Friday, December 31, 2010

UW-Madison #1 in online brand presence in 2010 ... ahead of Chicago, Harvard, MIT and Columbia

Wisconsin was the top U.S. university in terms of online brand presence in 2010, according to the annual TrendTopper MediaBuzz university ranking released yesterday by Global Language Monitor. The University of Chicago, Harvard, MIT and Columbia rounded out the Top 5.

While other privates, including Stanford and Princeton, did not make the Top 10 this year, UW-Madison moved up from #6 in the 2009 rankings.

Some technical background from Global Language Monitor on the models and indices underlying the rankings:
"The list is compiled using a mathematical model to measure the 'brand equity' of colleges in terms of their global impact on the Internet and social media during the year.  It indexes standardized "data collected from the Internet, social media, and blogosphere as well as the top 75,000 print and electronic media.  The end result is a non-biased analytical tool that provides a gauge of relative values among various institutions, as well as measures of how that value changes over time."

Monday, December 06, 2010

YouCut: Crowdsourcing anti-science sentiment?

House Republicans recently presented their latest piece of anti-science campaigning.  This follows a failed amendment by Senator Tom Coburn earlier this year to cut off money for the National Science Foundation’s political science program. And funding agencies have been in the campaign crossfire before. During the 2004 election cycle, Congressman Brad Miller was targeted in a campaign ad for having voted against a Republican amendment that would have forced the National Institutes of Health to cancel five specific research grants, including four mentioned in the ad:
"Brad Miller voted to spend your money to study the sex lives of Vietnamese prostitutes in San Francisco.  Instead of spending money on cancer research, Brad Miller spent your money to study the masturbation habits of old men. Brad Miller spent your tax dollars to study something called the Bisexual Transgendered and Two-Spirited Aleutian Eskimos, whoever they are. Brad Miller even spent your tax dollars to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia."
Now, some House Republicans are pushing the idea of stirring up anti-science sentiment among the general public even further, and are trying to crowdsource a "citizen review" of the National Science Foundation:
"We are launching an experiment - the first YouCut Citizen Review of a government agency. Together, we will identify wasteful spending that should be cut and begin to hold agencies accountable for how they are spending your money.

Among the keywords that Republican lawmakers "suggest" the public zero in on:
"success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus"
All of this would be somewhat humorous if the stakes weren't so high. Federal government funding of R&D as a fraction of GDP has declined by 60 percent in 40 years (a statistic that was -- ironically -- compiled by the very agency House Republicans are trying to cut). Meanwhile, U.S. leadership in science and technology is being challenged by China, Japan, and a number of European countries. And an excellent Harvard Crimson editorial today outlined what that may mean down the road:
"Republicans ... must consider the reality that science funding has been the backbone of America’s technical development and prowess. Any attempts to cut or draw down this funding are short sighted, and more importantly, undermine the engine that has catapulted the U.S. into its dominant position today."
The last word on this issue goes to Congressman David Obey of Wisconsin:
"I would rather trust the judgment of 10 doctors sitting around a table than I would 10 politicians sitting around a table when we decide how to allocate taxpayer money for those grants."

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Talk about controversial science may polarize lay publics

Deliberative exercises in controlled and moderated settings have been a fashionable tool for public engagement in science for a while now.  And the idea is not new.  Political science has experimented with the concept for at least a couple of decades, and has come to the conclusion that even the most well-financed and well-meaning efforts are slanted toward specific sub-publics, defined by interest, opinion extermity, and a host of demographic factors (for excellent overviews, see Sanders and Merkle).

Data from one of our most recent NSF projects -- just published as an online-first article in Risk Analysis -- now suggest that real-world talk -- outside of these gated experimental settings -- raises an additional concern: It polarizes already divided publics.  Or as lead author and NC State professor Andrew R. Binder put it in a press release today:
When it comes to public issues pertaining to science and technology, “talking it out” may not always be the best option. A new study from North Carolina State University shows that the more people discuss the risks and benefits associated with scientific endeavors, the more entrenched they become in their initial viewpoint – and the less likely they are to see the merit of other viewpoints.

“This research highlights the difficulty facing state and federal policy leaders when it comes to high-profile science and technology issues, such as stem cell research or global warming,” says Dr. Andrew Binder, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and lead author of the study. “Government agencies view research on these issues as vital and necessary for the country’s future, but building public consensus for that research is becoming increasingly difficult.”
 For additional commentary from the blogosphere, see here, here, and here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The end of rankings? ASU's Michael Crow on a new sociology for U.S. universities

ASU President and former Columbia executive vice provost Michael Crow talks to the Washington Post's Steve Perlstein about the sense and nonsense of educational strategy based on academic rankings and a "new sociology" for U.S. universities:

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

My (virtual) comments at the July 13-14, 2010 NNI Strategic Planning Stakeholder Workshop

In anticipation of the release of NNI’s Updated Strategic Plan -- scheduled for December 2010 -- I just uploaded the (virtual) comments I prepared for the NNI Strategic Planning Stakeholder Workshop this past summer. They touch on the key questions posed to all attendees and speakers, focusing particularly on the interactions among science, policy and lay publics:

The full workshop agenda can be found here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Understanding other religions: Of perceptual filters and cognitive biases

Matt Nisbet has an excellent post up at Age of Engagement, explaining some of the findings in this week's Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey.  His argument is that "atheists are [not] smarter or superior to other groups, but instead, the social climate in the United States encourages and motivates atheists to acquire higher levels of religious knowledge."

And I think Nisbet's analysis is right on target. Communication research has long studied cognitive tuning effects, i.e., more careful information processing and potentially learning among individuals (or minority groups) who anticipate their viewpoints to be challenged in discussions with others:

"In this process, individuals try to make sense of information—especially contradictory or incomplete information ... —to be able to better describe the information to others or perhaps to defend it during future discussions." (Scheufele, 2002).
In addition to these more social-level interpretations, however, there may be a second explanation for some of the Pew findings, rooted in cognitive psychology. In a recent article in Cognition, for instance, Colzato et al. show that religious practice can have  a measurable and and long-lasting impact on attentional processes. And many of their findings show distinct differences across denominations and between religious and secular respondents.

On the one hand, this line of work provides an interesting explanation for the role that religion plays as a "perceptual filter" (e.g., Brossard et al., 2008), i.e., the idea that there are distinct differences between highly-knowledgeable religious and non-religious audiences with respect to how they translate what they know into particular issue stances. More directly related to the Pew findings, however, are the direct impacts that Colzato et al. suggest different religious beliefs can have on perceptual biases:
"'Even a rather abstract bias ... is likely to cause diverging perceptions, interpretations and, eventually, conclusions. Very likely, this divergence stands in the way of effective communication between people with different religious background.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

NRC: Mass Communications at UW ranked among the very top programs in the nation

UW's Mass Communications Ph.D. degree, administered jointly by the Department of Life Sciences Communication and the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, is ranked among the very best in the country in the NRC doctoral rankings released today. Using a 90 confidence interval, the new rankings place Wisconsin's Mass Communications program somewhere between #1 and #6 in the nation on both Overall S-ratings (based on field-specific faculty opinions of the relative importance of the various program factors) and Research Activity ratings (based on four variables used in the overall ranking).  The University of Pennsylvania and Stanford were the only other communication programs whose range in both of these ranking categories included the #1 spot.

A few additional metrics from the NRC study highlight just how vibrant the research culture at Wisconsin really is for the field of communication.  Mass Communications faculty were almost 3 (2.72) standard deviations ahead of the average of the field in terms of the number of publications during the study period. For citations per faculty Wisconsin was 2.20 standard deviations ahead, and for the number of faculty with grants 2.17 standard deviations. 

It is important to note, of course, that these rankings are based on faculty surveys and other data collected almost five years ago, and some commentators described the data released today as stale.  In fact, Inside Higher Ed went so far as to suggest that even the NRC committee responsible for the rankings were no longer willing to endorse them:

"The advance briefing for reporters covering today's release ... may have made history as the first time a group doing rankings held a news conference at which it seemed to be largely trying to write them off.

While the NRC committee that produced the rankings defended its efforts and the resulting mass of data on doctoral programs now available, no one on the committee endorsed the actual rankings, and committee members went out of their way to say that there might well be better ways to rank -- better than either of the two methods unveiled."

Click here for the full set of NRC data and documentation.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The global importance of closing gender gaps .... including one at Harvard

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof gave an excellent talk here at the Kennedy School tonight on the importance of closing gender gaps in the developing world.

One of his premises: Identifying excellence in every single demographic is a necessity rather than luxury, especially for developing countries who try to succeed in increasingly competitive global markets.  And females, Kristof argues, are one of the least tapped demographics globally.  To make his point, he borrowed a statement that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates had made at a business seminar in Saudi Arabia back in 2007 -- to a room with segregated seating for men and women. And it directly addressed the men:
"[I]f you're not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top."
Gates's observation, of course, is one that even the most cynical economists cannot argue with: If there is a certain probability of finding excellence in any given stratum, any underrepresentation from that stratum undermines excellence.

The notion of tapping the best and brightest in every demographic, however, also raises an interesting conundrum at Harvard -- and one that was not raised during the talk and the Q&A tonight.  Last week, the Council of Graduate Schools released a report showing that -- for the first time ever-- more women in the U.S. had received Ph.D.s in the 2008-09 academic year than men.  The important factoid related to tonight's talk: Harvard lags almost 10 percentage points behind the U.S. national average in that category.  The tricky part with problems closest to home is that sometimes they can be the least obvious ones.

Answers to unanswerable questions? Q&A with Age of Engagement

Here are a few excerpts from a Q&A I did with frequent collaborator Matt Nisbet over at Big Think's Age of Engagement. It deals with the need for communication researchers (and social scientists more broadly) to grapple with the big, sloppy and potentially unanswerable questions of our time.  And of course there is no magic bullet and potentially not even a solution on the near horizon for many of these questions. But vanishing voters, an emerging class system of illiterate and literate publics, and the increasingly politicized debates surrounding emerging technologies highlight the urgency for us to get our hands dirty.
What are the hot topics and trends in political communication research today?
Most recent trends in political communication research have been dictated by the tectonic shifts in how politics is communicated and the issues that we as a society are facing. What used to be the “mass” in mass communication, for instance, has morphed into different publics that generate, exchange, and use content in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. And with global warming, synthetic biology or stem cell research, we have seen issues move to the forefront of political discourse that have the potential to bring long-term and far-reaching changes for almost all aspects of people’s daily lives.

Last year there was a proposal to cut funding for research in political science.  It prompted a debate over whether the type of political communication studies dominating the journals had lost sight of the "big questions" facing the contemporary media and political system.  What is your view on this debate?

Many of the big questions that we face as a society – energy independence, global warming, or an increasingly polarized electorate – require answers that transcend the boundaries of a single field or discipline. This is particularly challenging for a young field, such as political 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 supposedly 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, political communication. These are the same areas where most societal debates of the next 50 years will take place. And unless we as political 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.

In recent years, you've applied expertise in political communication research to look at questions at the intersection of science and society such as nanotechnology.  What are you finding about how the public reaches judgments and forms opinions about controversial areas of science?
Nanotechnology is one of the most interesting emerging technologies we have seen in a while, and one with implications for almost any area of political communication. The U.S. and China are in the middle of a race for global leadership in research productivity and patenting. At the same time, the over 1,000 products that are already on the consumer end market have raised questions about lagging regulatory frameworks and consumer protection. And some of these policy debates are beginning to trickle down to mainstream news outlets, amplified by various interest groups and other players in the policy arena.  Our most recent research is tapping some of these dynamics, and particularly the resulting dangers of creating widening gaps between educational elites and less informed citizens with respect to grasping and capitalizing on the benefits of this new technology early on.
 The full Q&A can be found here.

Talk at BU: "From Stem Cell to Nanotechnology: The ‘Science’ of Communicating Controversial Science?"

On October 21, 2010 (3:30-4:40pm) I will be giving a talk in the Communication Research Canter talk series at Boston University's College of Communication, dealing with some of our most recent research on communicating controversial science at the intersection of bench, policy, and public opinion at UW-Madison.

This talk will also draw on some of the work I am doing this semester as a vising fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.)

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

New JoNR article: Seeing the intrinsic value of modern science ... and why it matters for policy choices

I have argued before that an innate belief in the value of empirical science among lay publics is critical for the long-term health of the scientific endeavor. And by that I do not mean blind public buy-in to emerging technologies or their applications. Instead, I am referring to a concept that my colleague Dominique Brossard at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has called deference toward scientific authority.

She has argued very convincingly for a while now that modern science requires a long-term commitment to science by the general public.  Science is not any different from other institutions, such as law enforcement or the Supreme Court, that may suffer from short-term fluctuations in trust, triggered by accusations of racial profiling or allegedly partisan rulings. Trust in science, in other words, is mostly situational rather than predispositional.  And the climate change or oil spills of today will be replaced by a different scientific debate tomorrow. The real danger for scientists, therefore, lies less in fluctuating levels of trust than in long-term declines in deference toward scientific authority, i.e., the belief in the inherent benefit from science for society at large.

The most recent analyses of some of our CNS-ASU's national survey data (led by Prof. Shirley Ho at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University) provide very powerful support for the importance of building long-term, predispositional support for science among U.S. publics. A new article in Journal of Nanoparticle Research (posted as an online-first version today) shows that deference toward scientific authority remained one of the most powerful predictors of people's willingness to support public spending on nanotechnology, even after controlling for other long-terms traits and variables, such as lay publics' levels of religious guidance, trust in scientists, and willingness to process new information.

All of this, of course, further underlines the importance of K-12 education and informal science education, both of which are likely to have a tremendous impact on the importance that lay publics attribute to modern science as a foundation of U.S. economic growth and global competitiveness.  The potential of K-12 to promote science, therefore, may be less a function of conveying cutting-edge scientific findings, especially since the knowledge many of us acquired in high-school or even college-level science classes is long outdated. Instead, K-12 and informal science education is much more about cultivating the belief in modern science and scientific principles as a prerequisite for the long-term economic health of this country.

Friday, August 27, 2010

How to Start a NanoScience Cafe

NISE Net is offering a new online workshop on preparing and hosting your own Nano Cafe during NanoDays 2011. Here's the announcement:
Science cafes are live events in casual settings like pubs or coffeehouses, where scientists engage the public in conversations about current science topics. From September 13 – 24,  the NISE Network will offer a two-week online workshop that will introduce you to science cafes with a nano theme. Discussion will be led by three moderators who have run successful cafes series in their own communities: Amanda Thomas (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry), Brad Herring (Museum of Life and Science), and Jen Larese (WGBH).
In this workshop, we'll cover all the basics about starting a science cafe, including tips for selecting a venue, preparing a scientist/presenter, and marketing your event. We'll also discuss nanoscience and technology topics that can be presented in science cafes, to help you start planning an event for NanoDays 2011.

This online workshop will run through asynchronous text discussions using ASTC Connect, the online learning community of the Association of Science-Technology Centers. Once enrolled, you will receive messages for this discussion in your email. You will be able to select whether to receive messages one-by-one as they are posted or in a daily digest form. Respond to messages on your own schedule by logging in to a password-secured course area, where additional supporting resources will be available.


A limited number of stipends will be available for workshop participants to organize a science cafe series in their community and host a nano-themed science cafe during NanoDays 2011 (March 26 – April 3). Details about this opportunity will be shared in the second week of the online workshop.

How to Enroll

Enrollment for this workshop will open on August 6 and close on September 3. To enroll, email Margaret Glass,  Please enter “NanoScience Cafe” as the message subject line.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Cambridge and nanotechnology

I am getting ready to take my first-ever sabbatical leave from Wisconsin and spend the fall semester as a visiting fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, which is part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

And while reading up on Cambridge, MA last night, I noticed that local nanotech regulations are apparently still a big issue there ... at least according to Fodor's 2010 Boston guide:
"The city of Cambridge takes a lot of hits, most of them thrown across the Charles River by jealous Bostonians. But Boston's Left Bank—an ├╝berliberal academic enclave where the city council spends more energy arguing about the regulation of nanotechnologies than on fixing potholes and funding preschools—is arguably a must-visit if you're spending even just three days in the Boston area."

Harvard's Kennedy School (in the background) on Bing Maps 3D

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lectures from my summer course in "Media, politics, and emerging technologies"

I just finished teaching a summer course in "Media, politics, and emerging technologies" here in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at UW-Madison. Here's an excerpt from the course description:
"We will examine the theoretical foundations from fields like political science, social psychology, and science communication. We will then take a closer look at the communication processes among different stakeholders (players in the policy arena, scientists, journalists, and lay publics) and how they can shape societal debates surrounding science and technology. Based on this more theoretical work, we will explore the real-world political and communication dynamics surrounding issues, such as global warming, stem cell research, nanotechnology, or agricultural biotechnology."

Select online lectures are available on UW's iTunesU site. Click here for a direct link (will open in iTunes or any other video-enabled podcast player)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Reactions to Mooney -- or why more data is a good thing

Chris Mooney's recent Washington Post piece and American Academy of Arts & Sciences report (see nanopublic post from June 29, 2010) produced surprisingly strong criticsm from some bloggers.  The idea that the public may increasingly turn to scientists for answers about the social implications of emerging technologies surely cannot come as a surprise to anyone. Neither can the fact that broad societal debates about issues, such as stem cell, nanotechnology and synthetic biology, will take place if we like it or not.

So what was the fuss all about?  Maybe the idea that science as an institution will increasingly be forced to pay attention the social dynamics surrounding breakthrough technologies?  That, for better or worse, is a simple fact, backed by countless studies (see here for an overview), and not a debatable issue stance.

It's therefore particularly surprising that a good portion of the arguments against Mooney's overview are based on normative notions of what scientists should or should not have to do, or on guesswork about how scientists could better connect with public audiences.  Systematic social science data about what the societal realities are that will likely surround science in the next few years or about the most promising approaches for closing science-public divides are noticeably absent from much of this discussion. 

This is not to say that normative policy positions are not worth debating. But in this case, they ironically reinforce the very point Mooney was making in the first place: More social science data would go a long ways toward making all of these debates more fruitful.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

PEN nano consumer product inventory under fire?

Nanotechnology Law & Business today published an online-first version of an interesting piece by David Berube and his colleagues at North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) Public Communication of Science and Technology project (PCOST). The article takes a critical look at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN) consumer product inventory. The inventory has been used widely as a gauge of the number and types of nano consumer products currently on the U.S. market.

The NC State team analyzed the products listed in the inventory based on
"product name, company, product category, country of origin, availability (is the product available for purchase), countries where the product may be available, what elemental type of nanotechnology was employed or constituted in the product (e. g., carbon, gold, silver, iron, etc.), distribution channel, whether the source link was functional (source link is a term used by the CPI to indicate reference and it was often redundant with the product website), whether the product website was functional, whether it utilized nanotechnology (determined against claims from the website or source site), and if it was included on EC21 ..., a business to business (B2B) product listing website."
 Based on their analyses, the authors conclude

"that the CPI is not wholly reliable, and does not have sufficient validity to justify its prominence as evidence for claims associated with the pervasiveness of nanotechnology on the U.S. and global markets. In addition, we caution researchers to approach the CPI with care and due consideration because using the CPI as a rhetorical flourish to amplify concerns about market intrusions seems unjustified."
Click here for a PDF of the full article.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On the importance of social science for scientific progress

Chris Mooney had an excellent piece in the Washington Post on Sunday on the importance of communicating science and social science, more broadly, for scientific progress in the U.S.  From his concluding paragraphs:
"Experts aren't wrong in thinking that Americans don't know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

They might, in the process, find a few pleasant surprises. For one thing, the public doesn't seem to disdain scientists, as scientists often suppose. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that Americans tend to have positive views of the scientific community; it's scientists who are wary of the media and the public."
And there may be more of a fertile ground for Mooney's recommendations than he implies in his last point. While the AAAS/Pew survey cited in Mooney's piece suggests that scientists are weary of getting caught up in the often heated public discourse surrounding scientific controversies, more systematic survey data from Europe, Asia and the U.S. show that this is not true for many of the leading scientists in fields, such as nanotechnology or stem cell research. A number of colleagues and I detailed these findings in a piece in The Scientist last year:
"What looks like a widespread anti-media sentiment [in the AAAS data] may also have been triggered, at least in part, by question wording. The AAAS survey did not ask respondents if they agreed or disagreed that news media oversimplified findings but, rather, how much of a problem respondents thought it was that they did. Our surveys of biomedical and nanotechnology experts instead asked scientists to express their agreement or disagreement with various statements about the quality of media coverage of their scientific field.

When asked in this more balanced way, 54% of the nano scientists disagreed "somewhat" or "strongly" that media coverage was "hostile toward science." In fact, when asked about the scientific accuracy of coverage, nano scientists were split, with 27% believing that it was inaccurate, 28% believing it was accurate, and about 45% falling in the neutral middle category. Similarly, 49%of biomedical researchers disagreed that media coverage was "hostile toward science," while only 12% agreed. Their assessments of accuracy were similarly split: 33% believed that coverage of their field was inaccurate, 35% believed it was accurate and 32% were undecided."

The Mooney piece is based on a longer report he did for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Also, for a follow-up with reactions from STS, policy and communication scholars, see Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Friends of the Earth turn to web advertising to push their view of EHS nano dangers

The battle over the summer news hole is on.  Friends of the Earth just announced the launch of a web advertising campaign to promote their "public education" effort about potential environmental and human health impacts of nanoparticles in sunscreens:
“What many beachgoers and others enjoying the summer sun don’t know is that the sunscreens they’re using contain manufactured nanoparticles that pose health risks,” said Friends of the Earth’s health and environment campaigner, Ian Illuminato. “What more and more studies are showing is that manufactured nanoparticles may be able to damage cells and have harmful health repurcussions. They also pose risks to workers and the environment, and there’s no evidence that they make sunscreens more effective at blocking the sun’s harmful rays.”
The "education" campaign also dusts off FoE's 2007 Consumer Guide for Avoiding Sun Screens and various other reports from a few years back.

The timing is impeccable, of course, keeping alive a news wave started last week by a push from NY Senator Sen. Chuck Schumer to have the Food and Drug Administration looking into a possible link between retinyl palmitate in sun screens and skin cancer in humans.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PCAST looking for input on innovation potential of bio, nano and info tech

From the PCAST call for input:
"New technologies are changing our world fast, as is obvious to anyone using the latest smart phone, wearing the latest nano-fiber fabric, or filling a prescription for the latest biotech-derived medicine. Now the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) wants to hear from you about how the Federal government can best use its resources so three of the newest and most promising technologies provide the greatest economic benefits to society.

This information-gathering process is being coordinated by the President’s Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), part of the PCAST. Through PCAST, PITAC advises the President on matters involving science, technology, and innovation policy. As part of its advisory activities, PITAC is soliciting information and ideas from stakeholders—including the research community, the private sector, universities, national laboratories, State and local governments, foundations, and nonprofit organizations—regarding a technological congruence that we have been calling the “Golden Triangle.”

Each side of the Golden Triangle represents one of three areas of research that together are transforming the technology landscape today: information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. Information technology (IT) encompasses all technologies used to create, exchange, store, mine, analyze, and evaluate data in its multiple forms. Biotechnology uses the basic components of life (such as cells and DNA) to create new products and new manufacturing methods. Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating and characterizing matter at the atomic and molecular levels. Each of these research fields has the potential to enable a wealth of innovative advances in medicine, energy production, national security, agriculture, aerospace, manufacturing, and sustainable environments—advances that can in turn help create jobs, increase the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP), and enhance quality of life. In combination, through what some have called the nano-bio-info convergence, the potential for these fields to transform society is even greater.
PITAC is interested in gaining a better understanding of how the Federal government can enhance this potential, and would like to gather public information and input as to how to best do so. It is posing the following question:
What are the critical infrastructures that only government can help provide that are needed to enable creation of new biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology products and innovations that will lead to new jobs and greater GDP?
We’d like to hear your thoughts regarding unique opportunities at the intersections of these fields; where the basic research is taking us and what knowledge gaps remain; impediments to commercialization and broad use of these technologies; infrastructure required to properly test, prototype, scale, and manufacture breakthrough technologies; where the Federal government should invest and focus; and what Federal policies or programs relating to these technologies are in need of review and whether new programs or policies may be needed in light of recent and anticipated advances in these fields.

There are two ways you can share your thoughts on this topic. First, you can go to the OpenPCAST website, where you can contribute your ideas on this and a few related questions. Second, you can be part of a live Webcast discussion scheduled to take place on Tuesday, June 22 from 10 am to 2:30 pm. You can watch the Webcast on the PCAST website and submit your comments via Facebook or Twitter. See the PCAST site for more details.

The information we gather from these activities will guide PCAST/PITAC as we recommend policies and programs relevant to the Golden Triangle of technologies, and as we continue our work to propose ways to implement the President’s “Strategy for American Innovation.” It will also help us identify studies that might be conducted as part of PCAST/PITAC’s “Creating New Jobs through Science, Technology, and Innovation” initiative.

We look forward to hearing from you!
Shirley Ann Jackson and Eric Schmidt are members of PCAST"

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Do search engine suggestions make the most popular angle of an issue more popular?

A few more follow-ups on the nanopublic post on Google from May 7, 2010. UW-Madison did a press release today, including some commentary from Dominique Brossard:
"Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google to sort search results, in part, based on how popular particular sites were," [she] says. "For science information, that means that surfers may be offered the most popular results rather than the ones that best represent the current state of the science."
Update: USA Today,,, science + religion TODAY and UW-Madison eCALS have also posted their takes on this research.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How can we improve public trust of science in America?

Based on increasing concerns in both developed and developing nations about low levels of public trust in science, science+religion TODAY recently asked me for "a quick and dirty answer" to the following question: "How can we improve public trust of science in America?"  Here's my response:
"The good news (and the bad) is that public opinion is somewhat fickle.  Like many other attitudes and opinions that we think we hold firmly, our feelings of trust in political actors or institutions are highly susceptible to what is most salient or easily accessible in our minds when we express these feelings. Social scientists refer to this as priming. In other words, whatever considerations are made most salient by heavy media coverage, also tend to be the ones we take into account when forming attitudes. This is not any different for science and scientists.
During the week of December 7-13, 2009, for instance, the subject of global warming occupied one of ten stories published in news media (the most attention it received in the media since the Project for Excellence in Journalism began monitoring the news in 2007). And most of this coverage focused on the potential ethical lapses committed by scientists during Climate-gate (a charge that the UK House of Commons later rejected, by the way). In other words, the public’s thinking about scientists right now is influenced heavily by highly-visible recent coverage of scientific controversies and the politicization of supposedly objective science.  At least, those are the considerations that are most easily retrieved from memory when respondents are asked about how much they trust scientists in surveys.

This is not all bad, of course, since it implies that it is up to scientists to reverse this trend and play a more proactive role in informing public debate, and in highlighting the aspects of science that they think are most important for citizens to understand.  If this means an all out street fight for public opinion, as some have argued, or more nuanced strategies targeted toward convincing a reluctant public of the benefits of science, is another issue.  In either event, the ball is in the court of scientists.

Finally, trust is not everything. Public attitudes toward science and scientists are shaped by a complex interplay of factors, and trust in scientists is just one of many important influences. My colleague Dominique Brossard here at Wisconsin, for instance, has argued very convincingly for a while now that modern science requires a long-term commitment to science by the general public, something she refers to as deference toward scientific authority. Science is not any different from other institutions, such as law enforcement or the Supreme Court, that may suffer from short-term fluctuations in trust, triggered by accusations of racial profiling or allegedly partisan rulings. But the climate change of today will be replaced by a different scientific debate tomorrow.  The real danger for scientists, therefore, lies less in fluctuating levels of trust, than in long-term declines in deference toward scientific authority, i.e., the belief in the inherent benefit from science for society at large. Once we start seeing significant declines in these more ingrained values, we are in real trouble."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

When art meets science: "Symphony of science"

“[T]here are two ways, I think, science can learn from the arts – at least two ways: one, very concretely, in terms of ideas, and the other in terms of communication.”

Adam Bly, Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Seed Magazine: "What can science learn from the arts?"

Friday, May 07, 2010

what people think when they think about nano ... and what role google may play in all of this

When asked in U.S. public opinion surveys which topics or applications they connect with nanotechnology, almost nine out of 10 members of the lay public mention the medical field as one of these connections.
(Based on: Cacciatore, M. A., Scheufele, D. A., & Corley, E. A. (forthcoming). From enabling technology to applications: The evolution of risk perceptions about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science. doi: 10.1177/0963662509347815

This is somewhat surprising, for at least two reasons. First, systematic analyses of newspaper coverage of nanotechnology in the U.S. show health-related topics as one of the dominant areas emerging for nanotechnology.
(Based on: Dudo, A., Dunwoody, S., & Scheufele, D. A. (2009, August). The emergence of nano news: tracking thematic trends and changes in media coverage of nanotechnology. Paper presented at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication, Boston, MA.)
More importantly, however, some of our more recent work in Materials Today -- conducted as part of the Societal Implications Group of the UW Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center on Templated Synthesis and Assembly at the Nanoscale -- suggests that news users' increasing reliance on online sources for science information may explain much more about lay publics' reactions when they think about nanotechnology.

From the paper:
"When searching Google for information about nanotechnology, citizens are likely to encounter health-related content, either through suggested search terms or through the search results provided by Google. This pattern was pervasive across different areas of application, i.e., even for searches not directly related to health. Several non-health searches had more health-related keywords per link than any other domain when averaged over the time period of our study.
This raises serious questions about the delivery and social value of scientific information delivered online.  Framing, while necessary to efficiently communicate complex information to lay audiences, influences people’s choices about an issue16.  It is reasonable to assume that search results that frame nanotechnology in a medical context will also be influencing people’s future searches, further reinforcing Google suggestions and website rankings that are at least partially based on previous searches and indexed web pages. This may create a self-reinforcing spiral that cements a link between health and nanotechnology in online news environments, and reduces the complexity and detail of the information that citizens are likely to encounter online."

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New UW study: Internet may be critical for closing science-public divides

From UW news service:
March 31, 2010

by Chris Barncard

Internet-based science news draws a more demographically diverse, learned and focused audience than print or television news, according to a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison communication researchers.

"Science and technology are among the top reasons people go online," says Ashley Anderson, a UW-Madison doctoral student in life sciences communication. "And those people are more diverse in age and race and more knowledgeable about science and technology than people relying on traditional media. This points to the importance of online communication in reaching a broad audience for science."

Readers of science and technology news online are twice as likely to come from non-white racial groups as consumers of print science news. The Internet virtually levels out gender differences, according to data from the Nielsen Company and UW Survey Center, while shifting upward the percentage of the audience with college degrees and completely missing those without high school diplomas.

Tracking Google search queries and Web content on nanotechnology, Anderson — along with UW-Madison life sciences communication professors Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele — analyzed who goes online for science content, what nanotechnology topics people are looking for, and what they are likely to find when they search for nanotechnology online. Their work will appear in the May issue of the Journal of Nanoparticle Research and is available now on the journal's Web site.

The researchers found that online searchers were most interested in nanobots and health topics, with specialized applications of nanotechnology cropping up slightly less often. In analysis of 19 top sites commonly found in Google searches, health-related information dominated, appearing roughly twice as frequently as technology, research and business nanotech information.

"Clearly, health is the dominant topic for nanotechnology, which somewhat restricts the discourse," Brossard says. "Obviously the technology has much wider applications."

Tracking online content about nanotechnology is important because of the specialized nature of the topic, which is less likely to be found covered in depth in traditional print or broadcast media, according to Anderson.

"Our study tracked 10 different content themes and found that different types of Web sites deal in widely different types of nano content," Anderson says.

Science sites without a particular nanotechnology focus — and — were more likely to feature stories about applications of nanotechnology in health or environment or national security arenas. Web sites aimed specifically at nanotechnology — and among them — were more likely to be reporting on policy issues such as research and regulation, while health almost disappeared as a topic. Government sites primarily focused on business information.

Topics like risks, benefits and uncertainty fell well behind the rest of the content.

"How nanotechnology is portrayed online is important because of the broad reach online media has to different audiences of science information," says Anderson. "Online media sources are the predominant information environment for specialized scientific issues like nanotechnology."

Saturday, March 06, 2010

beyond cross-tabs ... and toward a more sophisticated understanding of public opinion on nanotech?

This week, we saw another summary report on public attitudes on nanotech -- this time issued by the UK's Food Standards Agency.  And there were no surprises as far as punchlines go: a lack of familiarity with nanotech and its applications among the general public and some concerns. The report's conclusions were based mostly on reports of dichotomous cross-tabs -- with little baselining against insights from social science research more broadly about how attitudes are formed, and few statistical controls to provide more granular information into different sub-publics or rule out alternative explanations.

And don't get me wrong, reports like this are very useful, especially as initial quick snapshots of what the public opinion landscape may look like and where we need more research. But similar to recent discussions about the simplistic polling on the health care debate, continuing to reduce the issue of nanotech to aggregate percentage breakdowns of familiarity and support does little to help our understanding of the dynamics surrounding public communication about emerging technologies or to inform and improve policy decisions. 

In fact, it is time for us to move beyond a few often-repeated (but incorrect) assumptions, and look at data in a much more sophisticated (and ultimately useful) fashion:

First, many people (including the most recent report) have argued that knowledge and awareness of nanotechnology have not increased significantly in the last few years.  This is true if we look at the U.S. population as a monolithic whole, assuming that 308 million Americans (or the population of any other country, for that matter) approach nanotechnology in the exact same fashion, regardless of political views, education levels, experiences with previous technologies, etc. Of course, we know from previous research that this is not true, and that the U.S. and other countries may differ significantly as far as attitudes toward nanotech go.

Not surprisingly, therefore, more recent data suggest that knowledge levels about nanotechnology are not static, and that we may be witnessing increases in knowledge and awareness among some groups, while other groups show decreases in understanding, as policy discussions  about toxicity, regulations and applications becomes more complex. In other words, if we examine public opinion data in a more granular fashion, it becomes clear that knowledge and awareness of nanotechnology seem to be in flux and that gaps between the already highly-informed and those with less familiarity about nanotechnology may be widening.  And what makes these widening gaps particularly disconcerting is the fact that those groups who are increasingly being left behind in terms of information levels tend to be of lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Second, a lot of research has focused on risk-benefits perceptions as a key focal variable, asking the public if they think the risks outweigh the benefits, if the benefits outweigh the risks, or if the two are about equal. Of course, these measures are likely fraught with order effects and the inability of respondents to make reliable summative assessments of risks and benefits.  In other words, we need to expand our views on attitudes toward research and funding in particular areas of application. And again, recent research suggests that the link between concrete (as opposed to abstract summative) risk assessments and attitudes is not equally strong for all members of the public, but rather depends on a variety of factors, including people's assessment of likely applications and the risks and benefits associated with them.

This raises a third point: the need for sophisticated modeling beyond bivariate cross-tabulation of data.  Offering percentage breakdowns of respondents supporting or opposing an issue may be useful for initial overview reports, but it does little to help us understand the complexities of how different publics understand risks, what informational deficits they may face, or which areas of nanotechnology they'd like to see more of of a societal debate on.

In order to answer these questions we need to move beyond crosstabs and carefully look at what we know from basic research in communication, political science, and other fields about the public opinion and media dynamics in midern democracies. And we need to rely on state-of-the art statistical and analytic tools to tell us about the complex interplay of demographic variables, values, media, perceptual filters, and information, and about their influences on how the public approaches nanotechnology. Figure 1 shows the complexities of some of those interrelationships when predicting general attitudes toward science.
Figure 1; from Nisbet, M. C., Scheufele, D. A., Shanahan, J., Moy, P., Brossard, D., & Lewenstein, B. V. (2002). Knowledge, reservations, or promise? A media effects model for public perceptions of science and technology. Communication Research, 29(5), 584-608.

Ultimately, our ability to systematically plan and evaluate communication efforts that involve all members of the general public in the debates surrounding emerging technologies is very closely correlated to the sophistication and accuracy with which we understand the opinion and communication environment that shapes all of these efforts.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

March 11, 2010 event: "The ‘Science’ of Communicating Science: New Approaches to Bridging the Science-Public Divide"


Suggested Readings:

Nisbet, M. C., & Scheufele, D. A. (2007). The future of public engagement. The Scientist, 21(10), 38-44.

(Subscriber login required to view.)

Penn, M. (2008). A failure to communicate: Professor Dietram Scheufele says scientists often aren't connecting with the public about the value of their work. And that's not good news. Grow Magazine. Retrieved August 13, 2009.

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.

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 August 13, 2009. (Free registration required to view.)

How to get there:

Directions to Edgewood College

Thursday, February 04, 2010

New study: Public opinion on stem cells in WI shaped more by views on economic potential and scientific competitiveness than religion

UW-Madison Press release from Feb. 3, 2010:

When it comes to stem cell research as a political issue, Wisconsin voters are more likely to be motivated by ideas of economic benefit and scientific progress than by religious objections, according to a new report.
The study, conducted by researchers in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Department of Life Sciences Communication and published this week (Feb. 1) in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, explored the influence of stem cell research in the context of the 2006 race for Wisconsin governor when support for stem cell science was a key campaign issue.

Sorting through data from the summer 2006 Badger Poll, a statewide telephone survey of 508 Wisconsin adults conducted by the UW Survey Center, the researchers found that the stem cell debate, as framed by the mass media's coverage of the issue, was more likely to engage liberal voters than conservative ones in traditional political activities such as signing a petition, attending a demonstration or writing a letter to the editor.

"In Wisconsin, people participated on the stem cell issue because they were motivated by the idea of the economic benefits of continued research and interest in progressive science policy outcomes," says Amy Becker, a UW-Madison graduate student who co-authored the new report with fellow graduate student Kajsa Dalrymple and faculty members Dominique Brossard, Dietram Scheufele and Al Gunther. "At the same time, we did not see a significant relationship between religiosity and issue participation."

Research involving human embryonic stem cells has been a political lightning rod for more than a decade, since they were first successfully isolated and cultured at UW-Madison. The research is controversial because the cells must be obtained from a human embryo, which is destroyed in the process. The all-purpose cells, however, also have important implications for biomedical research and may underpin new companies and industries that capitalize on their potential.

The new study is among the first to examine the stem cell issue in a specific political context and suggests that religious influence on the issue may not be as deep or pervasive as many believed. "What is really interesting is that religion and religious perspectives didn't motivate people to participate directly on the stem cell issue," notes Dalrymple. "People were more interested in the social and economic aspects of the stem cell issue."
However, what was most important in terms of motivating voters on the issue, says Becker, was attention to mass media coverage of the stem cell debate. A key finding of the new study suggests that attention to news media, in particular the written word in newspapers and on the Internet, was an important influence in spurring citizen participation.

The study confirms the importance of the media as "it was guiding voters and motivating them to get involved at the issue level," Becker explains, noting that portrayals of patients who might be aided by advances in stem cell research may have been particularly effective.

The message for candidates of all stripes, according to both Dalrymple and Becker, is that the news media continue to be a primary source of information and exert a strong influence on the electorate and that, at least in the case of embryonic stem cells, religious opposition can be effectively countered by using positive social and economic outcomes as a counterbalance.

The message for scientists, say the authors, is that their voices can be heard as more scientific issues enter the political realm. Says Dalrymple: "When science topics enter campaign discussions, there are opportunities for scientists to have their voices heard."
(See also UW news release and Daily Cardinal story.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

NNI capstone meeting: Risk Management Methods & Ethical, Legal, and Societal Implications of Nanotechnology (March 30-31, 2010)



Wednesday, January 27, 2010

New chaired professorship at Wisconsin deals with societal issues surrounding emerging technologies

UW/CALS press release from today:
"The College of Agricultural & Life Sciences at UW-Madison today announced the creation of the John E. Ross Chaired Professorship in Science Communication. This new Chair – housed in the Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC) – was made possible in part by a substantial donation from John E. Ross (Ph.D, ’54), Emeritus Professor and former faculty member in LSC.  LSC Professor Dietram A. Scheufele (Ph.D, ’99) was named the inaugural John E. Ross Chaired Professor in Science Communication.  “This is a tremendous honor,” says Scheufele, “and it is a privilege to continue the long line of scholars who have explored the societal dynamics surrounding science and technology in LSC, including John and his colleagues more than fifty years ago.”

Dietram A. Scheufele, John  E. Ross, and CALS Dean Molly Jahn

The establishment of this chaired professorship highlights the critical importance of public communication about science in the 21st century. As John Ross stated, when asked about the reasons for this initiative: “We are in the early stages of a scientific renaissance, a renaissance that will recast our understanding of the nature of things and will reshape our collective behavior in response to scientific discoveries.”

Ross’s links to UW and the Department of Life Sciences Communication are profound, beginning with a graduate assistantship in 1948. He was the first graduate of the doctoral program in the then-new field of “Mass Communications” at UW in 1954. His dissertation examined the public relations ramifications of legislative initiatives fostered by farm organizations. He was appointed assistant professor in 1959 and promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1960. He was named professor in 1966, elected chair of the department in 1969, and named the first Associate Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies in 1970. Over the years, he advised 150 graduate students in environmental communication and resource policy, chaired the Social Sciences Divisional Committee, served on the University Committee, served as executive director of PROFS, and generally served as faculty spokesperson to legislators, regents and governmental agencies.

The Department of Life Sciences Communication at UW is over 100 years old and was the first department to teach communication courses on the UW-Madison campus.  Today, the department offers Bachelors, Masters and doctoral education in science communication. LSC’s research, teaching and outreach focus on both applied and theoretical communication issues, and an LSC degree prepares students for professional and academic careers related to communicating science and technology in an era of rapid technological change and media convergence. “The department is delighted to see its record of scholarship, and especially Scheufele’s meteoric rise, reflected in the establishment of the John E. Ross Chair in Science Communication,” said LSC’s department chair, Professor Jacqueline C. Hitchon McSweeney. “The importance of research on public opinion of science has never been greater than now, when science is becoming increasingly politicized and fueling policy.”

Dietram A. Scheufele, the first holder of the John  E. Ross Chair, continues the long tradition of scholarship in science communication in LSC.  He is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in LSC, with affiliate appointments in Science and Technology Studies and European Studies. Scheufele’s work deals with the intersection of science, politics, and society, and is frequently discussed in national and international news outlets. He is also Wisconsin PI for the NSF-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, a former member of the Nanotechnology Technical Advisory Group to the U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and currently co-chair of the National Conference of Lawyers and Scientists.  Scheufele's scholarship and teaching has been recognized with the Robert M. Worcester Award and the Naomi C. Turner Prize from the World Association for Public Opinion Research, the Young Scholar Award for outstanding early career research from the International Communication Association, the Young Faculty Teaching Excellence Award from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, and the Pound Research Award from the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences at UW."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

2010 Science and Engineering Indicators: Do attendance gaps in science and technology museums also lead to widening information gaps?

Despite increasing levels of informal education aimed at communicating with the U.S. public about nanotechnology, recent studies have shown that there has not been much change in the overall level of nanotechnology knowledge reported by public opinion surveys.  Yet, most of these studies have explored the changes in knowledge levels for the public as a whole without analyzing the differences across different types of publics. Data from Chapter 7 of the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 (published just a few days ago) now suggest that we may be in the middle of a widening rift between different groups of citizens: those with lower levels of formal education and those who go to college. 

Education-based knowledge gaps can be expected for a number of reasons. Most importantly, comparisons between the 2008 and 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators (based on data collections in 2006 and 2008, respectively) show that the percentage of Americans with at least some college education who attended a science and technology museum in the past year increased from 37% in 2006 to 48% . This is great news in many ways. But it stands in stark contrast to attendance figures among respondents who had not completed high school and who reported stable attendance of less than 10% in both years.

(Data from keynote presentation at the 2009 NISE Net annual meeting in San Francisco, CA; audio recording here.)

But are these gaps in outreach effectiveness mirrored in levels of public information about nanotechnology? And when I talk about levels of information, I do not mean self reported familiarity or other subjective self-reported assessments of information.  Instead, I am referring to the ability to correctly answer factual knowledge questions over time.  In a new piece in the current issue of The Scientist (see nanopublic post from January 11, 2010), ASU's Elizabeth Corley and I show that those respondents with at least a college degree displayed an increase in knowledge levels between 2004 and 2007 while respondents with education levels of less than a high school diploma had a significant decrease in nanotechnology knowledge levels between 2004 and 2007.

(Data from: Corley, E. A., & Scheufele, D. A. (2010). Outreach gone wrong?
When we talk nano to the public, we are leaving behind key audiences. The Scientist, 24(1), 22.)

Closing these informational gaps among public audiences is a necessity, especially in light of a projected 2009 U.S. budget that has reduced spending for 'educational and social dimensions' of nanotechnology to $33.5 million from $39.2 million in 2007. In a press release for UW, we outlined some strategies for tackling this problem:

"There is a real urgency to find ways of communicating effectively with all groups in society," says Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison and co-author of the study. "Unless we find ways to close these learning gaps, we will create two classes of citizens: those who are able to make informed consumer and policy choices about these new technologies, and those who simply can't."

But there is a silver lining. The study also found that the Internet is one of the most effective methods in closing gaps and informing the less educated about nanotechnology.

"Online and social media are some of the most promising tools for making sure we reach all members of the public with information about science and technology," says Scheufele, "and tools like Digg, Twitter, or Facebook will only become more important down the road."

Monday, January 11, 2010

U.S. public faces widening information gap on nanotechnology

A new piece by ASU's Elizabeth Corley and myself, just published in The Scientist, uses national data sets tracking the exact same knowledge questions over time to show that there are widening gaps in nanotech knowledge among different groups of the public, based on formal education levels.  This directly contradicts what keeps being repeated as a mantra among most academic scholars, policy makers (both in the US and UK), and outreach specialists in the nano community, i.e., that the public is unaware of nanotechnology and uninformed.  Our data show that this unidimensional view is not only incorrect, but that these misperceptions will guide outreach efforts that will be ineffective, especially among already disadvantaged groups of society.

In other words, most commonly-shared beliefs about what people know about nanotechnology are simplistic at best, and largely based on the fact that so far we have not adequately explored the complex dynamics of how people learn about nanotechnology across different types of publics (or have not collected the right data over time in the first place).

As our data show, some publics are gaining nanotech knowledge while the least educated are not.  Every day that researchers spend not addressing these emerging gaps will continue to create more of a disconnect between scientifically literate audiences and the information poor.

Here's an excerpt from ASU's press release on the piece:
"As the global nanotechnology industry continues to produce-cutting edge consumer products, the scientific community is leaving a key part of the U.S. public behind when sharing knowledge of this new field of science, according to a new study by Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


As reported today in the January issue of The Scientist, researchers found widening gaps in nanotech knowledge since 2004 between the least educated and most educated citizens. Americans with at least a college degree have shown an increase in understanding of the new technology, while knowledge about nanotechnology has declined over time for those with education levels of less than a high school diploma, according to the study.

“Unfortunately, people with little or no formal education – those who need outreach the most – aren’t getting as much information about this issue, which will likely become even harder to understand over time,” says Elizabeth Corley, Lincoln Professor of Public Policy, Ethics and Emerging Technologies in Arizona State University’s School of Public Affairs, and co-author of the study. 

Well-educated people who are already “information-rich” are learning about nanotechnology from traditional outreach efforts such as museums, Corley says. 

Closing these informational gaps among public audiences “is a necessity, especially in light of a projected 2009 U.S. budget that has reduced spending for ‘educational and social dimensions’ of nanotechnology to $33.5 million from $39.2 million in 2007,” the article states.

 “There is a real urgency to find ways of communicating effectively with all groups in society” says Dietram Scheufele, John E. Ross Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-author of the study. “Unless we find ways to close these learning gaps, we will create two classes of citizens – those who are able to make informed consumer and policy choices about these new technologies, and those who simply can’t.”

And there is a silver lining. The study also found that the Internet is one of the most effective methods in closing gaps and informing the less educated about nanotechnology. “Online and social media are some of the most promising tools for making sure we reach all members of the public with information about science and technology,” says Scheufele, “and tools like, Twitter, or Facebook will only become more important down the road.”"
Here is a link to The Scientist article and the UW-Madison press release.  Also, what do you know about nano?  Take the nano knowledge quiz.