Are Scientists Really Out of Touch?

scienceA recent survey suggests the rift between scientists and the public is growing, but did its methodology sway the results?

From Scientist.com, In a recent AAAS/Pew survey [1], one in five U.S. scientists named the chronic difficulties [2] in communicating with and educating lay audiences as one of the greatest U.S. scientific failures of the past 20 years. The real surprise, however, was that scientists do not seem too eager to find a solution — at least not according to the AAAS/Pew data [3]. Only about two in five AAAS scientists reported that they often talk to non-scientists about findings from their research, and only 3% often talk to reporters.

But are things really that bad? As part of two independent research teams, we interviewed nationally representative samples of scientific experts in nanotechnology [4, 5], stem cell research and epidemiology [6]. Data from these surveys suggest much more optimistic views among scientists about interactions with journalists, mass media, and lay audiences. At least two important differences in survey technique may explain these contrasting findings.

Sampling Matters

The first key difference between the AAAS study and systematic surveys of scientific experts in specific disciplines is the sampling strategy. Unlike interdisciplinary scientific associations, such as AAAS, “disciplinary scientific communities are international networks of peers dealing with the same research questions — and publishing in the same international journals” [see online supplementary materials to 6]. A sample drawn from a list of self-selected members of such an association, therefore, is very different from studies of experts in a given field of study.

AAAS surveyed its members, including students, emeriti and non-scientists who support the organization’s mission. Our surveys of scientific experts, in contrast, relied on samples of researchers in specific fields, and used sampling frames that drew from tens of thousands of publication records [5] and multiple countries [6]. Scientists were then contacted using multiple waves of mailings and reminders in order to minimize non-response among particular groups of scientists.

And different sampling strategies may be directly linked to overall responses. For example, the frequency of scientists’ contacts with media may vary by discipline. Our surveys show that epidemiologists had more contact with mass media than stem cell researchers. The lower overall contact frequency between scientists and journalists reported in the AAAS survey may, therefore, be an artifact of a sample that included both active and non-active researchers across a variety of disciplines, including fields like mathematics that inherently receive less attention from journalists than medicine, for instance.

Tapping attitudes rather than truisms

The second key difference lies in how questions were presented. When asked how much of a problem they considered the fact that “news media oversimplify scientific findings,” 93% of AAAS respondents reported that they considered such oversimplifications a minor or major problem. Similarly, 83% considered TV science coverage “only fair” or “poor”; for newspaper science coverage, the percentage was 63%.

What looks like a widespread anti-media sentiment, however, may also have been triggered, at least in part, by question wording. The AAAS survey did not ask respondents if they agreed or disagreed that news media oversimplified findings but, rather, how much of a problem respondents thought it was that they did. Our surveys of biomedical and nanotechnology experts instead asked scientists to express their agreement or disagreement with various statements about the quality of media coverage of their scientific field.

When asked in this more balanced way, 54% of the nano scientists disagreed “somewhat” or “strongly” that media coverage was “hostile toward science.” In fact, when asked about the scientific accuracy of coverage, nano scientists were split, with 27% believing that it was inaccurate, 28% believing it was accurate, and about 45% falling in the neutral middle category. Similarly, 49%of biomedical researchers disagreed that media coverage was “hostile toward science,” while only 12% agreed. Their assessments of accuracy were similarly split: 33% believed that coverage of their field was inaccurate, 35% believed it was accurate and 32% were undecided.

Scientists are ready to build bridges

These more positive attitudes toward public communication across disciplines also translate into scientists’ openness to connect with lay audiences. Data from our nanotechnology survey shows that more than half of all scientists “strongly” or “somewhat” agree that “[s]cientists should pay attention to the wishes of the public, even if they think citizens are mistaken or do not understand their work.” And scientists believe that communication can make a difference, with more than 80% in the nano and the biomedical surveys disagreeing that “[c]ommunicating with the public does not affect public attitudes toward science.” Judged against scientific norms and priorities, media coverage of science will always be incomplete and — at times — flawed. But scientists, it seems, are open to a dialogue.

Overall, we do not mean to imply that data such as the recent AAAS survey are not helpful in guiding our thinking about the future of science communication. But data that potentially overstate the problem could drive a wedge between already divided groups and discourage both sides from building bridges. We continue to be convinced these that bridges have to be built, and — based on expert surveys across disciplines and continents — can be built.

References:
1. J. Mervis, “An inside/outside view of U.S. science,” Science, 325:132-33, 2009.
2. R.J. Cicerone, “Celebrating and rethinking science communication,” In Focus, 6:3, 2006.
3. A. Kohut et al., “Scientific achievements less prominent than a decade ago: Public praises science; scientists fault public, media,” in The Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, 2009.
4. E.A. Corley et al., “Of risks and regulations: How leading U.S. nanoscientists form policy stances about nanotechnology,” Journal of Nanoparticle Research, forthcoming.
5. D.A. Scheufele et al., “Scientists worry about some risks more than the public,” Nature Nanotechnology, 2:732-34, 2007.
6. H.P. Peters et al., “Science communication: Interactions with the mass media,” Science, 321:204-05, 2008.

The survey of nano experts was commissioned by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, and conducted by the University of Wisconsin Survey Center. The response rate was 40%. The surveys among stem cell researchers and epidemiologists were conducted under the leadership of the Forschungszentrum Jûlich, Germany in five countries (France, Germany, Japan, UK, and the US) with a response rate of 43% across all countries.

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