Sunday, September 30, 2007

Nanotechnology doesn't have a marketing problem ... yet

Here's an excerpt from my most recent column for Nano Today. ScienceDirect has a full text and PDF version.
Earlier this year, Google cofounder Larry Page gave a keynote speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His message was simple: science is at a critical junction because of the promise that it increasingly holds for changing the world as we know it [...] And since scientists have failed to
establish effective channels of communication with the general public, they have a serious marketing problem on their hands.

Page is right – at least to some degree. Successful public communication about issues like nanotechnology requires two very different types of expertise: expertise in what to communicate and expertise in how to communicate. So nanotechnology may not have a marketing problem just yet. But it could have one soon, unless scientists and social scientists collaborate systematically in order to find ways to connect meaningfully with citizens and consumers.

So what's the solution?

First of all, let's not call it marketing. Scientists are not in the business of selling science. But they should not undersell it. And this is where social science comes in. Effective communication is not a guessing game, it's a science – which means it is based on data. Public opinion research allows us to get a very accurate picture over time of exactly what different groups in society want to know about nanotechnology and its implications for their daily lives, what their concerns are, and who they're looking to for answers.

Finally, nano may have many problems as it is beginning to appear in public discourse. But a lack of trust in scientists is not one of them. In fact, nano provides a unique opportunity for scientists to do real public outreach, since they're the group the public trusts when they look for information about nanotechnology:
Preliminary data from our most recent survey suggest that university researchers and scientists working for nano businesses are among the most trusted sources for information about nanotechnology. This means that nanotech provides the scientific and business community with a unique opportunity to connect meaningfully with the general public about science more broadly and to engage different social groups on issues related to nanotech that they truly care about.

Does this mean that we can and should expect all scientists to communicate directly with the general public? The answer is clearly "no." Most of them have other primary professional goals, and many simply do not have the skills to successfully engage journalists or members of the public. But what there are promising efforts from various industry organizations in Europe, for example, to preemptively communicate with a wide variety of stakeholders through consistent messaging, i.e., communications that uses similar frames, messages, imagery, etc. and that has been developed by systematic research. And, again, if it's done right, it's not spin, as some argue, but rather a very effective means of talking to audiences that traditional science communication has not been able to reach.