From Policy to Funding, Science Communication May Be More Important Than Ever

Detail of an image by secretlondon123, obtained via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.
Detail of an image by secretlondon123, obtained via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

If you think science should inform policy decisions or you just want to ensure that there is continued government support for scientific research, you should be alarmed by a new report from the Pew Research Center. Here’s the short version: the U.S. public is markedly less supportive of federal science funding than it was five years ago, and is less likely to be swayed by science on policy issues. This should be a wake-up call to the science community: science communication is more important than ever, and the overarching science community needs to figure out how to reach the public in a meaningful way.

On Jan. 29, the Pew Research Center released a report titled “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” The report outlines the findings of two polls conducted in 2014. One poll was a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults, which interviewed 2,002 individuals across all 50 states. The second poll was of 3,748 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

[Before I go on, I want to throw out a couple qualifiers. First, it is worth noting that anyone can join AAAS. You don’t have to be a scientist, or even be scientifically literate. You just have to pay the membership fee. This is an important point, because Pew’s report doesn’t state that it interviewed only scientists. Instead it appears to equate AAAS members who aren’t teachers with “scientists,” which ain’t necessarily so. Second, some scholars have raised concerns about Pew’s sampling methodology for a similar 2009 survey. So, as always when reading about polls/surveys, caveat emptor.]

The public poll found that most folks still support science funding and think of science as a social good – but that support is waning. Quickly.

Funding

The Pew report compares the 2014 survey results to the results of a similar survey that Pew conducted in 2009 (the same study I mentioned above). So, how much has popular sentiment changed?

In 2009, 74 percent of respondents thought government investment in engineering and technology “pays off in the long run.” That number slid to 72 percent in 2014. Similarly, public support for government funding of basic science slid two points, from 73 percent to 71 percent.

“So what?” you ask. “It’s a paltry TWO percentage points! Why does that matter?”

Well, it matters because the needle is moving in the wrong direction. And it matters because that’s not all the survey showed.

The number of people who said federal support of engineering and technology research was “not worth it” jumped by five percentage points, from 17 percent to 22 percent. And those who opposed funding for basic science jumped even more, from 18 percent to 24 percent.

In addition, the number of people who think federal funding is not necessary to ensure scientific progress – that private investment alone will do the trick – jumped from 29 percent to 34 percent. Most of that shift comes from previously undecided respondents, since the number of folks who say government investment is essential has only dropped one percent.

Does this truly represent an opposition to science? Or is science simply being lumped in with an overarching dissatisfaction with government? I don’t know.

But support for government funding of science is flagging, while opposition to government funding has grown fairly quickly over the course of only five years. That combination is troubling.

Is Science a Social Good?

The trend is also reflected on the portions of the survey that evaluate public views of how science affects society.

In 2009, 83 percent of people said science has made life easier. By 2014, that number had dipped to 79 percent. Similarly, while only 10 percent said science had made their lives more difficult in 2009, the number had grown to 15 percent in 2014 – a five percent jump.

Results were even more pronounced when survey respondents were asked about specific areas of research. There was an eight percent jump in the number of people who said science has had a mostly negative effect on health care (from 10 to 18 percent) and the environment (from 23 to 31 percent) – and a 10 percent jump in regard to food (from 24 to 34 percent).

Meanwhile, the number of people who felt science had a mostly positive effect on health care fell from 85 to 79 percent, with slightly smaller drops in the areas of food (66 to 62 percent) and the environment (also 66 to 62 percent).

Again, a troubling combination: more people are viewing science as a negative force in society and fewer people are viewing it as a positive force.

Policy Issues

And if the public’s perception of science is moving in the wrong direction, the disconnect between AAAS members and the public is especially pronounced on scientific issues that are relevant to public policy.

I encourage you to read the relevant chapter of the report, or the related blog post by Pew’s Lee Rainie, so I’ll only include a few numbers here.

There is a 51 percent gap between AAAS members and the public on whether it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods (88 percent of AAAS members think it’s safe). There a 42 percent gap on animal research (89 percent of AAAS members are in favor), a 37 point gap on whether humanity has played a key role in climate change (87 percent of AAAS members say it has), and an 18 point gap on whether childhood vaccines should be mandatory (86 percent of AAAS members support this – as do 68 percent of the public).

Even on issues that many people consider to be well-established, and where AAAS members are almost unanimous, there’s a significant disconnect with the public. For example, whether humans have evolved over time. 98 percent of AAAS members say yes (who are the other 2 percent?) – but only 65 percent of the public agrees.

In other words, the science community is clearly not doing a good job of communicating with the public when it comes to evidence-based decision-making. And that’s scary stuff.

Politicians craft the legislation that drives public policy. And politicians, theoretically at least, make decisions based on public opinion. The numbers in the Pew public opinion poll matter.

Science Communication

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: to protect public funding for research at the state and federal level – much less increase that funding – you need to have broad public support. And the keys to building that public support lie, in part, in science communication.

Now, do I have the answers? No.

We know that the deficit model – the longstanding idea that folks would support science-based decision-making if they just knew more about science – isn’t all that effective. But we haven’t come up with anything to replace it. Yet.

I think a lot of folks agree that we need to incorporate cultural mores and beliefs into our science communication efforts, and that science communication shouldn’t be confrontational. We shouldn’t start out by saying “What you believe is wrong, and here’s why.”

But how do we do those things? I have no idea.

I wrote recently about a list of needs and best practices for science communication. But that list was often vague in terms of offering tools or advice that people can actually implement in a practical way.

I don’t know what those practical tools and advice will ultimately look like, but the recent Pew report makes it clear that we need to figure that out or face both increasing opposition to science funding and public policies that ignore relevant facts.

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8 thoughts on “From Policy to Funding, Science Communication May Be More Important Than Ever

  1. Hi Matt – nice breakdown of the Pew report. Yours is one of the more measured posts I’ve read on this.

    I went back to the 15 Jan post you linked to above, that covered some needs & best practices for scicomm. I was intrigued by Paige’s comment that most of these best practices ignore the psychology of scicomm. I think this is critical.

    I wonder if one thing that contributes to the gap between scientists and the public identified in the Pew report is that scientists often look down on the public, seeing them as ‘less than’: ‘less knowledgeable’ or ‘less rigorous thinkers’. This attitude can permeate science communication efforts, so that scientists are seen to be *talking down to* rather than *engaging with* the public. This ‘Open Letter to Food Babe’ (http://sciencemeetsfood.org/open-letter-to-food-babe/) is a good example. While it takes on a lot of bad science propagated by the Food Babe, the effect is offset by its sometimes condescending tone.

    There are many efforts underway to convince the public that scientists are normal people just like everyone else (i.e., not mad geniuses decked out in lab coats 24/7). Maybe scientists need to remember that this is the case, and treat the public accordingly. Our knowledge about and training in science doesn’t make us superior – it just makes us different, and gives us something to share.

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  4. There are plenty of approaches and tools to replace the deficit model. But I think you have to look a bit further afield than the identity politics of “science” makes socially acceptable.

    Until the “community of practice” looks beyond it’s own identity and assumptions, nothing is likely to change anytime soon.

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    1. I’m happy to look for tools and approaches wherever they can be found! Could you please share what some of these tools and approaches are? Or at least give us a hint? (Also, why was science in quotes? I’m confused.)

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  5. I put science in quotes to differentiate the practice of science from social identity of “science” which is characterized by strong boundary work that separates experts from novices, highly mediated (and thus inaccessible for most) forms of knowledge and communications, and applications/interpretations/conclusions of science that create social turbulence. The two aren’t actually separable, but in common practice, the scientific community often sees themselves as separate, un-biased, objective, etc, etc -and- without a need to understand or even engage with cultural networks.

    As for deficit model alternatives, let’s take climate change as an example. Sharing the numbers, facts, and trends hasn’t worked. Why? People draw conclusions and filter information through their own identities and worldviews. So the response to this culturally driven cognition has been to over-communicate a rubric of standard steps to science communication: know your audience, translate numbers, understand values, etc. So even for sci comms, the deficit model is an implicit assumption. Is it working? If so, where?

    I think the alternatives start somewhere between minds rather than within them–networks of people rather than individuals or homogenous populations. There’s a strong case for lived experiences including concrete metaphors and shared mental models through participation and visualization that connect with the body and the senses. There’s a role for psychological affect produced through productive positive emotions, skills acquisition, tools building, and through seeing the successes of others. There’s also a role for sacred and protected values that have nothing to do with cost-benefit calculations.

    There also a strong case for dropping science communication altogether and replacing it with cultural production.

    But unfortunately those methods of communication don’t scale well. And so the social psychological approach is largely the only one given any weight by policymakers.

    I look to cognitive anthropology, social studies of consumption, design research, art practice, and organizational design for cues and research to help inform science communications.

    Is there a list of tactics? I think it’s getting there, but assembling it takes time and effort for which funding is pretty difficult to come by if you don’t follow the accepted norms and procedures. So yeah, tough to validate, except by doing.

    But a low-hanging fruit is open access publishing. At least the initiated wouldn’t feel shut out by the communities they’ve long identified with.

    I think the most relevant non-deficit model approach focuses on a person’s identity, what they need, how they connect with others, and where they live. That’s super difficult, but it means getting down and dirty in a way that most scientists and communicators aren’t going to be comfortable with.

    One way to do this is to back off and move up a level of abstraction. If this is about culture and identity, why bother with science? Start with culture and identity. If science provides an aspirational value for people (as it was up until about the mid-60s) and there are the means to achieve it, then science will piggyback its way up the scale of relevance.

    I think the trick is to think of science communications as something that arrives as the result of cultural production, not the other way around.

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  6. Robin Bisson

    Great post Matt. Like the other commenters I wanted to pick up on the point “We know that the deficit model .. isn’t all that effective. But we haven’t come up with anything to replace it.”

    The UK is not a bad place to look at alternatives as we had our deficit model crisis in the 90s (mad cow disease, etc.). There was a huge push for moving towards a ‘dialogue’ model of science communication – essentially listening to the public. This works great in policy situations; a good example being the amount of public consultation that went into recent changes to regulation to make mitchondrial donation (3 person IVF) legal. The dialogue thing is entrenched in organizations like Sciencewise (http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/), which was set up to “improve Government policy making involving science and technology by increasing the effectiveness with which public dialogue is used.”

    Though as John Timmer points out in that post you link to, there’s no one-size-fits-all for science communication. So I’m not sure we should be looking for a full blown replacement to the deficit model – sometimes (in fact quite often) I do want scientists to just fill me up with the facts!

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