Sunday, June 29, 2008

Let's talk engineering - new NAE report on communicating about (careers in) engineering

The National Academy of Engineering just released a new report on the challenge of communicating with hard-to-reach audiences about careers in science. And the report is a case study on how to do it right: do careful social science research, learn to understand all your different audiences, and then develop your communication strategies based on the issues or concerns they tell you they really care about.
From the NAE summary:

Can the United States continue to lead the world in innovation? The answer may hinge in part on how well the public understands engineering, a key component of the innovation engine. A related concern is how to encourage young people particularly girls and under-represented minorities to consider engineering as a career option.

Changing the Conversation provides actionable strategies and market-tested messages for presenting a richer, more positive image of engineering. This book presents and discusses in detail market research about what the public finds most appealing about engineering as well as what turns the public off.

Changing the Conversation is a vital tool for improving the public image of engineering and outreach efforts related to engineering. It will be used by engineers in professional and academic settings including informal learning environments (such as museums and science centers), engineering schools, national engineering societies, technology-based corporations that support education and other outreach to schools and communities, and federal and state agencies and labs that do or promote engineering, technology, and science.
And my commentary, of course, is compromised by all the conflicts of interest that come with me also being a member of NAE's Committee on Public Understanding of Engineering Messages that helped produce the report.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Why information often doesn't matter ...

Our latest study on stem cell attitudes in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research highlights -- once again -- the importance of value predispositions and religiosity for the formation of attitudes about science. It's not just that religiosity is linked to stem cell attitudes directly, which is correct, but neither novel nor too surprising. The important finding -- among others -- is that religiosity can determine if citizens use all the information they have about science when judging issues like stem cell research (see figure below).

Here's a copy of the UW press release on our study:

June 5, 2008

by Nicole Miller

When forming attitudes about embryonic stem cell research, people are influenced by a number of things. But understanding science plays a negligible role for many people.

That's the surprising finding from a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison communications researchers who have spent the past two years studying public attitudes toward embryonic stem cell research. Reporting in the most recent issue of the International Journal of Public Opinion, the researchers say that scientific knowledge — for many citizens — has an almost negligible effect on how favorably people regard the field.

"More knowledge is good — everybody is on the same page about that. But will that knowledge necessarily help build support for the science?" says Dietram Scheufele, a UW-Madison professor of life sciences communication and one of the paper's three authors. "The data show that no, it doesn't. It does for some groups, but definitely not for others."

Along with Dominique Brossard, a UW-Madison professor of journalism and mass communication, and graduate student Shirley Ho, Scheufele used national public opinion research to analyze how public attitudes are formed about controversial scientific issues such as nanotechnology and stem cells. What they have found again and again is that knowledge is much less important than other factors, such as religious values or deference to scientific authority.

In the case of stem cells, values turn out to be key, says Scheufele. For respondents who reported that religion played a strong role in their lives, scientific knowledge had no effect on their attitudes toward stem cell research. But for those who claimed to be less religious, understanding the science was linked to more positive views of the research.

"Highly religious audiences are different from less religious audiences. They are looking for different things, bringing different things to the table," explains Scheufele. "It is not about providing religious audiences with more scientific information. In fact, many of them are already highly informed about stem cell research, so more information makes little difference in terms of influencing public support. And that's not good or bad. That's just what the data show."

On the other hand, a value system held by a much smaller portion of the American public works in just the opposite direction. The attitudes of individuals who are deferential to science — who tend to trust scientists and their work — are influenced by their level of scientific understanding.

Overall, says Brossard, "more understanding doesn't always change attitudes. A lot depends on people's values. And those values need to be considered carefully when we communicate with the public about these issues."

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

"Change we can believe in" vs. "the science of denial"

Media and politics meet science again ... and probably not for the last time during this election cycle. In his victory speech in Minneapolis, MN last night, Barack Obama call for a renewed "commitment to science and innovation."

This stands in stark contrast to a New York Times editorial today criticizing the current administration for working "overtime to manipulate or conceal scientific evidence" and for placing political appointees in NASA's public affairs office "that ... presented information about global warming 'in a manner that reduced, marginalized or mischaracterized climate-change science made available to the general public.'"

(Click here for the full editorial.)