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).

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.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Nano world discovers marketing

Nanotechnology Now ran a column today by David Rejeski, Director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, about word-of-mouth campaigns to promote nanotech. The column is interesting for two reasons.

First, Rejeski's column endorses techniques directly borrowed from marketing for science communication. This is an important turning point for science communicators, many of whom continue to reject the use of strategic communication tools as unethical (see nanopublic post from february 18, 2007).

The column also revisits concepts that corporations and social marketers have used for decades: opinion leadership, and buzz or viral marketing, and that corporations like Victoria Secret have perfected in recent campaigns. See, for example, the following excerpt from a February 6, 2007, nanopublic post:

"The concept [of opinion leadership] emerged from Paul Lazarsfeld's research in the 40s, much of which was funded by media organizations in order to understand how to better target audiences. Today, a battery of opinion leadership measures is included in most syndicated marketing surveys, such as Needham or Scarborough, and the idea has been rehashed in books like the Tipping Point and The Influentials. Most prominently, Victoria Secret uses opinion leaders or "campus ambassadors" to promote their Pink line among college students.

Second, the column ends with a pessimistic note about how the public views scientists and corporations:
"In a climate of declining public trust in both government and industry, new approaches to increase the public's technology I.Q. are needed—approaches that can bridge the credibility gap and scale-up rapidly to reach large segments of the population."

(Click here for the full column.)

The interesting thing is that the most recent iteration of public opinion surveys we conducted as part of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University shows that who the public trusts opens up promising venues for science communication.

In particular, our data showed that university scientists and scientists working for nano businesses are among the sources the public trusts most for information about nanotechnology. In other words, the nano field may have a very unique opportunity to connect with the general public about science more broadly and to engage different sub-publics on issues related to nanotech that they truly care about. A lack of trust in scientists, however, doesn't seem to be among these issues, according to our data.

I have outlined some of these ideas in greater detail in a forthcoming column for Nano Today:

Scheufele, D. A. (2007). Nano does not have a marketing problem … yet. Nano Today, 2(5), 48.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

AAAS 2008: Markets, Media, and Emerging Attitudes About Nanotechnology

Recently, a series of studies explored attitudes toward nanotechnology as a function of risk vs. benefits perceptions among citizens, of consumers’ value systems and religious beliefs, and of a potential disconnect between scientists and the public with respect to regulations and interpretations of the precautionary principle.

A panel at the 2008 AAAS meeting in Boston, MA on Markets, Media, and Emerging Attitudes About Nanotechnology will showcase results from these studies, explore what we currently know about how the public forms attitudes about nanotechnology, provide an outlook of what’s likely in store for the future in terms of media coverage and consumer sentiment, and identify leverage points for successful public outreach and relevant policy proposals.

The studies presented in this symposium were conducted as part of various collaborative efforts, including the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale University, and the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at Rice University. The presenters on this panel take a truly interdisciplinary look at the ethical, legal, and social implications of nanotechnology, coming from a wide range of disciplines, including public policy, communication, law, and business.

Mark your calendars. The 2008 AAAS meeting is in Boston, MA, February 14-18.

Panel Title:
Markets, Media, and Emerging Attitudes About Nanotechnology

Dietram A. Scheufele
, Professor, Life Sciences Communication, Wisconsin

Bruce V. Lewenstein, Professor, STS, Cornell

Elizabeth A. Corley, Assistant Professor, Public Policy, Arizona State
“Scientists and the public: Comparing views on risks and regulations”

Steven C. Currall, Professor, London Business School
“Consumer attitudes toward nanotech: The complex interplay of risks and benefits”

Dan M. Kahan, Professor, Law, Yale
“Nano risk perceptions: The role of emotions and affect”

Dietram A. Scheufele, Professor, Life Sciences Communication, Wisconsin

Wade Adams, Director, Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, Rice