The Future of Public Engagement

The Future of Public Engagement The facts never speak for themselves, which is why scientists need to "frame" their messages to the public. By Matthew C. Nisbet & Dietram A. Scheufele Related Articles 1 Page is just one of several leaders who have called attention to the urgent need for new directions in science communication. Yet unfortunately, still missing from much of the general discussion is a systematic understanding of how the public uses the media to form

Oct 1, 2007
Matthew C. Nisbet & Dietram A. Scheufele

The Future of Public Engagement

The facts never speak for themselves, which is why scientists need to "frame" their messages to the public.

By Matthew C. Nisbet & Dietram A. Scheufele

Related Articles

1 Page is just one of several leaders who have called attention to the urgent need for new directions in science communication. Yet unfortunately, still missing from much of the general discussion is a systematic understanding of how the public uses the media to form opinions about science-related topics, and a strategy for moving forward.

The dominant assumption is that ignorance is at the root of conflict over science. According to this traditional "popular science" model, the media should be used to educate the public about the technical details of the issue in dispute. Once citizens are brought up to speed on the science, they will be more likely to judge scientific issues as scientists do and controversy will go away. The facts are assumed to speak for themselves and to be interpreted by all citizens in similar ways. If the public does not accept or recognize these facts, then the failure in transmission is blamed on journalists, "irrational" beliefs, or both. Yet many scientists ignore the possibility that their communication efforts might be part of the problem.2

Perhaps worse, arguments in favor of the popular science model are not very scientific. In fact, they cut against more than 60 years of research in the social sciences, a body of work that suggests citizens prefer to rely on their social values to pick and choose information sources that confirm what they already believe, often making up their minds about a topic in the absence of knowledge.3 A second challenge to the popular science model is that in today's media world, by way of cable TV and the Internet, the public has greater access to quality information about science than at any time in history, yet public knowledge of science remains low. The reason is that a small audience remains attentive to science coverage, but the broader public literally tunes out, preferring other media content.

Given these realities, 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.

The stakes are high. If across the media, scientists and their organizations are not effective in getting their messages across, then others will be. One of the reasons why a coordinated response to the Intelligent Design movement was slow to develop was that there was not enough appreciation among evolutionists for strategic communication. The Discovery Institute, through careful crafting and targeting of their message, created a public perception wedge, casting intelligent design as the "middle way," the scientific compromise between teaching "atheistic evolution" and constitutionally unacceptable biblical doctrine.

In political coverage, at the opinion pages, in television advertising, and at the cable news shows, if scientists don't evolve in their strategies, they will essentially be waving a white flag, surrendering their important role as communicators.


The earliest formal work on framing traces back 25 years to research by the cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In experiments examining risk judgments and consumer choices rather than content itself, the two psychologists discovered that the different ways in which a message is presented or framed can result in very different responses. They concluded in their Nobel Prize winning research that "perception is reference-dependent."4

Over the past two decades, research in the fields of political communication and sociology has added to previous work on framing to explain how media portrayals in interaction with cultural forces shape public views. In this research, frames are identified as being used by audiences as "interpretative schema" to make sense of and discuss an issue, by journalists to craft interesting and appealing news reports, and by policymakers to define policy options and reach decisions.5

In each of these contexts, 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.6 7

Stem Cell Research. Among science issues discussed over the past five years, only climate change has received more news attention than the stem cell debate. Yet despite the availability of information on the topic, public knowledge of both the policy and scientific issues involved in the debate remains very low. In place of knowledge, the public has relied heavily on their social values in combination with the most readily available interpretations featured in the media.

Opponents of expanded funding have emphasized the "morality/ethics" frame, arguing it is morally wrong to destroy embryos, since they constitute human life, countering the scientific moral argument that more research could lead to important cures. In targeted messages and news reports, the latent meanings of "morality/ethics" and "social progress" are communicated in short hand by several different kinds of frame devices, including metaphors such as "scientists are playing God," or "scientists racing to find a cure"; comparisons to historical exemplars such as the Holocaust or discovering the cure for polio; and catchphrases such as "crossing an important moral boundary," "experiments on young humans," or "it is pro-life to be pro-research."

Advocates for expanded funding have also emphasized the "economic competitiveness" frame, arguing that current limits on federal dollars would catalyze an overseas "brain drain" of top scientific talent, or similarly, that funding for stem cell research at the local level would boost the economy.8

The importance of how stem cell research is framed is illustrated by two nationally representative surveys taken in early 2001, one sponsored by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and the second by the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). The JDRF poll question emphasized the social progress interpretation, and referred to medical research on "extra embryos" that could lead to cures for a long list of diseases. Here, public support for funding registered at 65%. In the NCCB survey, the frame was very different: When asked if they supported using their federal tax dollars for research on "live embryos" that would be "destroyed in their first week of development," 70% of respondents voiced their reservations about funding.

The stem cell debate is largely the rare example in which the scientific community has successfully employed framing. In 2001, research institutions and universities partnered with patient advocacy groups to form the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR), which has focused on social progress and economic competitiveness. As a result of CAMR's effective communication strategy, public support for expanded funding has increased considerably, especially among key targeted groups such as Catholics and mainline Protestants.9 But any communication strategy must remain true to scientific uncertainty, and some funding advocates have gone too far in employing the social progress frame, giving the impression that research advances are right around the corner, an interpretation that risks public trust.

Plant Biotechnology. Framing also helps to explain why some scientific innovations are widely accepted in the United States, but opposed in other parts of the world. In the example of plant biotechnology, a small number of environmental and consumer activists are strongly opposed to the technology, but surveys show that the wider public continues to be relatively unaware of the issue, yet generally supportive when asked their opinion.

In part, given no cues otherwise, Americans generally trust scientific agencies and defer to their judgment. Unlike embryonic stem cell research, there has been little debate over plant biotechnology among policy makers, religious figures, and environmental organizations. Consequently, the issue has remained covered mostly as a science or business story. To the wider public, the image of the issue remains predominantly framed in "social progress" terms focused on more nutritious and hardier crops for the developing world, and in terms of "economic competitiveness," with an emphasis on promoting American agricultural products abroad.10

In several European countries, however, surveys show strong public opposition. There, elected officials and advocacy groups are divided about plant biotech, and opponents have framed the issue as a Pandora's box of unknown risks, and as a matter of public accountability, with an emphasis on the undue influence of big biotech. Apart from these cues, the technology also triggers strongly held worldviews, including feelings of anti-Americanism (and thereby opposition to US biotech products), and a cultural sense that food has an intrinsic value that should remain beyond the reach of science and corporations.11

In political coverage, at the opinion pages, in television advertising, and at the cable news shows, if scientists don't evolve in their strategies, they will essentially be waving a white flag, surrendering their important role as communicators.

Nanotechnology. This field, too, raises strong debate and has left the larger European public somewhat divided. Opponents of nanotechnology have framed it as the "asbestos of tomorrow," a phrase that appeared in the European press for the first time last year. This phrase directly takes advantage of how framing works: It evokes an underlying schema, largely leftover from regulatory mishaps surrounding the cancer-causing flame retardant. The phrase also triggers the Pandora's Box frame, instantly communicating the unintended and unpredictable outcomes of the new technology.

But European companies have learned valuable lessons from the case of plant biotechnology, and have become more proactive in framing this emerging field. They now consistently frame new product releases around "nano is nature," portraying innovation as being in harmony with what already exists. For example, Henkel Deutschland released their Nanit® Active dental sealant which the marketing materials liken to a layer of grass that protects the underlying topsoil. Similarly, catalog retailers market products with the slogan "high tech inspired by nature."

In the United States, scientists, corporations, and citizens alike are still largely oblivious to the potential public opinion battles that may be looming on the nanotech horizon. This is in part due to the fact that media coverage has been dominated by science and business writers and focused on social benefits and economic development. As a result, those respondents who are aware of the issue continue to be the most enthusiastic, as recent surveys show.

Yet several indicators of a possible frame shift have already appeared. In early 2006, the "asbestos of tomorrow" frame device from Europe was used by business writer Barnaby Feder in an article at The New York Times heralding "Technology's future: A look at the dark side." Even more revealing, a story by science writer Rick Weiss in The Washington Post, originally titled "Nanotech raises worker-safety questions," was trumpeted with the new headline: "Nanotech workers are lab rats in experiment with no controls," when syndicated at Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader. This last example demonstrates the ability of editors across various levels of media to take the same news content but apply very different frame devices, ultimately altering audience interpretations.12


Despite what critics of our suggestions argue, framing does not mean engaging in false spin, as many opponents of science have done in the past. What may have led to this misperception is that several examples of highly effective messaging have originated from groups or individuals with special interests. While the content of some of these messages such as Greenpeace's "Frankenfood" is debatable, these messages have been more effective in reaching key audiences than many efforts that originated from the scientific community.

Some critics have also argued that scientists should stick to research and let media relations officers and science writers worry about translating the implications of that research. They are right: In an ideal world that's exactly what should happen. Yet in reality, scientists will be the key spokespeople. They are the individuals who will be giving the interviews, or writing popular books, articles, or blogs. They will testify before Congress and address local community groups. Perhaps even more importantly, as senior decision-makers, many scientists are ultimately responsible for setting communication policy at scientific institutions, agencies, and organizations. These leaders need to understand how research can and should inform public communication on all issues.

Despite what critics of our suggestions argue, framing does not mean engaging in false spin, as many opponents of science have done in the past.

Moreover, in our experience, we find that even some science communication professionals still cling to the false assumptions of the popular science model, assuming that the facts will speak for themselves and will win out, with no attention to the way the facts are presented, the media who will communicate them, or the audience who will receive them. Therefore, while our suggestions target scientists, they are also aimed at communication professionals.

Others argue that the antidote to continued communication failures is large-scale investment in "public dialogue" initiatives such as town meetings, deliberative forums, and science cafes. Deliberative forums generate conversations among highly engaged citizens and activists, and allow scientific organizations and government officials to tap concerns early and integrate them into policy.13 But like any other tool, deliberative meetings have obvious limitations. Most importantly, very few people actually participate. Indeed, research shows that at these forums, the citizens who are most likely to attend and speak up are those who are already informed, opinion-intense, and active on an issue.

So what are the lessons for science communication 2.0? Should we throw out all existing tools of outreach and public education? No, not at all! Yet study after study shows that various communication efforts are not working as well as they could, despite clear mandates by most federal funding agencies to include outreach and education components in grant proposals. These failures, unfortunately, are partly due to scientists and their organizations continuing to confuse strategic, goal-directed communication with marketing and public relations.

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.

We suggest that Wilson's efforts at bridging audiences be carried out systematically. On major issues such as climate change, nanotechnology, and the teaching of evolution, science organizations should work with communication researchers to conduct focus groups, surveys, and experiments that explore how diverse audiences come to understand these topics. Based on this research, messages can be tailored to fit with specific types of media outlets and to resonate with the background of their particular audience. In collaboration with national organizations and their institution's communication professionals, individual scientists can incorporate these messages into their media interviews, their talks to various audiences, and their popular writing.

Tailoring communication efforts to fit with publics from different social and educational backgrounds is not an option, it is a necessity. Using communication tools such as framing to help citizens make connections between their everyday lives, their specific values, and the world of science is by no means a magical key to unlocking public appreciation for science, but it is a first step.

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