Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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

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

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













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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

Monday, January 11, 2010

U.S. public faces widening information gap on nanotechnology

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

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

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

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

...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Recession helps museum attendance ... and it may matter for informal science outreach

Last year, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released fairly pessimistic overview data of attendance at art museums in the U.S.  35% of U.S. adults overall (about 78 million people) attended an art museum or an arts performance in 2008. On the plus side, this is much higher than attendance of science or natural history museums, of course, which  hovered below 40% for college graduates in 2006 and below 10% for folks without a high school diploma. But the bad news -- back in 2009 -- was the fact that attendance had been on the decline for a while:
""A new study from the National Endowment for the Arts finds a notable decline in theater, museum and concert attendance and other "benchmark" cultural activities between 2002 and 2008 for adults 18 and older, and a sharper fall from 25 years ago. The drop was for virtually all art forms and for virtually all age groups and levels of education." (click here for the full AP story.)
"Surprisingly, the largest drop in arts consumption [came] from people ages 45 to 54, which has traditionally been the most dependable group of arts participants." (click here for full Los Angeles Times article)
These data are somewhat inconsistent with a new report in the December 2009 issue of Art Newspaper:
"A survey ... of 20 museums across the country found that two-thirds have experienced a clear increase in visitor numbers over the past three years."
The New York Times today speculated that the global economic downturn and its impact on U.S. families may be partly responsible for the reversal of a long-term downturn, and at least the 2009 numbers support that conclusion:
"Just as tellingly, evidence can also be found in culture. While one new study shows that attendance at museums and cultural events dropped from 2002 to 2008, it has climbed in 2009 at many major institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. Movie attendance was also up 5 percent in 2009, and in the world of the Walt Disney Company, product sales have declined as the company’s theme parks enjoyed a 3 percent increase in visitors last quarter." (Click here for the full article.)

According to the Art Newspaper survey, "[t]he trend holds for institutions with free and paid admissions alike, and institutions that show contemporary art have seen the most clear-cut increase. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), one of the nation’s most expensive museums at $20 per ticket, had the best year in its 80-year history, bringing in 2.8 million visitors between 2008 and 2009. The size of its membership rose to a record 120,000. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective was its best-attended show yet, attracting 372,000 people. The New York museum has also broken its 2008 attendance record of just over one million."
So what does all of this mean for science and natural history museums? Will they see a similar renaissance as Americans (re)focus their attention on what to do rather than what to buy? The forthcoming 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators may have some answers, but will have trend data only up to 2008. At the very least, there may be an opportunity for informal science education with an audience that is less distracted during the recession than it used to be in previous years.