Princeton-Based Rita Allen Foundation Awards $350,000 in Grants to Advance Public Engagement with Science

The Rita Allen Foundation has awarded $350,000 in grants to organizations to help promote greater understanding and engagement among scientific researchers, policymakers, the media, and the broader public.

A recent poll of more than 2,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe science has improved people’s quality of life. But the same poll revealed considerable gaps between the views of scientists and the general public on a range of issues, including the safety of genetically modified foods and the use of nuclear power. The Rita Allen Foundation has decided to support organizations that try to narrow the gaps, because the lack of information has consequences for the democratic decision-making process and society’s ability to effectively support scientific research.

“These investments in public science engagement build on the Rita Allen Foundation’s 40 years of sponsoring outstanding scientists, whose advances in basic research have formed the foundations for new medical treatments and technologies,” said Elizabeth Good Christopherson, president and chief executive officer of the Rita Allen Foundation. “The research investments and policy decisions we make today will have impacts on our health and our environment for generations to come. We are extending our work to not only support scientists, but also to empower citizens to become informed participants in a strong democracy.”

The grant recipients are:

Media Impact Funders – As a network of media makers and funders working to enhance the ability of media to inspire social change, Media Impact Funders recently launched a new initiative focused on improving health and science communications. With support from the Rita Allen Foundation, Media Impact Funders will build relationships among funders and creators of science communication projects, leading to new collaborations and tools to maximize and measure their effectiveness.

Media Impact Funders kicked off this initiative on April 1 at the event “Maladies and Miracles: Funding Media to Illuminate Health and Science.” Topics included research comparing the views of scientists and the general public, the challenges of effectively reporting on health and science issues, and the role of storytelling in science communication.

The WGBH Educational Foundation – The foundation has been a leader in science storytelling for more than four decades, with programs that include the award-winning science documentary series NOVA. The Rita Allen Foundation is a key supporter of the 2016 Science Media Symposium (SMASH16), which is presented through a partnership between WGBH and the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

SMASH16 will convene more than 350 leading scientists, media professionals and educators for a three-day symposium to improve public engagement in science through media, with a special focus on film, digital media and audio/radio. WGBH and the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, with input from leading science media organizations, will create a new website for the biennial Symposium, allowing for wider participation and sharing of best practices in science communication among Symposium attendees, educators and the general public before, during and after the event.

Astrocytes are star-shaped cells in the brain and spinal cord that play a role in pain signaling. (Image: Wikimedia, Gerry Shaw).
Astrocytes are star-shaped cells in the brain and spinal cord that play a role in pain signaling.
(Image: Wikimedia, Gerry Shaw).

The Pain Research Forum – Funding from the Rita Allen Foundation will enable the development of communication around an often-overlooked area of biomedical research, with potential lessons for other fields. The Pain Research Forum will create a new section of its site devoted to educating patients and the general public about the latest progress in understanding and treating chronic pain. Since 2011, the Pain Research Forum has served as a virtual meeting space for basic, translational and clinical pain researchers throughout the world. The Pain Research Forum provides freely available research news and other content and resources to promote discussions and collaborations around the basic biology of chronic pain, as well as clinical studies aimed at advancing new therapies.

Chronic pain is an under-recognized and costly problem that affects more than 100 million individuals in the United States alone. By producing webinars and podcasts, accessible stories about new research, and enhanced resources, including Pain 101 for Patients feature articles on new trends in pain research, the Pain Research Forum will empower patients with the objective information they need to advocate for advances in basic research and clinical care. This grant builds on the Rita Allen Foundation’s support of pain research through its American Pain Society scholars program, now in its seventh year.

The Rita Allen Foundation is also working to empower scientists with new tools and strategies to better present their research to lay audiences. A recent workshop, “Connecting the Dots: Effectively Communicating Science to Non-Scientists,” was sponsored by the Rita Allen Foundation along with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Research!America, and The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. A diverse group of journalists, media producers, communications specialists and scientists, including six recent Rita Allen Foundation scholars, convened in Washington, D.C., for two days of interactive training on understanding and connecting with audience perspectives, talking with journalists, delivering compelling public presentations and telling personal stories about the process of science.