A Failure to Communicate

Few scientists have the public pulse under closer watch than Dietram Scheufele. A professor of life sciences communication, Scheufele uses public opinion surveys and statistical modeling to explore people’s attitudes toward controversial scientific issues such as stem cell research, nanotechnology and genetic engineering. He leads the Wisconsin research program for the Center for Nanotechnology and Society, funded by the National Science Foundation to probe the social issues that often swirl around emerging technologies. A native of Germany, Scheufele earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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.

Is (Google CEO) Larry Page right in saying that science has a marketing problem?

Well, in some ways, that was an unfortunate statement, because it reinforces a concern that many scientists have, which is that science is somehow going to engage in spin. On the other hand, he’s absolutely right. There are similarities between commercial marketing and how we communicate science. We’re dealing with a public that is not overly informed or interested in science, and in order to connect with these reluctant audiences, we need systematic research and strategic communication. It’s all about understanding different audiences and developing targeted messages based on careful public opinion research.

If you look at embryonic stem cell research as an example, even after 10 years of debate there still isn’t a public consensus about this field. What has influenced attitudes on this issue?

Stem cell research is a great example, because it’s an issue that has been heavily influenced by strategic campaigns on both sides. Interest groups have spent a lot of money researching what kinds of messages make people more or less likely to support certain aspects of stem cell research, and they’ve put considerable effort into framing the issue to their advantage. Religious groups, for example, have been very effective at framing stem cells as a moral issue, rather than a medical one.

One thing that is frustrating in these public debates is that science is often virtually absent. We have religious groups, we have Michael J. Fox, but we really have very little discussion about the scientific merits of stem cell research.

Why do you think scientists have been reluctant to be more visible on issues like these?

We’ve actually done some research on this with the Center for Nanotechnology and Society. When we asked scientists about media coverage of science, about two-thirds said they thought media coverage was usually inaccurate, and almost half of them said that coverage was hostile to science. So while they think communication can make a difference, they’re really reluctant to go through mass media.