Science has an important role to play in helping policymakers respond to complex social problems, including those affecting children. Yet the data do not always speak for themselves. Scholars may be reluctant to engage in public communication, which they may view as publicity-seeking or unseemly behavior. Yet when they do communicate their knowledge, many scientists feel that it is easily misunderstood, frequently conveyed inaccurately by the popular media, and often misused in support of a partisan agenda. In some circumstances, misunderstanding by policymakers has led to misguided responses, such as the distribution of classical music tapes to newborns. When not framed in a clear, accurate, and uniform message, science has contributed as much heat as light to important public debates.
In order to overcome these challenges, the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, and now the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs and the Center on the Developing Child, have participated in an ongoing partnership with the FrameWorks Institute to engage a multidisciplinary group of experts in an ongoing process designed to explain the science of early childhood development, its underlying neurobiology, and the research base for effective programs to key policymaking audiences in the United States. This iterative, multi-method, empirical process, known as Strategic Frame Analysis, was developed by the FrameWorks Institute, and it integrates essential constructs from the cognitive and social sciences into evidence-based communications research and practice. Much more information is available on the FrameWorks Web site.
Wonder Years: Virtual Tour
The Science Museum of Minnesota, in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, has developed an interactive exhibition called Wonder Years: The Science of Early Childhood Development. In this exhibition, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, visitors can learn all about the lives of young children and what science can tell us about how their brains think and learn. A series of short videos produced by the Children, Youth, and Family Consortium provides a virtual tour of the exhibition. The exhibition includes excerpts of video interviews with members of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs.
The process is based on extensive research demonstrating that people use mental shortcuts to make sense of the world, and that the presentation of new information provides cues to help connect that information to stored repositories of cultural models and schemas, known as “frames.” Frame elements—such as symbols, metaphors, and messengers—serve as powerful directives to the processing and interpretation of information, including the way individuals think about causes and potential solutions for major societal problems. Because existing frames about child development may be inaccurate—yet dominant—the job of the effective science communicator is to provide more accurate models that are memorable and more conducive to science-based conclusions about how healthy development might be promoted on a broader, societal scale.
The task of translating the science of early childhood development begins by determining what needs translating, then identifies obstacles to public understanding, and concludes by developing and verifying the impact of specific frame elements that improve public thinking. In response to these identified problems in public perceptions, the partners identified three areas for further development: (1) the need to describe what develops in concrete terms; (2) the need to make visible the process of how development happens; and (3) the need to demonstrate why adversity derails development. The resulting story of development can be found in different forms on this site.
This partnership illustrates how the challenge of science translation can be addressed within a mutually respectful, ongoing, collaborative process in which developmental scientists, communications researchers, and policymakers can become co-producers of a broadly understood yet sophisticated science that is not “dumbed down” yet takes into account the cognitive short-cuts that non-scientists bring to the discussion of complex issues. The range and number of voices articulating the scientific and economic rationale for investments in early childhood is attracting increasing public attention across the United States and around the world. In this context, credible translation of the science of early childhood development and its underlying neurobiology, conveyed in a clear and concise story, can increase the probability that this rapidly advancing knowledge base will be well understood, repeated accurately, and applied in an informed way to the formulation and implementation of policies and practices that will make a measureable difference in the lives of young children and their families.
Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI)
The Center and AFWI share a strong belief in the power of translating the science of child development to inform public policy. The AFWI was conceived, in part, to counter the "siloing" effect that delays and distorts the transition of scientific knowledge into policy and practice, and fulfills two key mandates: supporting research in the related fields of early brain and biological development, mental health, and addiction, and translating that research from the scientific community to the policy making and healthcare communities – and ultimately to families and individuals. Through activities in networking, applied research, knowledge translation and dissemination, professional development and training, and evaluation, the AFWI is continually seeking to bridge the gap between “what we know” in science and “what we do” in policy and practice. AlbertaFamilyWellness.org offers resources and knowledge-sharing tools for researchers, healthcare professionals, policymakers and the public, including presentations and learning modules on early brain development, toxic stress, the early foundations of lifelonghealth, addiction, and implications of the science for policy and clinical practice.
Major support for the Center’s knowledge translation and dissemination work has been provided by: the Birth to Five Policy Alliance, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Harvard University, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.