FRAMING THE ISSUES
In a recent issue of Science, Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor of communication at American University in Washington, DC, and writer Chris Mooney published an article that called for a reexamination of the way scientists and engineers communicate information to the public (Nisbet and Mooney, 2007). In his presentation, Nisbet elaborated on their views and responded to some of the reactions their article has provoked.
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State Science and Technology Policy Advice: Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges - Summary of a National Convocation 5 Communicating Science and Technology Policy Advice Effectively A set of presentations that focused on ways for scientists and engineers to become more effective communicators of science and technology policy advice engendered a great deal of discussion at the convocation. Participants examined whether and how to “frame” scientific and technological information, the need to take a stand on critical issues, and how best to work with the media. There is often a big disconnect between ideas and policy. The best ideas do not necessarily always prevail. Politicians have other considerations. In particular, they often need to gauge public opinion and political pressures before they make a decision. As Unger put it, they have a finger in the air testing the wind. FRAMING THE ISSUES In a recent issue of Science, Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor of communication at American University in Washington, DC, and writer Chris Mooney published an article that called for a reexamination of the way scientists and engineers communicate information to the public (Nisbet and Mooney, 2007). In his presentation, Nisbet elaborated on their views and responded to some of the reactions their article has provoked.
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State Science and Technology Policy Advice: Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges - Summary of a National Convocation Their article questioned what Nisbet called the “popular science model”—the idea that if the public only knew more about science, it would view issues as scientists do. This model calls for improving science education, which of course is vitally important to the nation for a number of reasons, Nisbet said. It also calls for continued education of the adult population through the popular science media. The assumption is that if science literacy is boosted through the media, “there will be fewer controversies between science and society, and policy makers will be more likely to support science,” Nisbet said. The model for such an effort is Carl Sagan. “We hear over and over again that … if we only had more scientists like Carl Sagan, those problems would go away.” There are two major problems with this model, said Nisbet. The first is that decades of social science research have shown that most people do not arrive at decisions in the way posited by the popular science model. Instead of being well motivated to learn more about science-related issues, most people, including many policy makers, use various cognitive screening mechanisms to make decisions. They rely on shortcuts, heuristics, ideology, or emotions to make up their minds, often without knowing much about the issue they are considering. National political campaigns understand this very well and have adopted principles from this research into their campaign strategies. The 2004 Bush campaign did not run on the complexities of the issues so much as on the character and likeability of the candidate, Nisbet contended. “The internal strategy that the Bush campaign used or modeled went something like this: If he doesn’t fit your life, share your values, or isn’t someone you want to have a beer with, then he shouldn’t be your President.” The second problem with the popular science model is that it doesn’t fit well with the structure of the modern media system, Nisbet observed. The paradox today is not that there are too few sources of information—there are too many. “In 1985 if you sat down to watch television at six o’clock, you really only had four choices available to you, and all four of those choices involved public affairs news with some steady amount of science news. But if you sat down to watch TV at six o’clock in 2007, there are almost 300 different cable channels from which to select. If you lack a strong comfort for public affairs and science content, you can very easily pay attention only to ‘infotainment,’ entertainment, or, in some cases, the ideologically or religiously preferred views of different channels.” Given the failings of the popular science model, how can proponents of science reach the public while remaining true to the science? In their article, Nisbet and Mooney suggested using research on “framing theory” as a way to complement investments in formal education and good science media. In essence, framing means thinking about how best to present
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State Science and Technology Policy Advice: Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges - Summary of a National Convocation an issue to a particular audience. With a complex issue, a communicator focuses on certain dimensions of that issue over other dimensions. The focus might be why the issue is a problem, who or what might be responsible, or what should be done about it. Furthermore, this focus is reinforced using slogans, historical references, cartoons, or images. “When you structure information in a press release or a report, there are multiple options available to you that are equally consistent with the science in terms of the types of examples that you can bring to bear,” said Nisbet. “And it makes sense to do research in terms of focus groups with an intended audience about which of those multiple examples make the issue most personally meaningful.” Journalists rely on framing all the time to organize their stories and inform their audiences, said Nisbet. In turn, readers, viewers, and listeners learn from media interpretations that closely resonate with their social backgrounds. Policy makers at the federal, state, and local levels also use frames as a way to define policy issues in ways that favor their preferred positions. In addition, they may rely on frames to make up their minds about a piece of legislation, and sometimes their decisions are attacked by others using different frames. Framing can be directed toward different goals and outcomes, Nisbet pointed out. It may seek to increase the size of the audience interested in science. It may be designed to create polarization in a particular debate, thus shaping preferences for policies informed by science. Framing also may be used to enhance trust in science or shape personal or political behavior. For example, in his book The Creation, E.O. Wilson (2006) intuitively uses framing very effectively, according to Nisbet. The book is about environmental conservation, but Wilson casts the book as a moral message delivered on a personal level to a Southern Baptist minister. “In the process he has introduced popular science about conservation to an audience of religious Americans who might not otherwise pay attention to that problem.” Research has shown that particular frames recur in policy debates involving science and technology. For example, science and technology are often defined in terms of positive social qualities that make our lives better and boost the economy, particularly when the underlying issue is national, state, or local competitiveness. When science is opposed, it tends to be depicted as an out-of-control monster that will create either physical or moral disasters. Sometimes science is depicted in terms of uncertainty, a tactic often used by those who advocate intelligent design creationism or who are skeptical about global warming. And other times science is associated with public accountability. All of these instances of framing have occurred in the debate over
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State Science and Technology Policy Advice: Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges - Summary of a National Convocation research using stem cells, Nisbet pointed out, particularly as it played out in California before the Proposition 71 initiative on stem cell research. The organizers of the proposition campaign knew that they were not going to break through to the wider public by narrowly focusing on the technical parts of the research or by bringing the public up to speed on the science. They also understood that attacking the public for opposing the research because of religious beliefs would not be effective. Instead, they recast the issues in ways that emphasized shared common values, social progress, the potential for new medical therapies, and economic development for the state. They used scientists as spokespeople, but they also teamed up with nonresearchers, like actor Brad Pitt, and they used the media to reach nontraditional audiences for science. “Here’s a great example of how they did this,” said Nisbet. “Brad Pitt appeared on NBC’s Today Show in October 2004. When asked by Katie Couric why he supported Proposition 71, he first focused on the social part of his message as one of extraordinary opportunity if you have a disease. Second, he focused on the idea of economic development—that California is losing scientists to places like Singapore. And when Couric then asked him to talk about his new movie, he didn’t stray off topic but came back and reemphasized the economic progress message focusing on the fact that this is not a cost to California, but rather an investment in the future.” The proponents of Proposition 71 were also successful because they used their money well. They raised more than $20 million and spent that amount on meaningful ads in California, while the opposition spent only about $200,000. Although polls in August indicated about equal support and opposition to the proposition, by November it passed with 59 percent of the vote. However, the proponents of the proposition sometimes exceeded the bounds of currently available evidence, Nisbet pointed out. When John Edwards was campaigning in 2004 as the vice presidential nominee, he said that stem cell research would enable Christopher Reeve to get up out of his wheelchair and walk. That was “going too far in terms of what the timeline for actual therapies might be,” Nisbet said. On the other side of the debate, the opponents of the proposition knew that attacking the moral status of stem cell research would resonate only with their base, not with the broader public. To capture the middle ground, they cast the debate in terms of public accountability. The same thing happened with an ultimately successful campaign to amend the state constitution in Missouri to protect stem cell research. Opponents asked whether stem cell research serves the private interest or the public interest, used catch phrases like “big biotech,” and asked who was going to watch the scientists.
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State Science and Technology Policy Advice: Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges - Summary of a National Convocation Successful framing requires research on how nontraditional audiences perceive science and what aspects of complex science debates are personally meaningful to them. On the basis of those results, further research can explore which phrases, examples, and metaphors succeed best in conveying that meaning. Data on public opinion that is more localized would be very useful in this effort, Nisbet noted. Although the National Science Foundation regularly publishes analyses of public attitudes about science in its Science Indicators reports, there are no state-level polling data about science. “A useful project would be to put together resources and apply for grant money to try to target key states, and look across key states in terms of gathering comparative methods on public opinions, state poll reviews, and meaningful ways to inform a broader public debate and communication,” Nisbet said. Effective framing also requires that there be “a lot of coordination and discipline in how you apply these messages,” said Nisbet. National communication campaigns need to be coordinated, whether the topic is stem cell research or climate change. The message at the national level needs to be coordinated with the message at state and local levels. Proponents of a position then need to be very good at getting into local newspapers and appearing on televisions shows. Polls show that the number one source of public affairs programming for about 65 percent of Americans is the local news, so scientists, spokespeople, and other organization leaders should seek especially to cultivate contacts with local media outlets. Recruiting and training of opinion leaders is another effective approach in framing scientific and technological issues, Nisbet said. These opinion leaders can convince members of the public to pay closer attention to science, and they are very good at passing information to others and convincing others to adopt a certain position. In such cities as Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, universities are collaborating with science media and graduate students at universities to create regional hubs for science communication. In particular, universities “are increasingly seeing evening programs as a very important way to generate adult programming and regional collaboration in science.” Universities and other institutions also are using new media like blogs and networking sites to make learning about science a social activity. According to Nisbet, every university research communication office should have a blog that focuses on the local dimensions of science in the community. There is a demand for local news about science, but people need a place to go for that news. Also, “one of the ways that science organizations can effectively use blogs is as a fact check function,” Nisbet observed. “So when reports are released by institutions or there’s breaking science news and there’s distortion in the coverage, that’s a way to [track] reports, correct distortions, and have something that’s up and
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State Science and Technology Policy Advice: Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges - Summary of a National Convocation that’s quick. It takes institutional investment and a staff person who’s good at running the blog. But I think blogs can be very effective as a direct communication tool.” It also is important to have strong relationships with churches, temples, and mosques. “As many of you know across the country, churches are very important places for communication not only about personal and social issues but also policy issues,” Nisbet said. “Scientists and scientific leaders should be visible as spokespeople at churches, and religious leaders should be invited to speak at universities and research institutions.” Documentary films on issues involving science and technology can be excellent communication tools, as evidenced by the success of Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth. “Teaming with filmmakers or film producers to bring films and scenes to the local community—and staging forums around these films—is a very important way to not only inform people about science [but] also to make the science social and to build community interaction,” Nisbet said. Not everyone at the convocation agreed that the framing of issues in science and technology is desirable. “I think that [framing] is a detriment, quite frankly,” said Lynn Elfner. To influence policy, it may be necessary to find a “hook” in the journalistic sense to communicate a position. “But I know from experience that the more you’re an advocate for something, the less you are respected for the information you’re presenting,” Elfner said. “If you get billed as having a narrow position, then your credibility is going to go down the tubes.” Pister noted that scientists and engineers can adopt a range of positions in the framing of issues. Quoting from a recent book by Roger Pielke (2007), he cited four idealized models for the role of a scientist. First is the disinterested pure scientist who does not get involved in policy discussions. Second is the science arbiter who provides expertise on narrowly defined and testable questions. Third is the honest broker who provides a suite of scientifically informed policy options “in much the same way that a travel guide provides information on restaurants or hotels in unfamiliar territory,” Pister said. And fourth is the overt advocate for a position. “Those four categories really cover the … space of information that we’re trying to transmit to people,” said Pister. WHEN SCIENTISTS TAKE A STAND Marla Cone, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, began her presentation at the convocation with a story. I want to start by telling all of you a tale of two countries. [In] one country in the early 1990s, scientists were testing breast milk for contaminants—it
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State Science and Technology Policy Advice: Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges - Summary of a National Convocation was something they regularly do there—and to their alarm, they found a big surge of concentrations of certain compounds in the breast milk. These compounds are called PBDEs [polybrominated biphenyl ether]. They are flame retardants. They are used in furniture and carpets and furniture cushions, electronics, plastics, those types of things, and these scientists were very concerned. These chemicals were structurally similar to PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyl] and most of the world had already gone through a nightmare of trying to clean up PCBs. They were very troubled about this. They hadn’t yet published their work, but they met with government leaders and they talked with a sense of urgency and concern about what they found. And soon, in the mid-1990s, industry there voluntarily stopped using these compounds. After that, the government there banned them…. By 1998, a year before these scientists [published] their work, the concentrations in breast milk in those countries began to decline. Now that is a success story. It was a big success story long before the scientists even published their data. Then I want to tell you about another country, one that doesn’t regularly monitor breast milk. Similar problems were found with PBDEs, but concentrations were far worse, much higher than in that other country. They were 10 to 100 times higher back in the 1990s, yet no action was taken, and the levels kept growing throughout the 1990s until about 2004. These levels were the highest anywhere. No other country had levels as high as this particular country. As you probably know by now, that first country is in Europe—it’s Sweden—and they took immediate action based on the input of their scientists. The second country, of course, is the United States. No immediate action was taken. There was very little input from scientists and a long delay in any kind of intervention. Finally, California took action and banned these compounds in 2004, which was almost a decade after the European phase-out. Other states have followed. The EPA finally agreed and set a voluntary agreement with the chemical manufacturers to ban those particular compounds. And now levels here are finally starting to decline as they did in Europe a decade earlier. The lesson for scientists, said Cone, is that they can have a big effect on policy when they are willing to speak out about what they have found. “Scientists in Europe often don’t wait,” said Cone. “They don’t pull their punches. They don’t need decades of human or animal testing and often base what they’re telling the public on the precautionary principle, which is better safe than sorry.” In the United States, in contrast, policy makers and scientists usually assume that a particular environmental threat is innocent until proven guilty. Scientists in the United States need to speak out when they think it is
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State Science and Technology Policy Advice: Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges - Summary of a National Convocation necessary to do so, Cone contended. If they feel a need for urgency, they need to communicate that urgency. That has finally started to happen in the United States with PBDEs, Cone said. “Scientists have finally gotten more vocal about it, more certain, talking about the certainties rather than the uncertainties. I think that’s very important because scientists often talk about the limitations of their research, which is important to get across. But you also have to talk about what you’re certain about.” A particularly effective tool for communicating scientific assurance is a consensus statement, Cone contended. Such reports have led to progress on the regulation of endocrine disrupters (chemicals that influence the levels or internal regulation of one or more hormones in animals or humans) and other chemicals in the environment. A consensus approach says “here’s what we know, here’s what we think we know, here’s what we don’t know…. That is the perfect format for a journalist like me who’s trying to untangle it all.” Scientists also need to be wary of mixed messages, according to Cone. For example, people have become very confused about the effects of mercury in fish. The media have a tendency to polarize issues and present diametrically opposed positions, which can further confuse readers, viewers, or listeners. “An important message for scientists, as well as government leaders … is that there may be polarized sides on this issue, but there’s also a happy medium.” Technical experts can learn from organizations that help them communicate their messages. That’s more effective than, for example, asking reporters for a list of questions before an interview, which gets in the way of developing a personal relationship between a reporter and a source, Cone said. What’s needed is for scientists and engineers “to have some basic guidelines and training, so they’re more comfortable talking with reporters and they’re not afraid of saying the wrong thing.” VIEWS FROM THE TRENCHES Bill Hammack, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who has worked both at the U.S. Department of State and as a regular commentator for public radio,1 offered several rules for working with the media. One is to always keep the social, political, economic, and cultural context in mind, not just the technical details. He quoted G.K. Chesterton: “The only two things that can satisfy the soul are a person and a story; and even a story must be about a person.” When scientists and engineers are interacting with the 1 For additional information about this public radio show (“Engineering and Life”), see <http://engineerguy.com>.
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State Science and Technology Policy Advice: Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges - Summary of a National Convocation media, they have to remember the power of stories. “This is meant to be a little polemical,” he said. “Stop reading about science and engineering. You know enough. There are other skills you need.” Despite the fragmentation of the media, radio and television still have many viewers and listeners, Hammack pointed out. The public radio show “Morning Edition” reaches 12 million people, which is 8 to 10 times the circulation of the New York Times. Hammack observed that policy and decision makers also get a considerable amount of information from think tanks, partly because these types of organizations specialize in tailoring their advice for policy prescriptions. Also, think tanks employ many ex- and future government officials. They “rotate in and out and are comfortable there.” Still, the print media have a disproportionate influence for elected officials because they can access it very quickly. Politicians and their staffs read the newspaper every day, said John McDonald, another member of the convocation’s panel on communicating science as well as president and owner of the strategic communications company Stone’s Throw. Newspapers are “the first frame of the debate,” said McDonald. “They shape radio. They shape television broadcasts. They even drive the blogosphere.” Newspaper coverage “gives you instant credibility,” McDonald continued. It “opens the door to further conversation.” As a principal at a communications company, McDonald specializes in the placement of ideas. “I work with reporters a lot. I talk to them. I try to get them interested in important stuff, and I try to get them to write about it in meaningful ways that are interesting. [Then] I try to get policy makers to read it and make sure they look at it. And in doing that, I’m trying to open the doors for further conversations between people like you and the policy-making community.” The most important thing for scientists and engineers to do is to engage in the process, according to McDonald. “As scientists, you need to join the battle if people are going to pay attention to the work that you do…. You’re going to have to engage.” This sounds like obvious advice, he admitted, but sometimes it is hard advice for the scientific and academic communities to grasp. “You spend most of your time talking to each other.” In talking with members of the public, scientists and engineers have to do so in ways “that are meaningful to their lives—not to your life, to their lives.” Such conversations are important, because powerful organizations are spending millions of dollars to shape the debate. “If you’re not doing that work, if you’re not part of the conversation, then your message isn’t going to get out there,” McDonald said. “And remember, the first rule of politics is to define yourself because if you don’t do it, the other guy will.”
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State Science and Technology Policy Advice: Issues, Opportunities, and Challenges - Summary of a National Convocation In talking with members of the public, scientists and engineers have to do so in ways that are meaningful to their lives—not to your life. McDonald is not overly concerned with frames. “They have their place,” McDonald said. “But I’m not sure they’re for people like you, to be honest.” Framing is a sophisticated technique that is best done as part of communications campaigns. Content is king, he said, and content is where science and technology excel. “As scientists and engineers, you need to be able to tell people what you’re doing, why it’s important, and what needs to be done about it…. The greatest asset you bring to the table is knowledge and expertise.” Sharing this expertise in clear, concise, and compassionate terms requires work, money, and commitment. Scientists and engineers need to think about what to communicate, who they need to communicate with, and what they need to say. “You’re the experts. That’s your job. That’s what you need to do.” Finally, scientists and engineers have to be available to talk with reporters, and not just when they have something to communicate. In particular, reporters are much less likely to be accommodating if scientists and engineers duck questions that are uncomfortable. Scientists and engineers also need to be ready to be criticized. “Sometimes people get paid a lot of money to say very harsh things about you and your work. So if you’re going to venture out there, be sure your i’s are dotted, your t’s are crossed, and have a thick skin,” McDonald said.