Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Onion on nano bots and terrorism ....

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wisconsin Week: Q&A on communicating nanotech

From a Q&A in Wisconsin Week:
[...] Wisconsin Week: Why has nanotechnology, as opposed to other kinds of science, become a moral dilemma for many people as viewed through the prism of religion?

Scheufele: I am not sure if nanotechnology is the only recent example of a scientific area that challenged some people’s religious views. In fact, for genetically engineered organisms we saw similar discussions about “unnatural science” and about scientists “interfering with nature” or “playing God.” But two things are different for nanotechnology. It has a potential impact on virtually all areas of life, ranging from medicine to materials and the environment. And as a result, the potential conflict between religiosity and science will likely be much more salient for nanotechnology, in particular with respect to nano-bio-info-cogno (NBIC) technologies that may, in the future, enable us to create synthetic life and intelligence without divine intervention.

WW: How do the views of Americans differ from those of people in countries where religion is less a part of everyday life?

DS: It depends on which countries we compare the United States to. Our analyses showed that the United States is in many ways very similar to countries like Italy, Ireland and Austria, who have deeply rooted religious traditions. But the United States differs significantly from more secular European countries like France, Germany or Denmark,with a less religious citizenry and fewer moral qualms about nanotechnology.


WW: How do we explain the paradox of such a dynamic and pervasive field of technology coming under a cloud of moral scrutiny in a country that thrives on technology?

DS: I am not sure if it is really such a paradox. Science and religion are not incompatible. And many of the questions that modern science raises do not have scientific answers. Is it moral or not to create new life, for example, if that will ever be possible? And what are the social effects of virtually invisible surveillance devices that can trace our every movement? The answers to these questions depend on our values, ethics, beliefs and morals. And society will only find answers if all of these considerations are taken into account and help us understand the implications of what science has made or will make possible.


WW: Do we need to rethink the way we talk about science and its implications in America?

DS: Absolutely. Effective communication with wide cross sections of society is probably more important now than it’s ever been. Issues like nanotechnology and stem cell research raise questions about what it means to be human, what kind of applications we want in the market and how quickly. The tricky part is that, while scientists generally realize how important it is to connect with the public, many people have taken the approach that it will be enough if we just put sound science out there. But unfortunately that’s not really supported by our research.

Rather, we need to realize that different publics have different informational needs, 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 some of our recent research here at Wisconsin shows, trying to make sense of the moral implications of nano breakthroughs based on their own belief or value systems is much more important for some groups in society at the moment than understanding the science behind it.

(Click here for the full interview.)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

It's not just science - nanotechnology and values around the globe

The past few weeks have seen a flurry of events, editorials, and grant announcements related to synthetic biology and the notion of creating artificial life forms. Nanowerk, for instance, just reported on a $3 million grant awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) for a nanoscience program entitled "Soft-Matter Nanotechnology to Create Artificial Life Forms."

Our most recent study, released today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology (abstract; press release; supplementary tables and information), suggests that these new technologies may get a very different welcome in different parts of the globe.

Here's a short excerpt from the UW-Madison press release:
... [s]urvey results from the United States and Europe reveal a sharp contrast in the perception that nanotechnology is morally acceptable. Those views, according to the report, correlate directly with aggregate levels of religious views in each country surveyed.

In the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland, nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.

"The level of ‘religiosity’ in a particular country is one of the strongest predictors of whether or not people see nanotechnology as morally acceptable," says Dietram Scheufele, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of Life Sciences Communication and the lead author of the new study. "Religion was the strongest influence over everything."

Religious Climates and Attitudes Toward
Moral Acceptability of Nanotechnology

Scheufele, D. A., Corley, E. A., Shih, T.-j., Dalrymple, K. E., & Ho, S. S. (forthcoming). Religious beliefs and public attitudes to nanotechnology in Europe and the US. Nature Nanotechnology (first published online on December 7, 2008 as doi:10.1038/NNANO.2008.361).
What was particularly interesting is the fact that religious climates in different countries did not just influence views about the moral acceptability of nanotechnology, but also of how useful nanotechnology is for society.

All of this, of course, has tremendous implications for science communication and science policy. The emerging differences we found in attitudes and concerns across countries are certainly consistent with calls for an international effort to draft nano regulations or roadmaps sooner rather than later.

But our study also highlights the importance of values, beliefs, and confirms findings from a number of recent studies (Brossard, Scheufele, Kim, & Lewenstein, forthcoming; Ho, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2008; Kahan, 2008; Nisbet, 2005) that all examine how values shape the interpretation of scientific information. This research shows that the exact same information can translate into very different attitudinal conclusions for highly religious respondents than for non-religious ones. In other words, we may be wasting valuable time and resources by focusing our efforts on putting more and more information in front of an unaware public, without first developing a better understanding of how different groups will filter or reinterpret this information when it reaches them, given their personal value systems and beliefs.

So what's the moral question behind nano? One answer comes from QuinnNorton on the O'Reilly Radar:
"The question is not so much whether synthetic biology will remake society, but who will be in control when it does. "
Many scientists, meanwhile, still don't see the connection between the scientific aspects of their work and its social or moral implications. In a recent interview with a Medill graduate student, Stanford assistant professor Drew Endy described the difference to a god-like creator as mostly skill related:
Q. What do you say to the argument that only God should do the type of reconstructing that you’re researching?

A. I think it’s a different question if the concerns have to do with making something new. I don’t view making something new, whether it’s reprogramming the bouquet of a bacteria or a more serious project. I don’t view those projects as creating life, but rather construction projects. For me as an engineer, there’s a big difference between the words creation and construction. Creation implies I have unlimited power, perfect understanding of the universe, and the ability to manipulate matter at a godlike level. That’s not what I have. I have an imperfect understanding, a budget, limited resources, and I can only manipulate things quite crudely. In that context, with those constraints, I’m a more humble constructor.

(Click here for the full interview.)
For more information on the work in nanotechnology and society at UW, see Nano&Society@UW, the Department of Life Sciences Communication in the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences at UW, and an overview of other relevant publications from my research group here.

Update: Also see articles by Dan Kahan and colleagues (here) and Nick Pidgeon and colleagues (here) in the same issue of Nature Nanotechnology.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

NYT on Nanophobia

By 9am this morning I had ten email forwards with this story in my inbox. So I am guessing that the title of Natasha Singer's piece in today's New York Times is pretty self-explanatory:
New Products Bring Side Effect: Nanophobia

IT sounds like a plot straight out of a science-fiction novel by Michael Crichton. Toiletry companies formulate new cutting-edge creams and lotions that contain tiny components designed to work more effectively. But those minuscule building blocks have an unexpected drawback: the ability to penetrate the skin, swarm through the body and overwhelm organs like the liver.

(Click here for the full NYT story.)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Science of (Science) Communication ... A Few Thoughts

Over at Framing Science, Matt Nisbet just posted a short section from a first draft of an article he and I are putting together for a special upcoming journal symposium on the future of science communication.

"In a way its an updated, bigger picture on the arguments we made in the cover article we wrote last year for The Scientist. It also draws upon insights and lessons learned from talks at a diversity of venues over the last year, our work with organizations such as the National Academies, and the studies we have published in the area.

Below the fold are details on our conclusions from the first draft of the manuscript:

Ironically enough, on issues such as smoking or HIV education, scientists have few reservations about employing techniques borrowed from marketing, advertising, and political campaigns. Yet deficit-model thinking continues to generate a strongly emotional reaction to the suggestion that scientists use similar strategies to engage the broader public on other science-related debates.

In this matter then, science communication stands at a crossroads. We have entered an era where most policy debates and emerging technologies are no longer merely scientific issues. Rather, they are collectively decided in the context of politics, values, and culture. Under these conditions, sophisticated public outreach is essential for overcoming policy gridlock on climate change, for shoring up support for the teaching of evolution in schools, for ensuring funding for research programs in emerging areas such as plant biotechnology and nanotechnology, and for effectively communicating with a wider public on almost any issue.

To conclude, we detail several recommendations for new directions in public communication, paths forward derived from the research and principles reviewed in this essay.

Graduate training and new interdisciplinary degree programs. College and doctoral students majoring in the sciences should be offered courses and training in communication. These courses introduce young scientists to much of the research reviewed in this essay, focusing on the relationships between science, the media, and society, and providing valuable professional know-how and skills. There is also the demand for new inter-disciplinary degree programs that combine course work in communication, the sciences, policy or law, sociology, and other fields. Graduates of these programs are likely to find jobs in the news media, the high-tech industries, the government sector, or at research institutions, public affairs strategy firms, and not-for-profits. These new graduate programs would be the pedagogical equivalent of the on-the-job training that the successful AAAS policy fellows program provides Ph.D. scientists or that the Aldo Leopold fellows program offers mid-career scientists.

Some critics of our proposals have argued that scientists should stick to research and let media relations officers and science writers worry about translating the implications of that research (Holland et al., 2007). They are right: In an ideal world that's exactly what should happen. Yet in reality, scientists will be the key individuals who will be giving the interviews, testifying before Congress or addressing local community forums. Perhaps even more importantly, as senior decision-makers, many scientists are ultimately responsible for setting communication policy at scientific institutions, agencies, and organizations. These leaders need to understand how research can and should inform public communication on all issues.

Public dialogue that matters. As reviewed, public dialogue initiatives have many positive uses but also several limitations. In order to enhance public participation, significant resources need to be spent on sampling, recruitment, and turn-out. Multiple meetings should also be held across dates and locations. In this case, success is a function of money and careful planning. Another strategy to boost public interest in these types of meetings is to pair expert testimony and deliberation with the viewing of a documentary or series of short films. These "deliberative screenings" can not only increase public turn out, but also help frame discussion and thinking in ways that might bridge polarized views. They also provide an additional outlet and repurposing for many NSF-funded films and media productions.

The scope and impact of public dialogue initiatives can also be expanded by generating local and national news attention to the event. Not only does this news attention reach a larger audience with a message that scientists are open to public input, but coverage is likely to reflect the types of frames that the meetings were organized around. For example, a recent study found that a public consultation exercise on nanotechnology generated discussion that was framed mostly in social progress terms, accenting the benefits to society (Besley et al., 2008).

A commitment to early consultation and to a genuine role for participants' recommendations can only come with the realization that sometimes a competent, informed, and engaged public might reach collective decisions that go against the self-interest of scientists. For example, at a recent public consultation exercise on nanotechnology, though the recommendations were not binding as policy, one of the outcomes was that several recruited participants decided to subsequently form their own local advocacy group to monitor the development of nanotechnology in the area (Powell & Kleinman, 2008).

Data should trump intuition. Efforts to use the media and communication campaigns to engage the public on science need to adapt to the realities of today's information environment. Many approaches to science communication and outreach still rely heavily on traditional channels, such as science television or newspapers. Recent survey data, however, suggests that we are seeing significant shifts from television (which is still the primary source of information for three quarters of respondents 65 years or older) to online sources (which are the preferred medium for more than half of the under 24 year olds) (Pew, 2008b). The same data also show that interest in science-related issues is highest among respondents who relied mainly on new information technologies for news, as opposed to traditional mass media channels.

Effective public communication is not a guessing game; it is 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 climate change, evolution, biotechnology, or nanotechnology, about potential implications for their daily lives, about what their concerns are, and who they are looking to for answers (Scheufele, et al., 2007). Relying on systematic research to understand and communicate effectively with different publics is therefore critical to understanding how the public thinks about new technologies, what they know, and what the informational channels are to reach them most effectively.

Quality research, of course, is expensive. Recent calls for the National Science Foundation to fund more direct research on science communication are welcome developments as is the leadership role played by the National Academies in commissioning audience research on evolution. Similarly, the National Academy of Engineering recently issued recommendations for recruiting women and minorities into careers in science and engineering, relying on empirical audience research and principles of strategic communication (Committee on Public Understanding of Engineering Messages 2008).

Connecting to public values. Effective communication will necessitate connecting a scientific topic to something the public already values, emphasizing shared common ground. And in people's minds, these links are critical for making sense of scientific information. A number of recent studies examine how values shape the interpretation of scientific information. Findings on religiosity, for instance, show that the exact same information can translate into very different attitudinal conclusions for highly religious respondents than for non-religious ones (Brossard, Scheufele, Kim, & Lewenstein, forthcoming; Ho, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2008; Nisbet & Goidel, 2007; Nisbet, 2005; Nisbet & Nisbet, 2005). In other words, we may be wasting valuable time and resources by focusing our efforts on putting more and more information in front of an unaware public, without first developing a better understanding of how different groups will filter or reinterpret this information when it reaches them, given their personal value systems and beliefs. Recent research also suggests that these value-based filters may in fact differ across different cultures or national settings (Scheufele, Corley, Shih, Dalrymple, & Ho, forthcoming).

Science communication that does not focus on elite audiences. As mentioned earlier, some critics argue that it would be unethical to take advantage of strategic communication tools in order to make scientific issues more relevant to a general public. But recent data on potentially widening knowledge gaps suggests that it may be unethical if we did not use all communication tools at our disposal in order to connect with hard-to-reach audiences (Scheufele & Brossard, 2008).

Many traditional approaches to public communication about science, for instance, have inadvertently favored elite audiences. In fact, some previous attempts to connect across diverse sections of the public have resulted in widening gaps between the already information rich and the information poor. This is partly due to likelihood of exposure. Almost 40% of college-educated respondents, for instance, visited a science or technology museum in 2006, compared to less than 10 percent for respondents with a high school education or less (National Science Board, 2008).

As a result, museum exhibits, science Web sites, traditional science documentaries, and similar outreach efforts may inherently favor elite audiences. Widening gaps between the information rich and information poor are also a function of the way issues like nanotechnology and biotechnology play out in public discourse. In their research on "knowledge gaps," Phil Tichenor and his colleagues (1970) found that audiences with high socioeconomic status (SES) showed much stronger learning effects from health related information than low-SES audiences. This effect is in part due to the fact that TV shows like PBS' NOVA or the Science section of the New York Times tailor their content to highly educated audiences. As a result, learning effects for mass audiences are minimal, even if these audiences happen to tune in to NOVA or read an article in the New York Times.

Consider alternatively, that surveys show that local television news is among the dominant sources of public affairs-related information for the American public. Therefore, in order to reach non-traditional audiences, scientists and their organizations need to be on local television news. Major national communication efforts should be closely coordinated across local media markets, with specific scientists, institutions, or organizations serving as the local angle and spokesperson.

A recent National Academies (2008) initiative that pairs scientists as consultants on major motion pictures and television series is also a step in the direction of reaching new audiences. Long used as a strategy for engaging the public on public health issues (Kaiser, 2004; Montgomery, 2007), active involvement with Hollywood in the construction of messages about science can lead to a range of outcomes including informal learning, enhanced interest and attention to science in news coverage and other media, the modeling of positive behavior related to environmental sustainability or energy use, the favorable framing of controversial issues such as the teaching of evolution in schools, or even a spike in news or policy attention to a scientific topic such as climate change (Nisbet, 2008; Nisbet, 2007).

Other important media outlets for expanding audience reach include comedy news programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Studies have documented the ability of these programs to engage younger, harder to reach audiences about political candidates and election campaigns, shaping their political attitudes and levels of political knowledge (Feldman, 2007; Feldman & Goldthwaite-Young, 2008). On science, a recent Pew (2008c) analysis finds that The Daily Show includes comparatively more attention to science and technology topics than the mainstream press and significantly more attention to climate change. These programs also generate buzz online with heavily-trafficked and forwarded clips on hot-button science topics such as evolution, genetics, climate change, or stem cell research. Additionally, both shows frequently feature scientists and science authors as interview guests, examples including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene.

Given that satire and comedic news is an increasingly preferred media format for younger audiences, more research is needed on the potential for using this style of humor as a tool for public engagement on science. Little is known, for example, about the comparative effects of science information communicated in satirical form compared with the same information communicated in traditional science media. Greater understanding in this area would inform not just media strategy but also the incorporation of humor and satire into the production of documentary film, Web, and museum content.

Opinion leader campaigns that bridge audience gaps. With so much focus on media strategy, it is important not to forget that perhaps the most effective strategy for connecting with difficult to reach audiences are face-to-face conversations and other interpersonal channels. In this matter, science organizations need to mobilize specially trained opinion-leaders who can bridge the communication gap between news coverage and inattentive audiences, talking up to their friends, family, and co-workers the relevance of science-related issues such as climate change or the teaching of evolution in schools.

We know that these science opinion-leaders exist and can be recruited. For more than sixty years, researchers have traced the influence of news and advertising messages in local communities, identifying a small group of opinion-leading individuals who pay close attention public affairs and advertising, discuss what they learn from the media with a diversity of others, and appear to be more persuasive in convincing others to adopt an opinion or course of action. In this "two step-flow of information," opinion-leaders do not necessarily hold formal positions of power or prestige, but rather serve as the connective communication tissue that alerts their peers to what matters among political events, social issues, and consumer choices (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948). Over the past decade, as audiences have become more difficult to reach and less trustful of the media, this research has informed innovative communication campaigns in the areas of public health, politics, and consumer marketing. Yet despite the widespread targeting of opinion-leaders in these other fields, science organizations have traditionally overlooked this important dimension of public engagement.

Several validated measurement techniques exist for identifying individuals with opinion-leader like qualities in surveys and questionnaires. Once recruited and trained, audience-tested messages, such as those developed by the National Academies on evolution, can be matched to an opinion-leader's social background and network. Moreover, when "surges" in communication and public attention are needed --such as surrounding the release of a future IPCC report or a major state legislative vote on evolution-- opinion leaders can be activated with talking points to share in conversations with friends and co-workers, in emails, in blog posts, or letters to the editor (see Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009, for an overview)."
(Click here for the full blog post.)