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October 29, 2007

Science Has a Serious Marketing Problem

The Scientist (Vol 21, Issue 10) ran an interesting article, "The Future of Public Engagement" about the need for scientists to "frame" their research for public consumption. They should not just "dumb down" their science, so "the public" can understand it. Rather

...scientists must learn to focus on presenting, or "framing," their messages in ways that connect with diverse audiences. This means remaining true to the underlying science, but drawing on research to tailor messages in ways that make them personally relevant and meaningful to different publics. For example, when scientists are speaking to a group of people who think about the world primarily in economic terms, they should emphasize the economic relevance of science - such as, in the case of embryonic stem cell research, pointing out that expanded government funding would make the United States, or a particular state, more economically competitive.

How framing works..

Frames simplify complex issues by lending greater importance to certain considerations and arguments over others. In the process, framing helps communicate why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done. A typology of frames specific to science-related issues summarizes a common set of frames specific to science.

The article gives examples from research in successes in communicating stem cell research, plant biotechnology, and nanotechnology.

Some scientists already frame their communications. Consider, for example, E.O. Wilson's Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. In his book, by recasting environmental stewardship as not only a scientific matter, but also one of personal and moral duty, Wilson has generated discussion among a religious audience that might not otherwise pay attention to popular science books.

Perhaps because I just read a similar idea in Alan Alda's book "Things I Overheard While Listening to Myself", this Scientist article resonated for me. In his book, Alda suggests that, along with all the science classes students take, perhaps they should also be taking communication classes!

We can't leave the popularization of science just to the science news writers. Their articles certainly help. But citizens need to hear about research from the scientists themselves. Last night I watched a wonderful program on Nature about colony collapse in honeybees, "Silence of the Bees". Two of our scientists from the U of I entomology department, May Berenbaum and Gene Robinson (together with other scientists) spoke eloquently of the catastrophe that will occur if honeybees continue to decline. One couldn't help but be drawn into the story and into the CSI-like research effort that's going on to solve this problem.

Posted by Katie Newman at October 29, 2007 1:29 PM