Sunday, December 04, 2011

Social media and the future of (polarized) news - a primer for 2012

With an eye toward the 2012 election cycle, my colleague Matthew C. Nisbet at American and I recently summarized some of the recent trends in how journalists and audiences use new (social) media and what it means for the political process.  Here are a few excerpts from the pre-publication version of a chapter we wrote for the next volume of Communication Yearbook:
[Excerpt from:  Scheufele, D. A., & Nisbet, M. C. (forthcoming). Online news and the demise of political debate. In C. T. Salmon (Ed.), Communication Yearbook (Vol. 36). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. | PDF]
[W]ith more Americans saying that they get their news on a daily basis from online sources than from local newspapers (Purcell, Rainie, Mitchell, Rosenstiel, & Olmstead, 2010), the presentation, selection, and availability of news is no longer chiefly controlled by journalists.  Nor is the primary goal to attract diverse audiences to a hierarchically organized portfolio of coverage defined by an entire broadcast or newspaper edition. Instead, the objective is to lure a combination of habitual and incidental news consumers to specific online stories by way of search engines, aggregators, and social networks.  This strategy allows news organizations to maximize page views while also tracking and selling personal information about consumers via third party partners such as Facebook.  At least three related trends enable this goal.  
a. Opinionated news and niche audiences:  The proliferation of niche cable channels such as MSNBC and Fox News and highly specialized online information environments such as Huffington Post or The Daily Caller have led to an increasing fractionalization of news choices and audiences.  Driven by commercial concerns, much of this fractionalization has occurred along partisan fault lines.  Or as Rachel Maddow put it: “Opinion-driven media makes the money that politically neutral media loses.” (Maddow, 2010, p. 22).  And as more recent research shows, these fragmented news environments have the potential to produce more apathy among some segments of the electorate and more partisan polarization across the population overall (Prior, 2007). 
b. Algorithms as editors:  The increasing shift toward online presentation of news, even among traditional news outlets, has also provided media organizations with new real-time metrics of audience preference and the ability to make decisions about news selection and placement based on these metrics.  This use of “algorithms as editors” (Peters, 2010) is not without pitfalls. Increasing the influence that reader preferences have on story selection and placement also increases the likelihood of a spiral of mutual reinforcement.  In other words, stories that readers selectively attend to will be placed more prominently on news(paper) web sites, which – in turn – increases the odds of readers finding them in the first place.  This makes it easy for readers to select content based on popularity, interest, or political identity; opting out of the professional hierarchy of front page headlines and lead stories that might appear in a printed newspaper or broadcast.

c. Self-reinforcing search and tagging spirals: This notion of reinforcing spirals is exacerbated in online search environments where search engine rankings and search suggestions can heavily influence the overall information infrastructure. The process depends not only on the algorithms used by search engines but also on the tagging and optimization strategies pursued by news content providers, aggregators, bloggers, and interest groups (Hindman, 2009).  Examining the presentation of scientific information online, Ladwig and colleagues (Ladwig, Anderson, Brossard, Scheufele, & Shaw, 2010), for example, found that the “suggest” function in Google’s search results often did not correspond to the online information environment that was available to audiences (based on systematic analyses of the complete population of web sites and blogs).  As a result, the guidance provided by Google search suggestions is likely to disproportionally drive traffic, regardless of the content available, and create a self-reinforcing spiral that reduces the complexity and diversity of the information that citizens encounter online (Ladwig, Anderson, Brossard, Scheufele, & Shaw, 2010).
... Many of these more media-centric filters work in tandem with individual-level behaviors and choices.  Prior’s (2007) hypotheses about the polarizing effects of increasing channel diversity, for instance, are based heavily on the assumption that individuals actively make choices about the content (news vs. entertainment) that they attend to.  But the social texture that is developing in web 2.0 information environments produces a communication landscape in which at least two new modes of audience-centric selectivity that are likely to influence news choices. 
a. Automated selectivity: In online environments, news portals and aggregator sites allow for highly effective individual pre-selection of the information that reaches us. iGoogle, myYahoo and other news aggregators allow audiences to selectively receive and attend to news items, based on a set of fine-grained filters that can include medium, outlet, content, author and a host of other pre-defined criteria.  In contrast, visitors to the landing page for online newspapers may be able to skim or skip stories that they disagree with or find boring, but they will have a hard time making a selective choice without at least briefly glancing at the lead or headline.  Portals and other news aggregators – in contrast – will make sure that some stories never even reach our computer screen. Smart phones, tablets and other portable devices make it easier to skim and select when consuming news, creating further incentives for news organizations to cater to this selectivity in their design of mobile applications.
b. Networks as filters: This individual-level set of filters, however, is being complemented by maybe even more effective social filters. Based on a series of experiments about online information use patterns in various social settings, Messing and colleagues (2011), for example, predict that “social information, and especially personal recommendations, will emerge as the most important explanatory factor shaping both the media environment to which an individual is exposed, and the content that the individual chooses to view” (p. 29). 
And the notion of networks as selective filters may be more prevalent than we think. Seventy-five percent of online news consumers now say they get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites (Purcell et al., 2010), i.e., information that is passed along and preselected by people who are strongly likely to share their worldviews and preferences.  And much of this information is not presented in an isolated news environment, similar to traditional newspapers or television broadcasts, but instead is socially contextualized almost immediately by a host of reader comments, Facebook “like” buttons, and indicators of how often a story has been re-tweeted.
The potential effects of such social-level contextualization on individual news selection are less clear, and two competing hypotheses can be put forth ... The first hypothesis suggests that we may be moving toward a society where we are less and less exposed to (and less and less used to) disagreement and viewpoints that are different from our own.  Highly like-minded and homophilic networks, in other words, may exacerbate the effects of individual-level selectivity and produce an even more fine-grained filter for incoming information.  The result would be a very pronounced spiral of self-reinforcing attitude polarization ... Journalists and other professional groups such as scientists are likely to be part of this attitude polarization; since these groups tend to be disproportionately like-minded in their political outlook, are heavier users of online news sources and social media; and face greater demands on their time in managing and using information (Besley & Nisbet, forthcoming; Donsbach, 2004).  
A number of recent studies, however, provide some preliminary evidence for a more optimistic hypothesis. It is based on the assumption that friendship networks may often be more politically diverse than the individuals in these networks perceive them to be.  In other words, “friends disagree more than they think they do” (Goel, Mason, & Watts, 2010, p. 611). This also means that socially homophilic networks may be characterized by more political diversity than we often assume.  Messing et al (2011), in fact, infer that socially-networked information environments can “create at least marginally more cross-cutting exposure to political information” (p. 30) than situations where individuals select news items without additional social cues.  
It remains to be seen if these findings are replicated in future work and socially-networked information environments can in fact increase exposure to non-likeminded views.  If they do, they could produce some of the same beneficial outcomes that we outlined in our work on heterogeneous face-to-face networks (Scheufele et al., 2006; Scheufele et al., 2004) ... It is clear that communication researchers have only begun to fill in parts of a large grid of research questions which will have to be answered in the near future. …  Whatever the answers may be that we as a discipline provide, they will have important implications for how we conceptualize and measure communication effects, effectively design online media, educate professionals and the public, and regulate media content and platforms. But more importantly, they will raise normative questions about the future of a media system that – driven by media-centric or audience-centric shifts – no longer provides a commonly shared and professionally defined hierarchy of stories and ideas.
Abramowitz, A. (2009).  The disappearing center.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 
Bennett, W. L., & Iyengar, S. (2008). A new era of minimal effects? The changing foundations of political communication. Journal of Communication, 58(4), 707-731. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.00410.x 
Besley, J., &; Nisbet, M. (forthcoming). How scientists view the public, the media and the political process. Public Understanding of Science. First published online August 30, 2011 as doi:10.1177/0963662511418743.  
Bishop, B., & Cushing, R. (2008).  The big sort: Why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart.  New York: Houghton Mifflin. 
Brossard, D., Scheufele, D. A., Kim, E., & Lewenstein, B. V. (2009). Religiosity as a perceptual filter: Examining processes of opinion formation about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science, 18(5), 546–558. doi: 10.1177/0963662507087304
Donsbach, W. (1991). Medienwirkung trotz Selektion: Einflussfaktoren auf die Zuwendung zu Zeitungsinhalten [Media effects despite selection: Influences on attention to newspaper content]. Köln, Germany: Böhlau. 
Donsbach, W. (2004). Psychology of news decisions. Journalism, 5(2), 131. 
Downie, L. & Schudson, M. (2009, Oct. 19). The reconstruction of American journalism. Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved November 29, 2011, from
Galtung, J., & Ruge, M. H. (1965). The structure of foreign news. Journal of Peace Research, 2(1), 64-91.  
Gans, H. (1979). Deciding what’s news New York: Pantheon Books. 
Goel, S., Mason, W., & Watts, D. J. (2010). Real and perceived attitude agreement in social networks. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 611-621. doi: 10.1037/a0020697 
Hindman, M. (2009). The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, NJ: University Press. 
Ho, S. S., Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2008). Effects of value predispositions, mass media use, and knowledge on public attitudes toward embryonic stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 20(2), 171-192.  
Kim, E., Scheufele, D. A., & Han, J. Y. (2011). Structure or predisposition? Exploring the interaction effect of discussion orientation and discussion heterogeneity on political participation. Mass Communication & Society, 14(4), 502-526. doi: 10.1080/15205436.2010.51346 
Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 480-498. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.108.3.480 
Ladwig, P., Anderson, A. A., Brossard, D., Scheufele, D. A., & Shaw, B. (2010). Narrowing the nano discourse? Materials Today, 13(5), 52-54. doi: 10.1016/s1369-7021(10)70084-5 
Maddow, R. (2010). Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics [transcript]. Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University.  Retrieved November 21, 2011, from 
McLeod, J. M., Scheufele, D. A., & Moy, P. (1999). Community, communication, and participation: The role of mass media and interpersonal discussion in local political participation. Political Communication, 16(3), 315-336. 
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27(1), 415-444. doi: 10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.415 
Messing, S., Westwood, S. J., & Lelkes, Y. (2011). Online media effects: Social, not political, reinforcement. Unpublished manuscript. Stanford University. Palo Alto, CA. Retrieved from 
Mutz, D. C. (2002a). The consequences of cross-cutting networks for political participation. American Journal of Political Science, 46(4), 838-855.  
Mutz, D. C. (2002b). Cross-cutting social networks: Testing democratic theory in practice. American Political Science Review, 96(1), 111-126.  
Nisbet, M. C. (2005). The competition for worldviews: Values, information, and public support for  stem cell research.  International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 17(1), 90-112. 
Nisbet, M. C. & Scheufele, D. A. (2004).  Political talk as a catalyst for online citizenship.  Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 81(4), 877-896. 
Peters, J. W. (2010, July 5, 2010). At Yahoo, using searches to steer news coverage, The New York Times, p. B1. Retrieved from 
Prior, M. (2007). Post-broadcast democracy: How media choice increases inequality in political involvement and polarizes elections. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. 
Purcell, K., Rainie, L., Mitchell, A., Rosenstiel, T., & Olmstead, K. (2010). Understanding the participatory news consumer. Pew Internet & American Life Project.  Retrieved August 10, 2010, from
Scheufele, D. A. (2011). Modern citizenship or policy dead end? Evaluating the need for public participation in science policy making, and why public meetings may not be the answer. Paper #R-34, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy Research Paper Series. Harvard University. Cambridge, MA. Retrieved from 
Scheufele, D. A., Hardy, B. W., Brossard, D., Waismel-Manor, I. S., & Nisbet, E. (2006). Democracy based on difference: Examining the links between structural heterogeneity, heterogeneity of discussion networks, and democratic citizenship. Journal of Communication, 56(4), 728-753.  
Scheufele, D. A., & Nisbet, M. C. (2002). Being a citizen online - New opportunities and dead ends. Harvard International Journal of Press-Politics, 7(3), 55-75.  
Scheufele, D. A., Nisbet, M. C., & Brossard, D. (2003). Pathways to participation? Religion, communication contexts, and mass media. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 15(3), 300-324. 
Scheufele, D. A., Nisbet, M. C., Brossard, D., & Nisbet, E. C. (2004). Social structure and citizenship: Examining the impacts of social setting, network heterogeneity, and informational variables on political participation. Political Communication, 21(3), 315-338.  
Tuchman, G. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York, NY: The Free Press. 
Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: Biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 577-585.  
White, D. M. (1950). The 'gatekeeper':  A case study in the selection of news. Journalism Quarterly, 27(3), 383-390. 

Friday, October 07, 2011

From Terminator to curing cancer: Wisconsin Academy talk on the societal impacts of nanotechnology

The Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters just posted my talk from last week on the political and societal impacts of nanotechnology:
"Recent scientific breakthroughs, such as nanotechnology, are changing the world as we know it. Gold nanoshells, for both imaging and targeting tumors, have the potential to revolutionize cancer treatments. At the same time, nanotechnology has raised concerns about what it means to create and manipulate materials at the molecular scale that do not occur in nature. With over 1,000 nano-based consumer end products entering the market in the past few years, consumer advocates, academics, and policy makers are scrambling to weigh the risks and benefits of this new technology and its applications. How do we form opinions even though most of us lack a comprehensive scientific understanding of emerging scientific fields? How do we use our personal values and moral standards to make sense of scientific facts? And why does all of this matter for the global leadership role of the U.S.--both economically and technologically--in a rapidly changing post 9-11world? Join Dietram Scheufele at the 2011 Wisconsin Science Festival for a crash course on making sense of breakthrough technologies that have the potential to transform virtually all aspects of our everyday lives."

Academy Evenings with Dietram Scheufele from Jason A. Smith on Vimeo

Monday, September 19, 2011

I'm a Scientist - the Film

Six scientists share their thoughts and stories with biophysicist Stephen Curry about how they got interested in science, what keeps them going and what makes a good scientist. 

Thanks to nanowerk for the link.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

New study with lessons for Boehner et al.: Talking about our disagreements makes for better politics

A week before the 2010 midterm elections, House majority leader John Boehner announced that "this is not a time for compromise." And during the recent budget crisis, House Republicans have been following Boehner's doctrine almost religiously.  They have walked out on budget discussions, given separate televised statements and avoided talking to Democrats face-to-face whenever possible.

In some respects, Republicans are simply mirroring the broader political culture in this country.  Our politics seem to get more polarized, but as findings show, we're reluctant to talk to those who disagree with us in order to sort out our differences.  And a new study we just published in Mass Communication & Society suggests that this may be a huge missed opportunity.

Our national survey data show a significantly stronger positive link between hearing different views and being willing to participate in political processes for people who were willing to speak out in these encounters. In other words, disagreement in discussions about politics can be a good thing.  But it does depend on citizens' willingness to actively participate in these discussions and actually talk about their disagreements.

I wrote up a few paragraphs about what this may mean for our political system more broadly for a report that the Foley Institute at Washington State University is preparing on a conference on "Civility & Democracy in America" they held out in Spokane earlier this year.
"Political discussions ... may be a little bit like sports.  The payoff from sitting passively in our recliners, holding a can of beer and watching March Madness is probably minimal. Watching sports on TV does not get us in shape.  In fact, it may make us slightly obese and even more apathetic.  But actively participating in a team sport is a different story.  Going out on the basketball court and playing against another team may leave us bruised and sore the next morning, but – in the long run – it is what keeps us in shape.
The parallels between sports and civil or uncivil exchanges among citizens go even further than that.  Similar to watching a basketball game on TV, passive, armchair disagreement does not strengthen our "democratic" muscle. In fact, some research suggests that it may have negative effects, and that exposure to uncivil discourse in talk shows can have detrimental effects on people’s trust in various aspects of the political system.
The positive effects of disagreement and maybe even incivility may therefore come from entering the fray and actively participating in the game, to stay in the basketball analogy. This would certainly be consistent with the significantly stronger positive link between exposure to heterogeneous views and political participation we found for active participants in political discussions than for those who spoke up.
Like many commentators, I continue to be unconvinced that the political climate in the U.S. is characterized or even threatened by an increasingly uncivil discourse.  More importantly, even if there is a trend toward less civility, the tone of public discourse in itself may not be a problem.  Instead, many of the studies outlined in this essay point to a slightly more complex diagnosis.
In particular, the U.S. may have reached a point where our discourse is both uncivil and non-participatory. And it is really the combination of both of these characteristics that is the problem, not the lack of civility by itself.  Spirited discussions among politically active citizens, even if they are not perfectly civil at times, are a prerequisite of any functioning democracy.  A political environment in which chronically apathetic voters see themselves as disconnected observers of hyperpartisan and often uncivil exchanges among pundits and politicians, on the other hand, is equally unhealthy for individual citizens and for the political system, more broadly."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Renewable energy and economic growth ... abroad: The economic lessons that U.S. lawmakers still don't understand

Ironically, two of the more important headlines earlier this month referred to events that are unlikely to happen. Various ratings agencies announced that they might lower their credit ratings for the U.S. to the level of Zambia if the government does not manage to raise the debt ceiling.  And House Republicans launched a number of unsuccessful bids to repeal parts of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act that require light bulbs to be more energy efficient.  The two news items seem unrelated at first.  But at second glance, they are linked in ways that may teach us a valuable lesson about economic recovery in the U.S. and around the world.

And we are in desperate need of new ideas and, if things do not turn around soon, the U.S. could permanently fall from the ranks of the world's leading economies.  Of course, the U.S. were not the only country targeted by ratings agencies this week.  Financial markets in Italy are in trouble, Greece has just managed to secure another E.U. bailout, and Ireland and Portugal have seen their credit ratings lowered to junk status by Moody's.

But at least two countries seem to be somewhat unaffected by the recent financial crisis.  One is China, which is the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury debt and now owns well over a trillion dollars of our country's debt.  The other is Germany which has financed much of the bailout efforts for struggling EU partners.

The two countries owe their unusual success in this difficult global economy to very different sets of political and societal circumstances.  But they have one thing in common: According to a United Nations report on renewable energy investments released this month, both Germany and China handily outspent the U.S. on renewable energies last year.  Investments on technologies, such as wind farms and solar panels, totaled over $90 billion combined in China and Germany in 2010, compared to about $29 billion in the U.S.

China's predominance is not too surprising, given the sheer size of the country.  Germany out-investing the U.S. by almost 40 percent with a population that is about a fourth of that of the U.S., however, warrants a second look.  According to the 2011 U.N. report, Germany had higher growth rates than any other country for small-scale capacity building in areas, such as solar photovoltaic devices.  In other words, the German federal government managed to promote grassroots investment in renewable energies, such as solar panels on private residences, through a mix of regulations and incentives provided to ordinary citizens.  Every new residential home that is currently being built in Germany, for example, is required by law to satisfy a certain portion of its energy needs from on-site renewable energy sources.

And the economic trickle-up effects of these policies are being felt by most citizens as Germany has created more energy independence, spurred innovation, and shielded itself from the shrinking or stagnating economies that have plagued countries around the world.  As a result, there has been widespread political buy-in among the German electorate for the government’s legislative management of these investments.  And as the U.N report concluded, policy-makers support solar and other renewable energies since they create manufacturing and installation jobs, and voters like the idea of reducing their monthly energy bill and making a profit on their very own power plant.  And that does not even take into account the environmental benefits of these measures. 

The idea of promoting innovation and economic growth through environmental regulations and incentives, of course, is not new.  In the U.S., we have heard similar proposals from commentators at various ends of the political spectrum, including columnist Tom Friedman and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.  But given the severity of the economic situation in the U.S., it is surprising how little political consensus we have managed to achieve on similar political proposals.  So while the recent efforts to kill Bush era requirements for more energy-efficient light bulbs may just be political posturing, they are also indicative of blind spots for the economic potential of sustainable technologies in the U.S. that our economic competitors in Europe and Asia are rapidly capitalizing on.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

U.S., Germany and Japan top list of countries most likely to translate nano funding into economic impacts

Cientifica just released their 2011 report on global nanotechnology funding and impact.  The report includes a ranking of countries based on an Emerging Technology Exploitation Factor, measuring the likelihood of translating technology funding into economic impacts.  When ranked based on the Emerging Technology Exploitation Factor, the list is led by the U.S. followed by Germany, Taiwan, and Japan.  South Korea rounds out the Top-5.

As the report explains, however, the Emerging Technology Exploitation Factor "takes no account of the level of nanotechnology funding which varies widely across different countries. When we factor in PPP corrected funding levels the picture changes dramatically. 

Rebasing the Nanotech Impact Factor on the US (=100) gives a clearer picture of where we expect the technology to have the greatest impact. Of course in the US the nanotechnology is in fierce competition with any number of other technologies, from synthetic biology to social networking, while in Russia it is a very high level stand alone project."

The adjusted Nanotech Impact Factor shuffles around things quite a bit with only the U.S., Germany and Japan staying in the Top-5:


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Obama administration opposes web censorship least for political purposes

"The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks."

Laudable.  Even though it is somewhat ironic that the U.S. opposes politically-motivated censorship abroad, while corporate proposals to undermine net neutrality at home are still very much on the table.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Stanford in our back yard? A few thoughts on the Badger Partnership ...

Last week the Walker administration announced modifications to the tuition reciprocity agreement between Wisconsin and Minnesota that would end the subsidies that Wisconsin pays to each resident who chooses to attend the University of Minnesota.  And while the new proposal is important, the real story is a different one: Why is in-state tuition at UW-Madison cheaper than at most other Big-10 schools?  After all, UW-Madison is routinely ranked among the world's 25 best universities--an exclusive list which includes mostly Ivy League and other private schools.

And the answer is simple: UW has always been committed to providing affordable world-class public education, and we have done a better job than virtually all of our competitors. My own discipline is a good example. In the National Research Council's most recent ranking of doctoral programs, only three Mass Communication programs in the country received a top ranking: The University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  But while annual graduate tuition costs at Penn and Stanford are in the range of $40,000, in-state tuition at Wisconsin is about $11,000 and out-of state is $25,000.

In other words, we have an affordable, public version of Stanford right here in Wisconsin. Not only is UW-Madison one of the best universities in the world, similar to Stanford it also serves as a key economic driver for the region.  UW-Madison receives close to $1 billion in outside research funding every year, creating over $12 billion in economic revenue.  And a recent report suggested that UW-Madison and its affiliated organizations and startup companies support 128,146 Wisconsin jobs and generate $614 million in state tax revenue.

But things are changing, as a result of tough budget cuts and an increasingly fierce competition among public and private institutions over the best faculty, the best students and shrinking pools of federal funding.  And as well as we may have done in the past, the UW System is not immune to these challenges.

This is why Chancellor Martin's proposal for a Badger Partnership is not just a smart but also a necessary move. It provides UW-Madison with the budgetary and administrative flexibility that is absolutely crucial in order to compete with the world's top universities on an equal playing field--over attracting and retaining the best faculty and students, over external research dollars, and over producing impactful science that makes a meaningful difference in people's everyday lives.

But UW-Madison will continue to be different from the Stanfords and MITs of this world in one respect.  We are a land grant university that works with and for the citizens for Wisconsin.  Keeping a world-class education affordable for the citizens of our state is therefore a key component of the Badger Partnership. Toward that end, Chancellor Martin suggested last month that under a public authority, UW-Madison could pace its tuition increases against those at other UW System institutions.

Most importantly, the Badger Partnership is not a political proposal but an academic one. It outlines changes that are critically important for the future of higher education in Wisconsin, and that will hopefully find support across partisan lines among all of us who want a UW-Madison that continues to provides the very best education at an affordable price tag, that is an economic driver for the state's recovery, and that remains one of the world's premier universities, period.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Nuclear debate fueled by ... natural gas?

The earthquakes in Japan triggered discussions in most developed nations about the recent renaissance of nuclear energy.  They range from the expected knee-jerk reactions among Green party politicians in France and Germany, to more reasoned predictions (here and here) that the recent events in Japan have put a serious damper on the hopes of the nuclear industry to become a key component of a long-term clean global energy strategy (see ad below).  

The tragedy in Japan, however, has not put a damper on corporate cynicism more generally. Statoil, a Norwegian gas and oil company, today placed a large banner ad on the home page of Germany's Die Welt newspaper.  Positioned prominently above coverage of the rising death toll of the earthquakes and the potential of a nuclear catastrophe in Japan, the ad promotes Norwegian gas as a clean alternative to "support economic growth in Germany" (see below for a screenshot).

It's possible and maybe even likely that the space for these banner ads was bought long before the earthquakes hit, and and that the placement is simply based on contextual advertising algorithms.  In that case, it would have been appropriate to put those ads on hold while the unimaginable human tragedy in Japan is only beginning to unfold.

Intentional or not, even the perception that oil and gas companies would try to capitalize on the events in Japan in order to regain some of the political capital they lost during the BP oil spill last year seems beyond inappropriate.  But I have a feeling that we may see an increasing number of similar media buys from coal, oil, and gas in the next few weeks, as the nuclear debate heats up and the search for "alternative" alternative energy sources gains momentum.

To donate to the Red Cross relief effort for Japan, please follow this link.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The world's most prestigious universities ... mostly in the U.S.?

Thomson Reuters is expanding its influence on how academics quantify their work and its impact. One of their more recent additions is the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE), a collaboration with The Times newspaper in the UK. A few things are worth highlighting about the 2011 reputational rankings which were just released this week.

First, on a very self serving note, UW-Madison was ranked among the world's 25 most prestigious universities (and in the top-17 among all public and private U.S. universities).

Second, German universities did not fare as well in this international comparison as one might have expected.  This is particularly interesting, given Germany's efforts to build clusters of excellence at select universities through  a series of competitive reviews by the German Science Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and the Research Council (Wissenschaftsrat).  In spite of these efforts, known as Exzellenzinitiative für Spitzenforschung an Hochschulen, only four German Universities made it even into the top-200 of THE's 2011 prestige rankings, with the University of Munich being ranked highest at #48.
IBM's visualization of the 2011 THE data -- highlighting
countries with four or more ranked universities 
The prominence of Anglo-American brand names is due a number of factors, including the fact that the reputational survey was based on a sample of well-published scientists drawn from Thomson Reuters Web of Science database.  
"A key feature of the survey was the opportunity for narrow disciplinary focus: respondents could highlight what they believed to be the strongest universities, regionally and globally, in their specific fields, selecting from hundreds of disciplines and from more than 6,000 academic institutions. "Action-based" questions - such as "where would you recommend a top undergraduate should study for the best postgraduate supervision?" - were used to encourage more thoughtful responses and more meaningful results.
The survey was distributed between March and May 2010 and 13,388 people from 131 countries provided usable responses."
The seniority of most respondents (the average respondent had been working at a higher education institution for more than 16 years and had published more than 50 research papers) also helps explain the conservative slant of the results which ranked traditional powerhouses highly, potentially giving less weight to recent efforts, such as Germany's Exzellenziniative.

Click here for a more in-depth description of the methodology.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Modern polis or policy dead end? A few cautionary notes about public meetings and science cafes as tools for policy making

Public meetingstechnology panelsconsensus conferences and other similar modes of citizen engagement are increasingly fashionable tools for policy making and engaging the electorate on emerging technologies.  In the area of nanotechnology, a 2000 UK House of Lords report recommended making the direct dialogue with the public a mandatory and integral part of policy processes. And the 2003 U.S. Nanotechnology Research and Development Act mandated “convening of regular and ongoing public discussions, through mechanisms such as citizens’ panels, consensus conferences, and educational events” (21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act  2003, STAT. 1924).

“[O]ne in five Britons are satisfied with
the opportunities they have to engage in
 local decision making, and in practice,
 probably fewer than 1 percent actually
(Cornwall 2008, 7)
And without a doubt, consensus conferences and public meetings can serve as important input mechanisms upstream in the policy making process. They seem to be much more popular, however, among the academics and policymakers who propose them than they are among the intended audience, i.e., the general public. In a national telephone survey conducted by Carnegie’s Circle Foundation (Fieldwork from January 12- 15, 1995, N = 801) only eight percent of respondents reported having expressed their views publicly by speaking at a town hall meeting the previous year. It could be argued, of course, that recent trends in online communication have created new ways for citizens to interact and deliberate with each other. But the numbers are even more bleak for web-based deliberative exchanges, and only three percent of web users reported having used the Internet to “participate in an online town hall meeting” in 2009 (Pew Internet & American Life Project, national phone survey, fieldwork November 30 to December 27, 2009, N = 2,258).

So are nano cafes and consensus conferences simply an attempt to recreate the modern equivalent of 17th or 18th century coffeehouses, as described by Habermas and others?  And the answer is clearly 'no.'  In fact, some of these historical models of enlightened discourse, including Tischgesellschaften in Germany, were highly exclusive deliberative communities that systematically excluded large cross-sections of society based on income, gender, religious beliefs, and social class.

Unfortunately, however, modern public meetings and consensus conferences for emerging technologies continue to be plagued by some of the same participatory inequities as their historical antecedents. And -- as a result -- they have the potential to create or widen gaps between different groups of citizens rather than contributing to the broader societal or policy discourse. In the long run, it is therefore absolutely critical for governmental agencies and policy makers to distinguish the controlled and hypothetical democracy of public meetings from the larger real-world dynamics of the political discourse that precedes them, and to make sure that the political discourses surrounding emerging technologies are framed in ways that allows for an informed and balanced political discussion that does not a-priori favor particular viewpoints or social groups.

During my sabbatical at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy I had an opportunity to look into some of these issues in greater detail (with the help of Kennedy School student Philipp Schrögel, among others).  The product is a white paper on public meetings as a tool for engagement amd policymaking that was just published in the Shorenstein Research Paper Series.  Here are a few excerpts:

Shorenstein Research Paper #R-34
In recent years we have witnessed a “growing political commitment at the highest levels to giving citizens more of a voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and to engaging citizens in making government more responsive and accountable” (Cornwall, 2008, p. 11).  The renewed excitement about public meetings, technology panels, consensus conferences and other modes of citizen engagement is particularly pronounced for the emerging NBIC field.   
The renewed attention to public meetings and other modes of engagement, however, is also a function of their perceived potential to replace traditional knowledge-deficit approaches to communicating about science with a truly two-way dialogue between science (policy) and lay publics (Cicerone, 2006). This enthusiasm is also shared by some corporate stakeholders. In a letter to then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging the passage of the 2008 National Nanotechnology Initiative Amendment Act, for example, IEEE President Russell J. Lefevre emphasized the potential of public meetings and other outreach tools to “reach tens of thousands of people with information about nanoscience” (Lefevre, 2008, p. 1).
Unfortunately, many of these more normative demands have been formulated in almost prefect separation from empirical work on the real-world applications of these ideas in the policy making process. This has also made it exponentially more difficult to systematically assess the potential of public meetings and technology forums as a policy making tool. And partly as a function of the disconnects between different academic literatures and their policy applications, the enthusiasm in policy circles and academe about the potential of public meetings to reinvigorate U.S. democracy is as pervasive as it is at odds with most empirical research in this area. ... [In fact,] attendance in public meetings tends to be low and characterized by significant self-selection biases due to lack of interest among many members of the lay public, and disproportionately higher motivations among small, opinionated issue publics to participate and express their viewpoints.
This paper examines some of this research in greater detail. In a first step, it briefly outlines the policy history of consensus conferences and other forms of public meetings.  In a second step, it outlines claims made by proponents about the potential of consensus conferences and related efforts to create a two-way dialogue among lay publics, experts, and policy makers, to discover and debate relevant ethical, legal and social (ELSI) concerns early on, and ultimately to engage in better long-term planning about emerging scientific fields and their societal applications. In third step, the paper provides a comprehensive empirical review of how consensus conferences and related efforts have lived up to the normative hopes of their proponents, or – in most cases – have fallen short or even produced results that are counterproductive to the notion of an inclusive public debate. The paper closes with an argument against small-group deliberative experiments with very limited reach and in favor of creating a long-term infrastructure for a balanced public debate in mediated and interpersonal channels.
Excerpts from: Scheufele, D. A. (2011). Modern Citizenship or Policy Dead End? Evaluating the need for public participation in science policy making, and why public meetings may not be the answer. Paper #R-43, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy Research Paper Series. Harvard University. Cambridge, MA. 

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Global (academic) markets? Structural and philosophical differences between the U.S. and German academic system

From CERN to the International Space Station, scientists are increasingly working across national boundaries and infrastructures to collaboratively tackle the big questions of our time. And for fields, such as nanotechnology, corporations, non profits, and regulators are trying to harmonize regulatory frameworks across continents to protect consumers and promote science at the same time.

What makes this globalization of the scientific enterprise even more surprising is the fact that all of this is happening with fairly archaic and idiosyncratic structures dominating the academic systems in each country. Earlier this fall I was invited to contribute a short piece to a publication called Länderprofile, published by the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD), a foundation in Bonn, Germany. The piece deals with the significant structural and -- more importantly -- philosophical differences between the U.S. and German academic system, and I am reposting a longer version here.

Since this is targeted mostly at German readers, I did not translate it into English.  But the punch line is fairly simple: The U.S. academic system is characterized by a significantly higher degree of market orientation than Germany, for both teaching and research. And in most cases that is a good thing, at least for those of us who believe in promoting and rewarding excellence.  Ironically, the Economist published an excellent piece just a couple of weeks before I submitted this to the publisher, attacking the U.S. academic system for in fact not being corporate enough in its everyday operations.

Here's the longer version of what Länderprofile used for the published magazine:

Als die ersten amerikanischen Colleges wie Yale oder William & Mary Mitte des 17. Jahrhunderts gegründet wurden, lehnten sie sich direkt an das Britische Universitätsmodell an. Während der letzten vier Jahrhunderte hat sich auf beiden Seiten des Atlantiks viel verändert. Ein Vergleich der deutschen und amerikanischen Forschungskultur lässt daher klare Unterschiede, aber auch einige Gemeinsamkeiten erkennen.
Ein erster, struktureller Unterschied ist die in den USA sehr deutliche Trennung zwischen Undergraduate oder College Education (normalerweise die ersten vier Jahre, die Studierende an der Universität verbringen) und Graduate Programs (Magister- und Doktorandenprogramme). Die deutschen Bachelor-Studiengänge, die mit der so genannten Bologna-Reform eingeführt wurden, sind damit nur bedingt vergleichbar. Manche Ivy League Universitäten wie z.B. Dartmouth bieten in vielen Fachbereichen überhaupt keine Magister- oder Doktoranden-Studiengänge an. Ihr Ruf als Elite-Universitäten basiert daher vor allem auf den Undergraduate-Studiengängen. Auch die meisten der in den USA verbreiteten Universitäts-Ranglisten wie etwa jene der Zeitschrift U.S. News and World Report bewerten vor allem die Studiengänge für Undergraduates. 
Amerikanische Universitäten heben sich von deutschen Universitäten auch sehr deutlich in ihrer Finanzstruktur ab. Drittmittel und Stiftungsgelder (sogenannte Endowments) machen selbst an Staatsschulen wie Arizona State oder UCLA einen deutlichen Anteil des Haushalts aus. Privatunis wie Harvard oder Yale finanzieren sich fast ausschließlich über Endowments. Der tägliche Forschungsbetrieb an den Top-Unis wird daher größtenteils von Geldern unterstützt, die von privaten Stiftungen (z.B. Ford Foundation oder MacArthur Foundation) oder von der Regierung (z. B. National Science Foundation, NSF oder National Institutes of Health, NIH) vergeben werden. Selbst die Lehre wird teilweise über Drittmittel finanziert. Beispielsweise mussten Undergraduates an der University of Wisconsin-Madison vor zehn Jahren nur etwa ein Drittel der Kosten ihrer Ausbildung über Studiengebühren selbst begleichen. Der Bundestaat übernahm folglich fast zwei Drittel der Kosten. Heute liegt der Kostenanteil für Studenten bei 60 Prozent
Einer der wichtigsten Unterschiede in der Forschungs- und Universitätskultur ist jedoch das privatwirtschaftliche Denken amerikanischer Universitäten im Hinblick auf leistungsbezogene Beförderung und Bezahlung von Professoren. Hier geht es dabei nicht um vergleichsweise geringe Leistungszulagen wie in Deutschland, sondern um lukrative Namensprofessuren und Gehaltserhöhungen, die sich durchaus auf $50,000 oder mehr belaufen können, wenn ein Professor oder eine Professorin Angebote von mehreren Top-Unis vorliegen hat. Selbst jährliche Routinegehaltserhöhungen basieren auf leistungsbezogenen Kriterien (merit system), das jede/n Professor/in in den drei Schlüsselbereichen Forschung, Lehre und Service bewertet. Selbstverständlich ist dabei, dass Forschung sehr deutlich als wichtigster Bereich bewertet wird. 
Eines der Hauptkriterien für die Bewertung der Forschungsleistung in den USA sind Veröffentlichungen in den besten Fachzeitschriften und dabei auch, wie oft man von Kolleg/inn/en zitiert wird. Entscheidungen über Beförderung oder Verbeamtung fällen universitätsweite Gremien, die in Zitations- und Publikationsanalysen ein Mittel zur Standardisierung über disziplinäre Grenzen hinweg sehen. Ein zweiter wichtiger Maßstab sind Drittmittel. Forschungsvorhaben, die von der NSF oder NIH unterstützt werden, finanzieren nicht nur Laboratorien oder Projekte, sondern werden auch von der Universität “besteuert,” die normalerweise fast 50 Prozent als Gemeinkostenbeitrag (overhead) einbehält. Wer Drittmittel eintreibt, bezahlt daher sein Gehalt beinahe selbst und kann daher normalerweise eine deutliche Gehaltserhöhung verhandeln. 
Solche ökonomisch ausgerichteten Modelle haben natürlich auch ihre Nachteile. Die Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education führte in den 1990ern den Begriff R1 (Research University One) als Klassifikation für ungefähr 40 Universitäten ein, die sich im  Drittmittelaufkommen, in der Anzahl von Doktoranden und im Forschungsvolumen deutlich vom Rest der amerikanischen Unis abheben. Und da R1-Universitäten die besten Professoren von jenen Konkurrenten abwerben können, die finanziell schlechter gestellt sind oder ein weniger ausgeprägtes Forschungsprofil haben, wird die Kluft zwischen R1-Unis und dem Rest der US Colleges immer breiter. Drew Faust, Präsident der Harvard University, prophezeite vor einigen Jahren sogar, dass die beste Forschung – vor allem in den Naturwissenschaften – künftig nur noch an Eliteschulen möglich sei.   Aber solche Vorhersagen, die Präsident Faust in einem Leserbrief auch sofort widerrief, sind nach dem Bankencrash von 2009 natürlich längst vergessen.
Interessanterweise kommt die lauteste Kritik an US-Universitäten aber aus Wirtschaftskreisen. Die Zeitschrift Economist kritisierte im September diesen Jahres Staats- und Privatschulen gleichermaßen für ihr nichtwirtschaftliches Denken, d.h. für inflationäre Kosten und fehlende Effizienz.  Im Kreuzfeuer steht unter anderem die Harvard University, die bis 2006 von Larry Summers geführt wurde – dem ehemaligen Chief Economist der Weltbank und Direktor von Präsident Obama’s National Economic Council.

Here's the citation for the published piece:

Scheufele, D. A. (2011). Hauptunterschied ist das privatwirtschaftliche Denken: Vergleich deutscher und amerikanischer Hochschulkultur. In GATE-Germany (Ed.), Länderprofile: Edition USA (p. 15). Bonn: Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Public attitudes toward nanotechnology - a (2011) primer and review

Here is an initial draft of an article that what will eventually become a chapter on public attitudes toward nanotechnology I am putting together for Susanna Priest's new book on risk communication and public perception of nanotechnology.  It's meant to be a current update and comprehensive overview of what we know (and don't know) at this point: 
Patterns of news coverage on nanotechnology are developing in ways that mirror issue cycles for previous technologies, including agricultural biotechnology. In particular, early coverage of nanotechnology was dominated by a general optimism about the scientific potential and economic impacts of this new technology (Dudo, Dunwoody, & Scheufele, forthcoming; Friedman & Egolf, 2005; Friedman & Egolf, 2007).  This is in part related to the fact that a sizeable proportion of nanotechnology news coverage – at least in newspapers – continues to be provided by a handful of science journalists and business writers (Dudo, Choi, & Scheufele, 2011; Dudo et al., forthcoming). 
Attitudes without Knowledge?
The overall positive framing of nanotechnology in news outlets is also linked to support for more research and funding among the general public (Cobb & Macoubrie, 2004; Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005).  This connection between media coverage and support for nanotechnology, however, does not follow traditional knowledge deficit models (for an overview, see Brossard, Lewenstein, & Bonney, 2005).  Instead, most research on public attitudes toward nanotechnology does not show an impact of media coverage on lay audiences’ understanding of the technology, which – according to knowledge deficit models – would produce more positive attitudes toward the technology.  Instead, most recent research has found that the driving factor behind public attitudes are various forms of heuristics or cognitive shortcuts that audiences use to make sense of the technology, even in the absence of information (Scheufele, 2006).
One of these heuristics are media frames.  Frames are ways of presenting an issue that will produce particular outcomes among audiences (Scheufele, 1999). Framing is often traced back to Nobel Prize winning work in experimental psychology that examined how embedding information in particular contexts can shape people’s interpretation of that information (Kahneman, 2003).  When applied to mass media, framing theory suggests that even small terminological tweaks in terminology (“death tax” vs. “inheritance tax”) can activate different cognitive frameworks among audiences and shift the interpretation of the technology overall  (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007).
How people think about nanotechnology or what cognitive schemas they use to make sense of nano-related information, however, also depends on the specific aspect of nanotechnology that is being discussed.  Nanotechnology has often been described as an enabling technology.  The “nano” label, in other words, simply describes work or observations at a particular size scale. As a result, nanotechnology research bridges a diverse set of research fields and application areas.
And attitudes depend heavily on the specific area that is being discussed at any given moment. Recent national survey data, for instance, shows that people’s likelihood of translating their perceptions of risks associated with nanotechnology to specific attitudes about the technology depends to a significant degree on the specific application area they think about when forming those risk-attitude judgments (Cacciatore, Scheufele, & Corley, forthcoming).
What Types of Attitudes and Cognitions Matter Most?
Virtually all national surveys tapping public opinion on nanotechnology have measured some form of knowledge or at least perceived knowledge.  This distinction, unfortunately, is lost to many commentators who often conclude in a very simplistic fashion that the public knows little about nanotechnology, even if a study relies on self-reported awareness of the technology.
Empirically, however, self-reported perceptions and objective assessments of knowledge are clearly distinct. The former taps people’s perceptions of what they think they know.  A number of researchers, for example, have tracked perceived levels of awareness about nanotechnology (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 2006, 2007; Scheufele Lewenstein, 2005) and have found little change over time.  Significantly fewer studies have actually administered objective quiz-type measures of what the public knows about nanotechnology (Lee & Scheufele, 2006).  Typically, such measures include a battery of true/false-type knowledge questions about nanotechnology. 
From the data that are available, we can see two trends: First, levels of knowledge about nanotechnology across the general population have remained fairly static in the last few years (Scheufele, Corley, Shih, Dalrymple, & Ho, 2009, see Online Appendix); second, we see a widening gap among education groups, with highly educated respondents showing increased learning over time, and less-educated respondents falling behind in terms of how much they know about nanotechnology (Corley & Scheufele, 2010).
Aside from cognitive variables, research on public attitudes toward nanotechnology has also explored overall attitudes toward nanotechnology. Most of this research has shown that people’s views on nanotech are generally positive (Cobb & Macoubrie, 2004).  Respondents who self-identify as being more aware of nanotechnology tend to show higher levels of overall support than respondents who are less aware of nanotechnology (Scheufele & Lewenstein, 2005). 
A second attitudinal variable that has dominated research on public reactions to nanotechnology is people’s judgment about the relative risks and benefits of nanotechnology.  Across studies, patterns of results suggest that those who perceive greater benefits for nanotechnology outnumber those who perceive greater risks by 3 to 1 (Satterfield, Kandlikar, Beaudrie, Conti, & Herr Harthorn, 2009).  Unfortunately, previous research has relied mostly on a single item to tap these relative assessments of risks and benefits among the general public: "Do the risks associated with nanotechnology outweigh the benefits; do the benefits outweigh the risks; or are the risks and benefits approximately the same?" 
A number of researchers have raised serious concerns about these measures and their potential to provide invalid assessments of risk perceptions among the general public.  At a conceptual level, these criticisms have focused on at least two areas. First, responses may be biased based on response order effects. Asking respondents first whether “the benefits outweigh the risks”, followed by response options for “the risks outweighing the benefits,” or “risks and benefits being about equal,” for instance, is a much different question than one that offers the “risks outweighing the benefits” as the first response option.  Second, ingle-item measures force respondents to make subjective summative judgments about the relative importance of several risks and benefits. Such judgments, unfortunately, are often skewed, given people’s tendency to remember unfavorable information about a topic better than favorable information.
Most recently, however, Binder and colleagues (Binder, Cacciatore, Scheufele, Shaw, & Corley, online first) quantified the potential response biases introduced by single-item measure or risk and benefits perceptions. Specifically, their comparisons of results from two surveys and across different measures of risk/benefits perceptions suggest that single-item measures of risk and benefits perceptions may be slanting answers toward higher risk perceptions.  In particular, people perceived more benefits than risks when given the opportunity to evaluate these attributes separately, as opposed to being asked to make a quick summary judgment in a single item.  Interestingly, this pattern holds both issues tested in the study – biofuels and nanotechnology (for an overview, see post from January 19, 2011).
Expert Opinions vs. Public Opinion
A growing body of research is also beginning to compare attitudes among members of the lay public to expert surveys.  Most systematic surveys among U.S. nano scientists suggest that they are more optimistic than the general population about the potential benefits of nanotechnology, and – in most areas – less pessimistic about its potential risks (Besley, Kramer, & Priest, 2008; Scheufele et al., 2007).  Comparisons of answers to identically-worded questions in surveys among the leading nano scientists in the U.S. and a representative sample of the U.S. population, however, showed that there were two areas in which nano scientists showed higher levels of concerns about potential risks of nanotechnology than the general public: human health, and environmental pollution (Scheufele et al., 2007).
Previous research has also examined to which degree experts opinions on nanotechnology are driven by different factors than opinions among the lay public (Ho, Scheufele, & Corley, 2010; Priest, Greenhalgh, & Kramer, 2010). Not surprisingly, much of this research shows that attitudes among nanotechnology experts are strongly correlated to their scientific judgments about potential risks and benefits. What is interesting, however, is the fact that experts’ stances on stricter regulations for nanotechnology are – at least in part – driven by their political viewpoints, even after their judgments on batteries of questions about objective risks and benefits are taken into account.  More conservative scientists tend to also be more opposed to stricter regulations, whereas liberal-leaning scientists tend to support them (Corley, Scheufele, & Hu, 2009).
Next Challenges
Two challenges are emerging as public attitudes toward nanotechnology develop along with the technology.  The first challenge relates to a long-standing problem surrounding the development of technical innovations in modern societies: knowledge gaps.  Knowledge gaps do not simply refer to different levels of understanding about a technology across social groups. Instead, the concept goes back to work by Tichenor and colleagues (Tichenor, Donohue, & Olien, 1970) who showed that learning effects from informational campaigns were significantly higher among respondents with high socioeconomic status (SES) than respondents with lower levels of SES.
For nanotechnology, we see similar patterns emerge. Recent analyses of nationally-representative trend data (Corley & Scheufele, 2010) show widening gaps for knowledge about nanotechnology between the most and least educated groups in the U.S.  In other words, as the technology evolves and has an impact on more and more areas of our daily lives, highly-educated respondents become more familiar with nanotechnology and its applications, but less educated groups fall behind and are potentially becoming less-and-less informed about nanotechnology as societal debates focus on an increasingly complex set of ethical, legal and social challenges (Khushf, 2006).
This has tremendous implications for many outreach efforts, such as nano cafes or museum exhibits, that target a more interested and informed segment of the population and may be less effective as channels for reaching disadvantaged or harder-to-reach audiences.  But there is a silver lining.  A closer look at the media use patterns among different SES groups shows that online sources of information about nanotechnology can help overcome knowledge deficits for low SES respondents (Corley & Scheufele, 2010), and future research will have to explore how to better utilize online communication channels to more systematically target hard-to-reach audiences (for an overview, see post from January 11, 2010).
A second challenge for researchers studying public attitudes toward nanotechnology is the role that personal values play in helping people make sense of new information about emerging technologies.  Previous research has shown how religious views (Brossard, Scheufele, Kim, & Lewenstein, 2009), cultural predispositions (Kahan, Braman, Slovic, Gastil, & Cohen, 2009; Kahan et al., 2008), and views about scientific authority (Brossard & Nisbet, 2007; Lee & Scheufele, 2006) shape how people translate (mass mediated) information into attitudes toward nanotechnology.  In other words, values and predispositions can serve as perceptual filters (Brossard et al., 2009)  that shape information processing, and the same piece of information will be interpreted very differently by different audiences, depending on their pre-existing values and predispositions.
This role of values as perceptual filters is particularly important given recent comparisons among the U.S. and various European countries. These comparisons showed significant variation in religious views across countries and also a significant relationship between those views and attitudes toward nanotechnology (Scheufele et al., 2009).  As regulators in the U.S. work with their counterparts in other countries in order to harmonize regulatory frameworks for nanotechnology, understanding the value landscape in each country will be absolutely critical for evaluating the viability of regulatory choices and restrictions.  And future research will have to much more systematically examine public attitudes toward nanotechnology and its applications in an international context.
Besley, J., Kramer, V., & Priest, S. (2008). Expert opinion on nanotechnology: Risk, benefits, and regulation. Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 10(4), 549-558. 
Binder, A. R., Cacciatore, M. A., Scheufele, D. A., Shaw, B. R., & Corley, E. A. (online first). Measuring risk/benefit perceptions of emerging technologies and their potential impact on communication of public opinion toward science. Public Understanding of Science. doi: 10.1177/0963662510390159
Brossard, D., Lewenstein, B. V., & Bonney, R. (2005). Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project. International Journal of Science Education, 27(9), 1099-1121. 
Brossard, D., & Nisbet, M. C. (2007). Deference to scientific authority among a low information public: Understanding U.S. opinion on agricultural biotechnology. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 19(1), 24-52. doi: 10.1093/ijpor/edl003
Brossard, D., Scheufele, D. A., Kim, E., & Lewenstein, B. V. (2009). Religiosity as a perceptual filter: Examining processes of opinion formation about nanotechnology. Public Understanding of Science, 18(5), 546–558. doi: 10.1177/0963662507087304
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
Cobb, M. D., & Macoubrie, J. (2004). Public perceptions about nanotechnology: Risks, benefits and trust. Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 6(4), 395-405. 
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Dudo, A. D., Dunwoody, S., & Scheufele, D. A. (forthcoming). The emergence of nano news: Tracking thematic trends and changes in U.S. newspaper coverage of nanotechnology. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly
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Satterfield, T., Kandlikar, M., Beaudrie, C. E. H., Conti, J., & Herr Harthorn, B. (2009). Anticipating the perceived risk of nanotechnologies. Nature Nanotechnology, 4(11), 752-758. doi: 10.1038/nnano.2009.265
Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a theory of media effects. Journal of Communication, 49(1), 103-122. 
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., Corley, E. A., Dunwoody, S., Shih, T.-j., Hillback, E., & Guston, D. H. (2007). Scientists worry about some risks more than the public. Nature Nanotechnology, 2(12), 732-734. 
Scheufele, D. A., Corley, E. A., Shih, T.-j., Dalrymple, K. E., & Ho, S. S. (2009). Religious beliefs and public attitudes to nanotechnology in Europe and the US. Nature Nanotechnology, 4(2), 91 - 94. doi: 10.1038/NNANO.2008.361
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