Thursday, May 28, 2009

Grow Magazine on science communication disconnects

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

It’s probably more important now than it’s ever been. Issues like nanotechnology and stem cell research raise questions about what it means to be human, what kind of applications we want in the market and how quickly.

The tricky part is that, while scientists generally realize how important it is to connect with the public, many people have taken the approach that it will be enough if we just put sound science out there. But unfortunately that’s not really supported by the research. Most recent studies, including some of our own, show clearly that information is only part of the equation. For one thing, if it doesn’t reach certain parts of the audience, we obviously have a problem. But even if we reach everyone, there are still different publics who all use information differently.

Are scientists putting too much faith in information?

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

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

(Click here for the full interview.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Columbia Journalism Review on hard-to-reach science audiences

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

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

(Click here for the full story.)