Monday, December 28, 2009

U.S. News: UW-Madison in the top-10 again

U.S. News and World Report's 2010 rankings have UW-Madison at #9 among U.S. public universities. In the overall rankings, UW slipped four spots to #39, but remains ahead of schools like UCSB, Penn State, Austin-Texas, George Washington, and Fordham.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On the importance of understanding the societal aspects of science ... and of having data

I am just now getting around to posting a few additional thoughts on Daniel Sarewitz and Samuel Thernstrom's recent LA Times op-ed, dealing with the inherent tensions between what is designed to be objective science and its political implications. Discussing the implications of climategate, they write:
"Central to this disaster has been scientists' insistence that they are unsullied providers of truth in an otherwise corrupt and indecipherable world. It was never so. Scholars continue to argue over whether such titans of science as Pasteur and Millikan lied, cheated and fabricated results or were simply exercising good scientific intuition. Popular chronicles of real-world science such as "The Double Helix" demonstrate that, in practice, science is competitive, backbiting, venal, imperfect and, indeed, political. Science, in other words, is replete with the same human failings that mark all other social activities."
Responses in various Twittered and blogged public spheres were as swift as they were simplistic, often endorsing the idea that there is no objectivity in science, period. This is pure nonsense, of course, and was not the point of Sarewitz and Thernstrom's op-ed.  Rather, they argue that the assumption that science and politics are two separate entities is false and that there will always be a political element to science.

And recent data from a systematic large scale survey of nano scientists (see nanopublic post from June 17, 2009) provide an interesting empirical illustration of their argument. 
"[These] data showed that scientists, when they’re being asked for policy recommendations about emerging technologies, do rely on their professional judgments about the risks and benefits connected to nanotechnology. But what's really interesting is the fact that -- after controlling for their professional judgments -- scientists' personal ideologies have a significant impact on their support for regulations."
In other words, even the leading scientists in emerging scientific fields, such as nanotechnology, rely on their political views when making judgments about uncertain science.  Of course, all of this does not call into question the quality of the science that goes into such policy judgments, but it does highlight the fact that when we ask about the societal implications of scientific findings that are still being debated in scholarly circles, we may end up with political answers ... even from scientists.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

BUND wants ban of nanosilver in everyday applications

Germany's Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz (BUND) -- a subsidiary of Friends of the Earth -- last week called for a ban of all consumer products containing silver nanoparticles in particular, and for labeling all products made from some form of nanomaterials more generally. Currently, there are over 300 nano-based products available to end-consumers in Germany, and the German equivalent of the EPA -- the Umweltbundesamt -- recently issued a blanked consumer warning against nanotech-based products (see nanopublic post from October 21, 2009).

Says Wilfried Kühling, chair of BUND's economic advisory committee:
"Die Käufer von Nano-Produkten im Unklaren zu lassen verstößt gegen elementare Regeln des Verbraucherschutzes und gefährdet die Umwelt." ["Leaving consumers of nano products uninformed violates very basic rules of consumer protection and endangers the nevironment."]
See here for a PDF version of BUND's full nanosilver report, and here for some of their other position papers on nanotechnology.

Monday, November 30, 2009

On the future of communication ... and the importance of answering "the big" questions

Here are a few slightly modified and shortened sections from a column I just wrote for the AEJMC newsletter, dealing with the future of communication as a discipline, and the importance of finding answers to the big, "sloppy" questions of our time:
"Communication as a discipline has come to a crossroads. The “mass” in mass communication has morphed into different publics that generate, exchange, and use content in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. And these changes in how content is produced and communicated are paralleled by much more far-reaching shifts in how some cohorts in society interpret traditional notions of privacy, objectivity, and source credibility. And so far, our discipline has not done a very good job at offering answers to what have become increasingly pressing questions in various societal debates. How do social media change how we interact with one another? How does information get disseminated in a fragmented multi-channel media environment? And what does the future of (mass) communication look like?

The tricky part, of course, is that many of the answers to these questions transcend the boundaries of our discipline. This is particularly challenging for a young field, such as communication, that continues to struggle with its identity and its desire to compete on an even playing field with much larger disciplines, such as psychology and political science. And if we are not careful, we may follow these disciplines down some dead ends. A good example is the debate surrounding Republican Senator Tom Coburn’s proposal in October 2009 to prohibit the National Science Foundation from “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects.” Coburn, of course, used the label “political science” but targeted social science much more broadly. And his comments rekindled an old debate among political scientists about incremental disciplinary research versus big questions. Cornell’s Peter Katzenstein summarized this intra-disciplinary dilemma best: “Graduate students discussing their field ... often speak in terms of ‘an interesting puzzle,’ a small intellectual conundrum... that tests the ingenuity of the solver, rather than the large, sloppy and unmanageable problems that occur in real life.”

Interestingly, President Obama has prioritized the search for answers to many of these sloppy, unmanageable problems, ... ranging from mandates for a green economy, to climate change, stem cell research and global warming.  All of these issues relate to the increasingly blurring lines between science, politics, society … and, of course, communication. These are the same areas where most societal debates of the next 50 years will take place. And unless we as communication researchers and educators find a way to make both scholarly and public contributions to these conversations, we will increasingly be marginalized as a discipline.

[A]ll of these debates further highlight the need for theory and methodology as a core field of inquiry in our discipline. ... Some of the most significant contributions to societal discourse by communication scholars have been based on (macro)theoretical models, such as the Spiral of Silence or Cultivation Theory, that dominated decades of scholarly research agendas but also influenced how society thinks about communication-related issues, including media and violence, parental TV ratings guides, election polling, and the evolution of social norms.

Communication theory and methodology, ultimately, are also at the center of effective education in the field of communication. Ten years from now, the media landscape will have undergone even more dramatic changes than we saw in the last decade. And as important as skills training may be, many of the medium-specific or industry-specific competencies we can convey to students today will be made obsolete by emerging technologies and changes in our social structure. So the key question becomes: How do we prepare students for jobs that don’t even exist yet?  And the answer is simple. We need to prepare our undergraduate and graduate students for a world that no longer thinks along medium-, content- or discipline-specific boundaries. In fact, many of the big social questions outlined earlier require answers that draw from knowledge in multiple disciplines. The challenge, therefore, is to equip our students with skill sets that include abstract, theoretical thinking, methodological sophistication, and other types of disciplinary expertise that make them competitive in specific areas of employment, but to also give them the transdisciplinary outlook on the world that will allow them to take leadership roles in solving society's big upcoming challenges.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Jobs: Sustainability Sciences at UW-Madison

The Wisconsin Bioen Initiative at UW-Madison is filling a number of positions related to energy and biofuels, with possible foci in communication policy, economics, agronomy, etc.
Degree and area of specialization:

A Ph.D. and a strong proven record of teaching and research as it relates to the sustainability aspects of biofuels, biomaterials, bioenergy, and related fields of energy storage are required. Applicants with experience in cross disciplinary research and non-academic collaboration are strongly encouraged to apply.

Minimum number of years and type of relevant work experience:

Sustained record of professional achievement as indicated by outstanding teaching, sponsored research and publications, and demonstrated leadership activities in the field. A record of scholarship or demonstrated potential for scholarship suitable for tenure at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Principal duties:

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is committed to improving our future through bioenergy and has created the Wisconsin Bioenergy Initiative (WBI) to facilitate that transformation. The WBI is a university-based coalition that capitalizes and expands the talent to create, commercialize and promote bioenergy solutions. In order to advance these goals, UW-Madison is seeking to hire additional faculty in the bioenergy field within established departments.

Areas that we would like to expand include but are not limited to:
  • Individual with expertise in community and regional development with an emphasis on the economic and physical infrastructure needed for bioenergy development, and the analysis of social, cultural, and land use impacts of bioenegy production, distribution, and use
  • Individual with expertise in behavior change, public attitudes, and social marketing, particularly in the energy sector.
  • Individual with expertise in applied ethics and public policy to support the understanding of the social impacts of new energy technologies
  • Individual with expertise in ecological modeling which may include time series analysis, spatial statistics, hierarchical models and Bayesian statistics that can be applied to natural resource management including assessment of bioenergy potentials and impacts
The position requires instruction in undergraduate and graduate coursework in both core disciplinary courses as well as a renewable energy curriculum. Interdisciplinary and interdepartmental research will be expected to both develop a nationally and internationally recognized research program to further the WBI mission. The successful candidate is expected to strengthen and capitalize on strong ties with industry, institutions and government agencies, and to become a nationally and internationally recognized individual. The individual will also contribute to UW-Madison's strong commitment to faculty governance and the Wisconsin Idea through department, university, professional, and public service.

The UW-Madison campus is located in the heart of the city of Madison that offers an unsurpassed vibrant living and learning community.

How to apply:

Applications should include a comprehensive curriculum, application letter, teaching statement, and proposed research and funding plan and should be sent to

The University of Wisconsin is committed to increasing the diversity of the college community and curriculum. Candidates who can contribute to these goals are encouraged to identify their strengths and experiences in these areas.

Appointment type:  Faculty
Full time salary rate: Minimum $70,000 ACADEMIC (9 months), depending on Qualifications
Appointment percent: 100%
Anticipated begin date: AUGUST 24, 2010
Number of positions: 4

To ensure consideration

Application must be received by: JANUARY 30, 2010
For more information, see here and here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The end of the boy scouts? New Pew data on internet use and social networks

Pew just released a new study on Social Isolation and New Technologies.  Among the more interesting punch lines:
"... Americans are not as isolated as has been previously reported. People’s use of the mobile phone and the internet is associated with larger and more diverse discussion networks. And ... internet use in general and use of social networking services such as Facebook in particular are associated with more diverse social networks."
This is good news, given much of the research I have conducted with colleagues at Cornell and Wisconsin that showed positive impacts of having more diverse discussion networks on political knowledge and participation (e.g., here, here, and here).

The downside of the Pew data: Internet use and use of social networking sites also undermined social support in face-to-face settings, such as family support or helping our neighbors. In short: We may be sharing pictures and status updates with a more diverse and geographically dispersed set of friends, but we're not helping the old lady down the hallway bring in her groceries.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

German nano news wave fed by pseudoevents

The news wave following yesterday's consumer warning by Germany's Umweltbundesamt is in full swing.  Adding momentum are a series of mediated and pseudo events following the original UBA announcement, including a statement from Annette Schavan, minister for science and education, a rebuttal by industry, and speculations among bloggers that the new swine flu vaccine may contain untested nanoparticles.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Germany's Umweltbundesamt will issue nano consumer warning

Germany's Umweltbundesamt (UBA) [Federal Environmental Agency] will release a new study today advising consumers to avoid products using nanoparticles, as long as their effects on the environment and human health are largely unknown. The federal agency is also calling for regulations on labeling and reporting products containing nanomaterials. This would affect the more than 800 German companies that use the new technology in their procts.

See here for the full story from news magazine Der Stern, based on an initial report in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

The wave of coverage surrounding the UBA report, also drew renewed attention to the August, 2009 story linking deaths among Chinese factory workers to exposure to high dosages of nano particles in a factory.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How much of a say should the public have in the direction of science (and how much should be left to the experts?)

This is part of a longer answer I wrote to a recent inquiry by on how much of a say the public should have in the direction of science (and how much should be left to the experts):

"... Many of the survey data we collected at the University of Wisconsin and at Arizona State (Scheufele & Corley, 2008) show that the public trusts scientists to do a good job on the science behind emerging technologies. But some applications in the area of nanotechnology, for instance, have also raised ethical concerns about human enhancement or the creation of synthetic life that have more to do with how we use emerging technologies than the science behind them.

The Public:
So who should shape societal debates about the science and its applications? On the one hand we have a chronically underinformed public who shows limited interest in scientific issues (or political issues, for that matter). As a result, they often make decisions or form policy stances about emerging technologies with little information about the science behind them (Scheufele, 2006b). And this is a description, not a criticism. In fact, we all use information shortcuts or heuristics every day when faced with the need to make choices with incomplete information. Should we be worried about the suspicious looking guy lingering outside our apartment? And what toothpaste should we buy, given virtually unlimited choices in the supermarket? Eventually, we find answers to all of these questions without collecting all available information. We trust certain brands, we rely on previous experience, and we make gut decisions.

Why is that? The answer is simple. We are all cognitive misers or satisficers to varying degrees (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). We use as little information as we think we can get away with or only as much as we think we need to make a decent decision. That is just human nature. And we’re all miserly for different reasons and for different issues. Why don’t most scientists follow Miley Cyrus’s personal life? Probably because they don’t care, and because they see no payoff from learning more about B-list celebrities for either their personal or professional lives. Many citizens, of course, feel the same way about science. Why would they spend time learning about emerging technologies, as long as they feel that they can trust regulatory agencies and universities to produce and manage scientific discoveries responsibly?

But this is exactly the problem that science communicators have battled with for a long time. We should not be concerned about the fact that audiences know little about specific technologies, but that they know little about science. One in four (25%) members of the general public understand the concept of a scientific study, and only about two in five can correctly describe a scientific experiment (42%) or the scientific process more broadly (41%) (National Science Board, 2008). And most empirical studies suggest that this won’t change anytime soon. As a result, my colleague Dominique Brossard here at Wisconsin has argued for a long time that a key variable in well-functioning scientific societies is what she calls “deference toward scientific authority” (Brossard & Nisbet, 2007; Brossard, Scheufele, Kim, & Lewenstein, 2009; Lee & Scheufele, 2006), i.e., the ability to negotiate personal value systems and beliefs with a willingness to defer to scientific expertise for factual information about emerging technologies. And this has nothing to do with blindly trusting scientists. In fact, our work at Wisconsin has shown that values are a critical component of how people make decisions about science, and justifiably so (Brossard, et al., 2009; Ho, Brossard, & Scheufele, 2008). Concerns about destroying unborn life as part of embryonic stem cell research, for instance, can’t be addressed with more science. They can only be resolved in a comprehensive societal debate that deals with values and scientific facts at the same time.

This brings us to the second group – scientists – and their role in guiding scientific progress. In short, the input that scientists can provide into societal debates surrounding emerging technologies is critical. In fact, I have argued many times before that scientists have not played as much of a role in participating in societal debates as they should have (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2007, forthcoming; Scheufele, 2006a, 2007; Scheufele et al., 2009), and that science and society are worse off as a result.

And what we need is not just feedback from the most vocal or most opinionated scientists in a given field, but rather a systematic understanding of what the leading experts in a given field think are prudent approaches to scientific development. The problem with that approach is the U.S. media system. U.S. journalists tend to cover scientific issues by showing “both sides.” This misguided understanding of objectivity often creates science journalism that pits a vast majority of scientists against a small number of vocal dissenters. The recent (and ongoing) debate about global warming is a good example of that pattern.

So is there a better approach to determining scientific consensus on an issue? And the answer is “yes.” Elizabeth Corley in the School of Public Policy at Arizona State and I recently published a series of papers from a systematic survey of leading U.S. scientists in the field of nanotechnology (Corley, Scheufele, & Hu, 2009; Scheufele, et al., 2009; Scheufele et al., 2007). We asked these scientists about their views on public-scientist interactions, about their recommendations for regulations, and about their perceptions of the potential risks and benefits surrounding nanotechnology. And the scientists’ insights are invaluable for societal decision making about these new technologies, including their recommendations for regulatory frameworks at the international level and for risk assessments in specific areas (Corley et al., 2009).

But our survey also showed that scientists sometimes rely on information shortcuts and heuristics, just like everyone else. We found that scientists, when they’re being asked for policy recommendations about emerging technologies, do rely on their professional judgments about the risks and benefits connected to nanotechnology. But our data also showed that – after controlling for their professional judgments – scientists’ personal ideologies have a significant impact on their support for regulations.

These findings, of course, say less about scientists and their expertise than they do about the lack of conclusive data about risks related to nanotechnology. Policy makers need to realize that when they ask scientists to give them advice about inconclusive findings, they will get both their professional judgment and their personal views.


National Science Board. (2008). Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 (Chapter 7). National Science Foundation Retrieved January 21, 2008, from
Scheufele, D. A., Brossard, D., Dunwoody, S., Corley, E. A., Guston, D. H., & Peters, H. P. (2009). Are scientists really out of touch? The Scientist. Retrieved from

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Surveys about science: A primer

Here are a few excerpts from an entry on "Surveys" I just wrote for Susanna Priest's forthcoming Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Communication.
Population surveys are one of the most important tools for tapping how much citizens know about science and technology, how they perceive potential risks and benefits, and what their attitudes are about emerging technologies or research on particular applications.

Sample surveys are defined as systematic studies of a geographically dispersed population by interviewing a sample of only certain members in an attempt to generalize to their population. Two terms of this definition are particularly important: “systematic” and “generalizable.”


The idea of systematically studying a population is a first main goal of sample surveys. Surveys therefore typically rely on a standardized questionnaire is in order to gather reliable and valid information from a wide variety of respondents. Reliability, in this context, refers to the idea that the same instrument – applied to comparable samples – will produce consistent results. But reliability is not enough. It is very possible, for example, that a questionnaire consistently measures the wrong construct. Validity therefore adds a second quality criterion, and refers to the idea that questionnaires need to provide not just consistent but also unbiased and accurate measurements of people’s behaviors, attitudes, etc.

Reliability and validity are tied to a number of factors in the survey process. But two aspects are particularly important when constructing a questionnaire: the overall structure of the questionnaire and wording of specific questions.

When structuring a survey questionnaire, the first concern is length. If a survey takes too much time to complete, it will likely result in significant incompletion rates. Unfortunately, the respondents who tend drop out of lengthy surveys are not a random subset of the population. Rather, they tend to be – among other characteristics – younger, more mobile, and employed full-time. As a result, excessively long survey instruments often produce samples that are plagued by systematic non-response among particular groups in the population, and are therefore limited in terms of their generalizability (see below).

A second concern with respect to questionnaire construction is the way questions are ordered on the questionnaire. Well-constructed questionnaires typically ask easy to answer questions first and sensitive or embarrassing questions later in the questionnaire. One of the most common pitfalls in survey instruments are priming effects, i.e., the notion that some questions can make certain considerations (for instance, risk or benefits of a specific technology) more salient in a respondent’s mind and therefore influence how he or she answers subsequent questions (for an overview, see Zaller & Feldman, 1992)


In addition to questionnaire structure, the wording of specific questions is a critical variable in building a valid instrument. In particular, well-constructed questionnaires use language and terminology that is designed to avoid biases. Such biases may stem from language that is likely to be more accessible to some respondents than others (e.g., terms that are more likely to be understood by certain ethnic groups or education-based cohorts) or that favors respondents who are more interested in or know more about science and technology in the first place. Any wording that feeds into these potential biases introduces systematic measurement error, since it does not produce an equally valid measure across all groups of the population.


These concerns about systematic measurement error are particular relevant for a researcher’s ability to generalize from a sample to the general population. This is both a statistical and a substantive problem.

From a statistical perspective, surveys are designed to allow researchers to make inferences from observed sampling statistics (e.g., 52 percent of the sample favor more research on a particular technology) to unobservable population parameters (the proportion of people favoring this research in the population). For surveys based on probability sampling (i.e., surveys that give each person in the population the same, known chance of being selected into the sample) the margin of error provides an indicator of how close the statistic observed in a sample is to the population, and how certain researchers can be about this inference (usually calculated with a certainty of 95%). For the example above, a margin of error of +/-3% would therefore indicate that we can be 95% certain that the true level of support for more research in the population falls somewhere between 49% and 55%.

But generalizability of survey results goes beyond just statistical considerations – especially for scientific issues, such as nanotechnology or stem cell research. Given the interplay between societal dynamics, scientific complexities, and a lack of widespread awareness, some have raised concerns about the appropriateness of using large scale surveys to tap public reactions to science and technology. These concerns typically fall into one of two categories that are both extremely important for any type of polling: first, what are we doing with people who are not fully aware or knowledgeable about the issue that we are interested in, and, second, can we capture an issue in all its complexities in a short survey?

The concern about unaware respondents is not unique to polling about science and technology. Political surveys routinely show that large proportions of the U.S. public are unable to accurately place presidential candidates relative to one another, even on simple issues, such as gun control (e.g., Patterson, 2002). And in fact, attitude formation about political and scientific issues – for many citizens – has little to do with awareness of or knowledge about the specifics of a particular issue (Scheufele, 2006).

In order make sure that all respondents have the same minimal baseline understanding of the technology that is being studied, surveys typically provide a short introduction to the issue as part of the question. Ideally, this introduction is comprehensive, but does not influence answers to subsequent questions by priming respondents about particular risks or benefits of the technology.


The second concern that is often raised related to the substantive generalizability of survey results about science and technology is the issue of how much detail a telephone survey can get into. Some have argued, in fact, that the systematic nature of standardized surveys is directly at odds with the need for an in-depth and contextualized understanding of how citizens interact with emerging technologies.

And of course these critics are right to a certain degree. Phone surveys, for instance, have clear constraints with respect to length and to the number of questions that can be asked about a single topic. Respondents participate on a voluntary basis and they spend a substantial amount of time on the phone with the interviewer. If researchers ask too many questions about a given topic or if the interview is too long, people tend to get bored or even annoyed and hang up. And this is not just a problem of having fewer respondents overall. Rather, as outlined earlier, if an interview is too long or goes into too much detail it usually creates problems with representativeness.

What we end up with, in this case, is a sample of people that is no longer representative of the overall population. And that, of course, hurts the validity of a poll because it no longer does what it is intended to do, i.e., capture the opinions of everybody in a given population, not just people who are more interested in a given issue or who happen to have more time to respond to a pollster's questions.

As a result, it is important to understand surveys for what they are, i.e.., one method of data collection that allows researchers to tap behaviors, levels of knowledge, and public attitudes toward science and technology in a very systematic and generalizable fashion. This comes with trade-offs related to the complexity of data that surveys provide. In particular, large scale population surveys are concerned with social patterns across large groups of respondents, and pay less attention to the potential complexity of a particular respondent’s belief system, for instance, and how it has developed over the course of his or her life.

Surveys can also be limited in how much they allow for causal inferences. This is particularly problematic for cross-sectional surveys, i.e., data collections at one point in time. Cross-sectional surveys may show a statistical correlation between exposure to science news in newspapers and scientific literacy, for instance, but they typically cannot provide conclusive evidence on the direction of this link. In other words, are knowledgeable respondents more likely to read the science section in newspapers, or does exposure to science news promote learning about science? Answers to these questions are typically provided by other research designs, some survey-based and some not.

Among the survey-based approaches that allow researchers to make some inferences about causality are longitudinal survey designs. These fall into three categories. Trend studies use multiple data collections with different samples to track responses to the same question over time. While trend studies can help researchers identify aggregate-level changes, they do not provide insights into how individual respondents change over time. Panel studies address this problem by providing multiple data collections over time for the exact same set of respondents. Cohort studies, finally are concerned with the effects that socialization or other influences have during certain periods of people’s lives. Is there a difference, for example between respondents who went to college during the first moon landing and those who went to college in the 1990s with respect to levels of interest in science and technology and science media use over the course of their life? In order to answer these questions, cohort analyses examine different subgroups (or cohorts), often defined by age, and compare their development as they grow older.


Dillman, D. A. (2007). Mail and Internet surveys: The tailored design method (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.

Patterson, T. E. (2002). The vanishing voter: Public involvement in an age of uncertainty. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publishers.

Scheufele, D. A. (2006). Messages and heuristics: How audiences form attitudes about emerging technologies. In J. Turney (Ed.), Engaging science: Thoughts, deeds, analysis and action (pp. 20-25). London: The Wellcome Trust.

Zaller, J., & Feldman, S. (1992). A simple theory of survey response: Answering questions versus revealing preferences. American Journal of Political Science, 36(3), 579-616.
The encyclopedia, including the full chapter on surveys, is scheduled to appear with Sage in July 2010.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Partisan gaps in attitudes toward biofuels in Wisconsin

Almost two thirds of Wisconsinites support the use (62.5%) and production (60.4%) percent of biofuels. They are less sure, however, about the best ways to promote this new technology. Only a minority of Wisconsin citizens think that federal (47.9%), state (42.7%) or government subsidies (48.7%) should be used to promote biofuels. While almost three in five (59.7%) Wisconsin citizens think that the free market should regulate biofuels, however, a majority (52.7%) also believes that the oil industry will not invest in the new technology without government regulations.

These results are part of a new study of attitudes toward biofuels among Wisconsin citizens, conducted by a research group led by myself and Bret Shaw in Life Sciences Communication at UW-Madison.

The tensions between markets and regulations are to some degree explained by clear ideological rifts within the Wisconsin population. While a majority registered Democrats support the use of government subsidies for biofuels research (60.6%), less than 40% of registered Republicans do (38.9%). Similarly, three out of four (75.6%) Republicans believe that the free market should regulate biofuels -- a view that is shared by only 43.7% of Democrats. A majority of both Democrats (60.0%) and Republicans (51.3%), however, agree s that without government regulations, the oil industry will never invest in the development of biofuels.

Click here for the official UW-Madison press release with more details on the study.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Wisconsin among 20 most cited institutions worldwide

Wisconsin is once again in good company. Along with Harvard, MIT, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford and other institutions, UW-Madison was just ranked in the top 20 of the most cited institutions worldwide in the last decade. Enough said.

Click here for a PDF copy of the full report.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Science communication - overview of the state of the discipline in American Journal of Botany

A new article in the American Journal of Botany shows that building a public that is more attuned to science requires more than enhancing scientific literacy. The article, co-authored by American University professor Matthew C. Nisbet and myself, emphasizes that science communication efforts need to be based on a systematic, empirical understanding of the intended audience’s existing values, knowledge, and attitudes, their interpersonal and social contexts, and their preferred media sources and communication channels.
(Click here for the EurekAlert release; the full article is available here.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Unitizing journalism 2.0: The "nanostory"

Apparently, the traditional news story is dead, and journalism 2.0 comes with its very own unit of categorizing news: the nanostory -- at least, according to Bill Wasik's new book And then there's this.
"I introduce the idea of the "nanostory," which I see as the basic unit of new-media culture. Basically a nanostory is an intense media narrative about what's happening at the moment. For example, here are some examples of nanostories from last week:
* Bill Clinton's intervention to save two US journalists in North Korea
* The right-wing mobs at Democratic town-hall meetings on health care
* Nancy Pelosi's comment about "swastikas" on protesters' signs
* Sarah Palin's claim that a "death panel" might decide to euthanize Trig
* The Obama Administration's health care logo
* The "Obama as Joker" posters
* Thursday's Twitter outage
* The death of John Hughes"
Journalism 1.0, of course, called this a "news wave," but that was before the millisecond Twitter news cycle.

(More at TMPCafe.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Is science out of touch? Probably not as much as we thought ...

The Scientist just published a new column by myself and a number of colleagues from Wisconsin, Arizona State, and Jülich, arguing that the rifts between scientists and lay publics may not be as deep as some recent surveys suggest. Among the differences between a recent AAAS poll and other expert surveys? Question wording and sampling.
"In a recent AAAS/Pew survey, one in five U.S. scientists named the chronic difficulties in communicating with and educating lay audiences as one of the greatest U.S. scientific failures of the past 20 years. The real surprise, however, was that scientists do not seem too eager to find a solution -- at least not according to the AAAS/Pew data. Only about two in five AAAS scientists reported that they often talk to non-scientists about findings from their research, and only 3% often talk to reporters.

But are things really that bad? As part of two independent research teams, we interviewed nationally representative samples of scientific experts in nanotechnology, stem cell research and epidemiology. Data from these surveys suggest much more optimistic views among scientists about interactions with journalists, mass media, and lay audiences. At least two important differences in survey technique may explain these contrasting findings ..."

(The full column can be found here.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Of Twitter and the problem of collective (ir)rationality

I am still struggling to understand the worldwide craze over the fairly unspectacular opinions of a 15 year-old Morgan Stanley intern who -- in the best case scenario -- googled his "findings" off an April 2009 ComScore report. But at least this kind of "market research" helps explain why the leading banks were on the brink of bankruptcy just a few month ago.

Almost 20 years ago, Page and Shapiro wrote an excellent book about the paradox of rational decision making by largely uninformed mass publics. This "collective rationality," of course, unfailingly disintegrates every summer when journalists have a hard time finding anything to fill the news hole.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Uncertain science, regulations, and personal ideologies of nano scientists

Journal of Nanoparticle Research today posted the online-first version of a forthcoming article by Elizabeth Corley, Qian Hu, and myself on how leading U.S. nano-scientists form policy stances about nanotechnology (DOI: 10.1007/s11051-009-9671-5).

The article sheds some interesting light on the role of scientists in the emerging policy debates about nanotechnology. Not surprisingly, our data showed that scientists, when they’re being asked for policy recommendations about emerging technologies, do rely on their professional judgments about the risks and benefits connected to nanotechnology. But what's really interesting is the fact that -- after controlling for their professional judgments -- scientists' personal ideologies have a significant impact on their support for regulations.

These findings, of course, say less about scientists than they do about the lack of conclusive data about risks related to nanotechnology. Policy makers need to realize that when they ask scientists to give them advice about inconclusive findings, they will get both their professional judgment and their personal views.

The JoNR paper is based on the first nationally representative survey of leading U.S. nano scientists. For the full press releases from UW and ASU, click here and here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Grow Magazine on science communication disconnects

This is from an interview that I gave to GROW magazine (published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences) a while back. I just noticed that the full interview is now online:
While most people in CALS study science, you look at how science is communicated and perceived by the public. Why is it important to study this issue?

It’s 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 the research. Most recent studies, including some of our own, show clearly that information is only part of the equation. For one thing, if it doesn’t reach certain parts of the audience, we obviously have a problem. But even if we reach everyone, there are still different publics who all use information differently.

Are scientists putting too much faith in information?

Not necessarily. Information is still at the core of the message. But scientists may be too optimistic about the power of information alone, rather than also paying attention to how that information needs to be presented—especially to audiences who traditionally don’t pay that much attention to science. We often think that museums, science sections of newspapers and traditional outreach are enough to inform the public. And they do a great job. But simply putting scientific information out there through traditional channels may in fact favor people who already know more or are more interested in science. In other words, we may end up unintentionally widening knowledge gaps.

The difficult part is not to talk about science to a PBS audience. It’s making PBS content accessible to an MTV audience.

(Click here for the full interview.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Columbia Journalism Review on hard-to-reach science audiences

Can we reach traditionally underserved audiences with new modes of science outreach?
“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it, told the Times. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

"Indeed, the effort is “a publicity tsunami relative to traditional science communication practices,” wrote American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet on his Framing Science blog. It is a strategy that Nisbet and co-author Dietram Scheufele call “going broad” in a paper currently under review. The goal, according to an excerpt of the paper, is to move science communications “beyond elite audiences,” where they usually stop. Nisbet and Scheufele cite a number of Pew Research Center reports showing that the nightly television news, as opposed to newspapers, and outlets such as The Discovery Channel, as opposed to science magazines, are the predominant sources of scientific information for most people."

(Click here for the full story.)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

UW media buzz ahead of Cornell, Princeton, Yale and Berkeley

UW-Madison ranks sixth in university media study

April 9, 2009

by John Lucas

The University of Wisconsin-Madison was ranked sixth nationally in a new study examining how often colleges and universities appear in the global print and electronic media, on the Internet, blogosphere and social networking sites.

The Global Language Monitor (GLM) study of the nation's Top 100 colleges and universities was released today (April 9).

Harvard University and Columbia University ranked first and second, with the University of Chicago coming in third, followed by the University of Michigan and Stanford University.

UW-Madison ranked sixth, followed by Cornell, Princeton, Yale and the University of California, Berkeley, rounding out the top 10. The analysis is believed to be one of the first measuring mentions on social media sites.
(Click here for full UW press release.)

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Framing nano?

The Swiss think tank Die Innovationsgesellschaft just released their "Framing Nano" report, that tries to summarize and -- more importantly -- provide some direction for the global policy debates about nano. Efforts like these are particularly relevant as we're beginning to get a better data-driven understanding of the global and cultural dynamics that shape public support for nanotechnology.

From the report:
"The second goal is to shape the debate. The analysis of the information collected permits understanding of how communication and cooperation on these themes takes place, which are the main or the most evident gaps, needs, points of agreement and disagreement, critical factors in the current knowledge and regulation framework of nanotechnology, and what is the position of the interested stakeholders.

The third goal is to foster the debate on regulation and governance of nanotechnology, as the report is intended to be a working document giving a comprehensive picture of the overall situation. Documents on this subject are published on a continuous basis, giving ever new inputs to the debate. With the aim of acting as a funnel for this information, the project plan foresees collecting and integrating it into the report throughout the project lifetime, and to use it in the development of the final Governance Plan."

(Click here for the full report.)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Editorials by Rodgers and Currall in Nature Nanotechology

The latest issue of Nature Nanotechnology contains a symposium on public perceptions of nanotech, including print versions of some studies first released late last year and highlighted here and here. The thematic focus is also bracketed by two excellent editorials--one by Nature Nanotechnology Chief Editor Peter Rodgers, and one by Steven Currall, Vice Dean of Enterprise at University College London, and professor at the London Business School.

From Rodgers' editorial:
"It is well documented that most members of the public have not heard of nanotechnology ... . This state of affairs could be construed as good news, because it means that nanotechnology continues to avoid the GMO-style backlash that many once considered inevitable. However, low levels of popular recognition in public opinion surveys could also be viewed as bad news because public funding is still very important for basic research in nanoscience and technology, even if companies now invest more in this field than governments3, and because the eventual success of the whole nanoenterprise will depend on people accepting and buying nano-enabled products. "

(Read complete editorial here.)
And from Steven Currall's overview piece:
"Importantly, social scientists also have a further obligation to translate their technical research findings into language that is directly useful to others. Based on a deepening understanding of predictors of public perceptions, scientists, policymakers and businesses will therefore be better positioned to anticipate trends that will dictate how the public reacts to new scientific developments and commercial products based on nanotechnology."

(Read the complete editorial here.)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

New PEW report: Approximately 40%-50% of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of the origins of life

What else is there to say?
On Darwin’s 200th Birthday, Americans Still Divided About Evolution

by Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center, and Juliana Horowitz, Research Associate, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press

February 5, 2009

February 12 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the British naturalist who developed the theory of evolution through natural selection. Darwin published his treatise on evolution, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, nearly 150 years ago. Darwin's theory was controversial from the outset, and remains so among the public in his home country as well as in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Opinion polls over the past two decades have found the American public deeply divided in its beliefs about the origins and development of life on earth. Surveys are fairly consistent in their estimates of how many Americans believe in evolution or creationism. Approximately 40%-50% of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of the origins of life, while comparable or slightly larger numbers accept the idea that humans evolved over time. The wording of survey questions generally makes little systematic difference in this division of opinion, and there has been little change in the percentage of the public who reject the idea of evolution.

(Full report here.)