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Science communication in the Obama era

Matthew Nisbet has some advice for the new Administration

As President Barack Obama takes office, his Administration faces a host of science policy challenges that are likely to necessitate a re-thinking of public communication. To pass climate change legislation will require applying principles from political campaigning, while issues such as biomedical research and nanotechnology will force science institutions to adopt new modes of communication. To promote these innovations, the Obama administration will need to boost funding for science communication research and initiatives.

To start, on climate change legislation, polls show that a strong proportion of Americans continue to refute that human activity is at the root of the problem, while very few rate climate change as a top policy priority in comparison to other issues. Unless there is a shift in the polls and a surge in input from a diversity of constituents, it is unlikely that, in an economic recession, Congress will make climate change a dominant agenda item or be willing to spend the political capital needed to pass major policy initiatives.

Reframe the debate

The Administration needs to reframe the climate debate away from melting ice and polar bears, and connect to the specific core values of key segments of the public. It needs to communicate these meanings repeatedly through a variety of trusted media sources and opinion leaders, to generate the public resolve needed to move policy forward.

It should follow the recent lead of Al Gore’s We campaign, which has emphasised the moral and religious duty to ‘repower America’ through new energy technology and increased energy efficiency. Campaign advertisements compare action on global warming to the struggle to win World War II or to the Civil Rights movement, while emphasising the opportunity for economic growth through investment in clean energy technology.

Importantly, these ads are placed during day time talk shows, entertainment programming, and in leisure magazines, all of which reach non-news audiences who might not otherwise be paying attention to news coverage of the issue.

From transmission to conversation

On issues such as nanotechnology and biomedical research, there is a pressing need for a shift from decades-old approaches that focus narrowly on educating the public through newspapers, magazines, television, and Web sites.

These traditional approaches only reach a small audience of already informed science enthusiasts. Instead, the Obama administration should look to European communication initiatives that have shifted from mass media transmission to community-based conversation. 

On topics such as nanotechnology, U.S. science organizations should sponsor deliberative forums, open meetings, and consensus conferences. Studies of pilot programs in the U.S. find that lay participants at these meetings not only learn about the science and politics involved, but they also end up perceiving relevant institutions as more responsive to their concerns, and leave the forum with enhanced feelings of trust.

Local level

Most local newspapers have cut meaningful coverage of science and the environment. As a result, many communities lack the type of relevant news and information that is needed to adapt to environmental challenges, or to reach collective choices about issues such as nanotechnology and biomedical research.

As a way to address these local-level information gaps, the Obama administration should fund public television and radio organizations as community science information hubs that partner with universities, museums, and other local media outlets to produce and share digital content that is interactive and user-focused.  These community-focused and hyper-local digital portals would feature in-depth reporting, blogs, podcasts, shared video, news aggregation, user recommendations, learning and problem-focused games, social networking, and commenting.

Finally, each of these possible new directions in science communication needs to be informed by the funding of careful formative and evaluative research whose results can guide other similar initiatives.

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Matthew C. Nisbet
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is a professor in the School of Communication at American University, Washington, DC, where his research focuses on science communication and public affairs. He blogs about these topics at
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