Sunday, September 30, 2007

More on outreach: Cover story in The Scientist

The Scientist published a cover feature by Matthew C. Nisbet and myself on "The future of public engagement" in their October issue. This is from Matthew C. Nisbet's commentary over at Framing Science:
There's a great deal of context and research outlined in this article [...]. Allowed the luxury of space, we provide a fuller discussion of the origins and nature of research on framing. We then describe a common set of frames that previous work has identified as playing out over and over again across science-related issues. We also detail how past research helps explain the communication dynamics of the stem cell debate as well as the public trajectories of plant biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Importantly, in the article we address several concerns that people have raised about framing. We specifically counter critics who say framing is just spin; who argue that science cafes and other deliberative forums are the best mechanism for engaging the public; and who insist that "scientists should stick to the facts," letting institutional press officers handle the public translation of their research.

... and a short excerpt from the article itself:
The dominant assumption is that ignorance is at the root of conflict over science. According to this traditional "popular science" model, the media should be used to educate the public about the technical details of the issue in dispute. Once citizens are brought up to speed on the science, they will be more likely to judge scientific issues as scientists do and controversy will go away. The facts are assumed to speak for themselves and to be interpreted by all citizens in similar ways. If the public does not accept or recognize these facts, then the failure in transmission is blamed on journalists, "irrational" beliefs, or both. Yet many scientists ignore the possibility that their communication efforts might be part of the problem.

Perhaps worse, arguments in favor of the popular science model are not very scientific. In fact, they cut against more than 60 years of research in the social sciences, a body of work that suggests citizens prefer to rely on their social values to pick and choose information sources that confirm what they already believe, often making up their minds about a topic in the absence of knowledge. A second challenge to the popular science model is that in today's media world, by way of cable TV and the Internet, the public has greater access to quality information about science than at any time in history, yet public knowledge of science remains low. The reason is that a small audience remains attentive to science coverage, but the broader public literally tunes out, preferring other media content.

Given these realities, scientists must learn to focus on presenting, or "framing," their messages in ways that connect with diverse audiences. This means remaining true to the underlying science, but drawing on research to tailor messages in ways that make them personally relevant and meaningful to different publics.


Nisbet, M. C., Scheufele, D. A. (2007). The future of public engagement: The facts never speak for themselves, which is why scientists need to “frame” their messages to the public. The Scientist, 28(10).

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