www.GreenFacts.org>.
GreenFacts is a nonprofit organization based in Brussels,
Belgium, devoted to communicating the scientific consensus
on controversial topics such as genetically modified crops,
climate change, and air pollution. In the words of Jacques
de Selliers, general manager of GreenFacts, the organization
“strives for a reasoned and well-balanced approach to
scientific topics by publishing clear summaries of authoritative
reports, in cooperation with international organizations such
as the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO), and the European Commission.”
Communicating the Scientific Consensus
GreenFacts’ sole purpose is to communicate scientific
information. It does not lobby or engage in political advocacy;
rather, it offers clear summaries of scientific documents
on a wide range of issues—from fisheries and endocrine
disruptors to ecosystem change and tobacco—free of charge
to readers. The summaries are written in plain language accessible
to readers without a scientific background. GreenFacts’
goal is to help its main audience—journalists and policymakers—engage
in fruitful, informed dialogue on difficult topics and contribute
confidently to decision-making processes.
In developing its summary documents, GreenFacts culls through
a tremendous amount of scientific information, generally avoiding
reports produced by organizations that may be influenced by
political and financial interests and those produced by individual
experts who may include personal views in their findings.
Instead, GreenFacts focuses on documents that are produced
by large panels of international experts and that reflect
the current state of knowledge on any given scientific subject.
For example, GreenFacts often draws on documents published
by authoritative organizations such as WHO, FAO, or the Intergovernmental
Panel for Climate Change (IPCC).
Most of the documents chosen are extensive and are written
in a technical language that only experts can easily digest.
For example, the IPCC Third Assessment Report on Climate
Change— Summary for Policymakers runs over 200
pages and is written in highly technical language. GreenFacts’
summary of the report, in contrast, offers five pages of clear,
readable text and easy access to both more details and the
full source document.
Three Levels of Scientific Detail
GreenFacts’ approach to presenting information is simple,
yet innovative. GreenFacts uses a copyrighted Web-based system
to communicate information in three increasing levels of detail.
• Level One presents a brief abstract of the paper’s
• Level Two presents a more detailed summary of
the same key topics.
• Level Three presents the source document itself,
again broken out by the same key topics.
Selliers describes the three-level structure like this: “Each
paragraph can be expanded with a simple click, so journalists
and decision-makers, starting at Level One, can read a short,
clearly presented sentence to get the main idea, click to
read more details in Level Two on an issue of concern, and
click again to verify the statements within the scientific
source document in Level Three.”
GreenFacts’ process of summarizing scientific documents
follows a strict validation scheme—including a scientific
peer review. The process is managed by an independent board
that ensures that the summaries are faithful to the source
and are unaffected by politics or special interests. In addition,
representatives from all of GreenFact’s member groups—industry,
NGOs, and academia—are consulted before and during the
process of summarizing documents.
“Our publication process may seem cumbersome,”
de Selliers comments, “but it is essential, for it allows
GreenFacts to maintain its credible position both in the eyes
of the scientific community and with environment and health
stakeholders who demand impartial, unbiased sources of information.”
|Jacques de Selliers, GreenFacts General Manager
Dialogue Among Stakeholders
From the beginning, GreenFacts recognized that progress in
communicating health and environmental issues would need to
be based on cooperation, solid scientific premises, and multi-stakeholder
involvement. GreenFacts was established in December 2001 with
the help of Solvay, a Belgian chemical and pharmaceutical
group. Initially, industry sources provided a significant
amount of GreenFacts’ funding, but by 2005, they were
providing only 40% of the group’s total budget. The
remaining 60% is now covered by donations from international
institutions, governments, foundations, and individuals.
GreenFacts was established in a period of a remarkable increase
in stakeholder dialogue. For example, in 2002, at the United
Nations Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development, the
head of Greenpeace International met with industry leaders
to discuss what could be done to improve the world’s
environmental and health prospects.
Building on this momentum, in 2003, GreenFacts organized a
Brussels-based conference: Conveying Science into Policy.
The event examined how science is communicated and how environmental
decisions are made. It brought together approximately 100
representatives from nonprofit organizations, associations,
industry, and government, all of whom took part in working
groups that addressed three key questions: Who communicates
science? What is the nature of environmental decision-making?
How can governments and institutions improve the image of
GreenFacts subsequently organized two roundtable meetings
at conferences on Communicating European Research sponsored
by the European Commission. The first roundtable, held in
2004, focused on how to bring scientific information to nonspecialists.
The second, held in 2005, focused on how to communicate environmental
research in the media.
|GreenFacts' website provides easy access
to faithful summaries in layman’s terms and in several
addition, to further foster a spirit of cooperation, GreenFacts
offers its members in industry, nongovernmental organizations,
media, and government the use of GreenFacts studies and tools
on their own Web sites and in their own communication strategies.
One such tool, the GreenFacts Question Box (or “Q-Box”),
provides ready-made HTML code that lets members easily integrate
GreenFacts information on
a particular topic into another Web site. This feature allows
GreenFacts’ partners to improve the credibility of the
information they provide by linking to a neutral source of
Science for the Citizens
In the wake of highly publicized health debates and health
threats related to scientific issues ranging from genetically
modified crops to stem cell research, the public has grown
suspicious of scientists, industry representatives, and even
academicians. But it is not too late to win back public trust.
One way to do that is to focus on presenting scientific information
in a clear, unbiased manner.
GreenFacts has embraced the challenging task of widening the
dissemination of scientific information to citizens who want
to know the why and how of an issue, be they professionals,
journalists, decisionmakers, or simply concerned individuals.
Increasing the public’s understanding of complex scientific
issues will ultimately benefit our society at large.
last modified 9 August 2006.
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