Sunday, December 23, 2007

Nanotech news agenda pushed by interest groups and think tanks in the U.S., and by scientists and scientific associations in the U.K.

Sharon Friedman at Lehigh and her colleagues just released the latest iteration of their longitudinal analysis of media coverage of nanotechnology in the U.S. and U.K. Friedman presented their findings at a meeting last week, organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.

Among the key findings: Coverage of nano risks in 2006 was almost double of what we saw the year before. And almost 50% of all articles about risk regulations in the U.S. were based on calls for regulatory action by interest groups, non-profits, and think tanks. In the U.K., in contrast, a majority of the risk coverage originated from calls for action by industry, scientific associations or university scientists (see Figure 1).

Figure 1:

Friedman's findings also provide additional context for the recent piece my colleagues and I published in Nature Nanotechnology (see nanopublic post from November 25, 2007), comparing public perceptions and scientist attitudes on nano risks and benefits. While scientists were overall more optimistic about the potential benefits and less concerned about the risks that the general public, our national surveys also identified two areas where nano scientists currently see more risks than the general public: human health, and environmental pollution.

One possible correlate of the higher levels of concern among scientists about environmental and health risks, of course, is the disproportionate focus on these two areas in elite discourse. And Friedman's findings provide empirical evidence that this in in fact true. More than a third of all reasons provided in mainstream news coverage in support of increased regulatory oversight were to "protect the environment" and to "protect people's health and safety" (see Figure 2).

Figure 2:

If it is the scientific consensus that drives coverage or vice versa, of course, remains an open empirical question.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New Nature Nanotechnology Editorial: Social and natural sciences need to get their act together

In an excellent editorial, Nature Nanotechnology Chief Editor Peter Rodgers today outlined some of the communication challenges nanotechnology may face in the near future. His editorial emphasized -- once again -- the need for systematic and research-based collaborations between social and natural sciences:

"However, nanoscientists and technologists should look to social scientists for more than just data on these questions — help from 'outside' is also needed to communicate effectively with the public. [...]

These and other results emphasize the difficulty of making sure there is not a public backlash against nanotechnology — there is no guarantee that the communication approaches that work for men in the US, for instance, will work for women in the US, let alone for anyone else in the world. One size certainly does not fit all. Given the complexity of this challenge it can be helpful to think in terms of 'frames' or 'perceptual filters' when trying to communicate with the public [...]. The basic idea of this approach is that most people are overloaded with information and not that interested in the details of nanotechnology or any other technology, so they use frames or filters — such as their political or religious beliefs — to process all this information and what it means for them."

(Read the full editorial here.)

Just to illustrate this point a little bit further, data from a forthcoming study by some of my colleagues and myself shows shows that religiosity is already emerging as an important "filter" for certain publics when they make sense of nano. And this is not just about a simple correlation between religiosity and attitudes toward science, which is important in its own right. But in this case, we're talking about a link between knowledge and attitudes that varies depending on respondents' levels of religiosity. In other words, knowing more about nanotechnology is consistently linked to more positive attitudes among less religious respondents. For more religious respondents, in contrast, high levels of knowledge do little to influence their attitudes about nano funding (see Figure).

(Based on Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A., Kim, E., & Lewenstein, B. V. (forthcoming). Religiosity as a perceptual filter: Examining processes of opinion formation about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science.)

Putting information out there, of course, continues to be an important goal for all science communication. But we also need to realize that different publics have different informational deficits, react very differently to information, and -- most importantly -- are looking for answers to questions that often have very little to do with the scientific issues surrounding emerging technologies. As the data from our forthcoming article show, fitting the moral implications of nano breakthroughs into their existing belief systems is much more important for sizable groups in society at the moment than understanding the science behind it.

For more on this idea of perceptual filters, see:

Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A., Kim, E., & Lewenstein, B. V. (forthcoming). Religiosity as a perceptual filter: Examining processes of opinion formation about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science.

Scheufele, D. A. (2006). Five lessons in nano outreach. Materials Today, 9(5), 64.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Public attention to global health threats since 9/11 mostly event-driven, with little substantive change in public preparedness

A new overview piece in Public Opinion Quarterly shows that Americans' attitudes on global health threats, such as avian flu, anthrax, and West Nile Virus, have been heavily event driven since 2001, and that awareness and knowledge levels have shown little or no substantive increases as a result of awareness campaigns or other efforts to increase public preparedness. Here is a short section from the introductory paragraphs of our study:

"The polls show that Americans’ attention to news coverage seemed to be event driven, peaking when there were new human or animal cases, and decreasing rapidly when the diseases seemed to have been contained. Americans’ perceptions of threats were usually the highest in the early stages of major outbreaks. The public became more complacent when the outbreaks seemed to be under control. Both behavioral changes and general knowledge remained largely constant, suggesting a limited impact of the various informational and awareness campaigns by governmental agencies in the wake of these pandemics."
(For the complete article, click here -- Ho, S., Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2007). The Polls – Trends: Public reactions to global health threats and infectious diseases. Public Opinion Quarterly, 71(4), 671-692.)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

2007 Faculty Productivity Rankings -- Wisconsin #15, Mass Comm #4

The recent Academics Analytics / Chronicle of Higher Education Faculty Productivity Rankings have Wisconsin at #15 in the nation, ahead of Cornell, NYU, Brown, and the University of Chicago in terms of overall faculty productivity. Wisconsin is also ranked #4 in mass communication again, and one of only two programs that held their top-5 ranking in mass communication since last year.

All rankings are based on Academic Analytics' Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index™ (FSP Index)
[FSP] is a method for evaluating doctoral programs at Research Universities (across all Carnegie research classifications), based on a set of statistical algorithms developed by Lawrence Martin, Ph.D. and Anthony Olejniczak, Ph.D.. The FSP Index measures the annual productivity of faculty on several factors including:
  • Publications (books and journal articles)
  • Citations of journal publications
  • Federal Research Funding
  • Awards and Honors
Click here for the Chronicle's recent overview article on productivity rankings and some of the criticisms that have been raised about Academic Analytics's data sources and analyses.