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National Academies: Framing & State Policy Advice

Over the summer I addressed by video conference a meeting by the National Academies on state science policy advice. They’ve now produced a report based on that meeting and it is free as a PDF download.

Chapter Five of the report focuses on the communication of science advice at the state level and provides a fairly detailed overview of the Framing Science thesis generally. Below the fold you can read that section of the report. The narrative follows closely the article that I published at The Scientist last year with Dietram Scheufele (PDF) and the presentation that I have been giving on the road over the past year. Reading this overview along with The Scientist article is probably the best introduction to how framing can be applied to effective public engagement.

Framing the Issues

In a recent issue of Science, Matthew Nisbet, an assistant professor of communication at American University in Washington, DC, and writer Chris Mooney published an article that called for a reexamination of the way scientists and engineers communicate information to the public (Nisbet and Mooney, 2007). In his presentation, Nisbet elaborated on their views and responded to some of the reactions their article has provoked.

Their article questioned what Nisbet called the “popular science model”–the idea that if the public only knew more about science, it would view issues as scientists do. This model calls for improving science education, which of course is vitally important to the nation for a number of reasons, Nisbet said. It also calls for continued education of the adult population through the popular science media. The assumption is that if science literacy is boosted through the media, “there will be fewer controversies between science and society, and policy makers will be more likely to support science,” Nisbet said. The model for such an effort is Carl Sagan. “We hear over and over again that . . . if we only had more scientists like Carl Sagan, those problems would go away.”

There are two major problems with this model, said Nisbet. The first is that decades of social science research have shown that most people do not arrive at decisions in the way posited by the popular science model. Instead of being well motivated to learn more about science-related issues, most people, including many policy makers, use various cognitive screening mechanisms to make decisions. They rely on shortcuts, heuristics, ideology, or emotions to make up their minds, often without knowing much about the issue they are considering. National political campaigns understand this very well and have adopted principles from this research into their campaign strategies. The 2004 Bush campaign did not run on the complexities of the issues so much as on the character and likeability of the candidate, Nisbet contended. “The internal strategy that the Bush campaign used or modeled went something like this: If he doesn’t fit your life, share your values, or isn’t someone you want to have a beer with, then he shouldn’t be your President.”

The second problem with the popular science model is that it doesn’t fit well with the structure of the modern media system, Nisbet observed. The paradox today is not that there are too few sources of information–there are too many. “In 1985 if you sat down to watch television at six o’clock, you really only had four choices available to you, and all four of those choices involved public affairs news with some steady amount of science news. But if you sat down to watch TV at six o’clock in 2007, there are almost 300 different cable channels from which to select. If you lack a strong comfort for public affairs and science content, you can very easily pay attention only to ‘infotainment,’ entertainment, or, in some cases, the ideologically or religiously preferred views of different channels.”

Given the failings of the popular science model, how can proponents of science reach the public while remaining true to the science? In their article, Nisbet and Mooney suggested using research on “framing theory” as a way to complement investments in formal education and good science media. In essence, framing means thinking about how best to present an issue to a particular audience. With a complex issue, a communicator focuses on certain dimensions of that issue over other dimensions. The focus might be why the issue is a problem, who or what might be responsible, or what should be done about it.

Furthermore, this focus is reinforced using slogans, historical references, cartoons, or images. “When you structure information in a press release or a report, there are multiple options available to you that are equally consistent with the science in terms of the types of examples that you can bring to bear,” said Nisbet. “And it makes sense to do research in terms of focus groups with an intended audience about which of those multiple examples make the issue most personally meaningful.”

Journalists rely on framing all the time to organize their stories and inform their audiences, said Nisbet. In turn, readers, viewers, and listeners learn from media interpretations that closely resonate with their social backgrounds. Policy makers at the federal, state, and local levels also use frames as a way to define policy issues in ways that favor their preferred positions. In addition, they may rely on frames to make up their minds about a piece of legislation, and sometimes their decisions are attacked by others using different frames.

Framing can be directed toward different goals and outcomes, Nisbet pointed out. It may seek to increase the size of the audience interested in science. It may be designed to create polarization in a particular debate, thus shaping preferences for policies informed by science. Framing also may be used to enhance trust in science or shape personal or political behavior. For example, in his book The Creation, E.O. Wilson (2006) intuitively uses framing very effectively, according to Nisbet. The book is about environmental conservation, but Wilson casts the book as a moral message delivered on a personal level to a Southern Baptist minister. “In the process he has introduced popular science about conservation to an audience of religious Americans who might not otherwise pay attention to that problem.”

Research has shown that particular frames recur in policy debates involving science and technology. For example, science and technology are often defined in terms of positive social qualities that make our lives better and boost the economy, particularly when the underlying issue is national, state, or local competitiveness. When science is opposed, it tends to be depicted as an out-of-control monster that will create either physical or moral disasters. Sometimes science is depicted in terms of uncertainty, a tactic often used by those who advocate intelligent design creationism or who are skeptical about global warming. And other times science is associated with public accountability.

All of these instances of framing have occurred in the debate over research using stem cells, Nisbet pointed out, particularly as it played out in California before the Proposition 71 initiative on stem cell research. The organizers of the proposition campaign knew that they were not going to break through to the wider public by narrowly focusing on the technical parts of the research or by bringing the public up to speed on the science. They also understood that attacking the public for opposing the research because of religious beliefs would not be effective. Instead, they recast the issues in ways that emphasized shared common values, social progress, the potential for new medical therapies, and economic development for the state. They used scientists as spokespeople, but they also teamed up with non-researchers, like actor Brad Pitt, and they used the media to reach nontraditional audiences for science.

“Here’s a great example of how they did this,” said Nisbet. “Brad Pitt appeared on NBC’s Today Show in October 2004. When asked by Katie Couric why he supported Proposition 71, he first focused on the social part of his message as one of extraordinary opportunity if you have a disease. Second, he focused on the idea of economic development–that California is losing scientists to places like Singapore. And when Couric then asked him to talk about his new movie, he didn’t stray off topic but came back and reemphasized the economic progress message focusing on the fact that this is not a cost to California, but rather an investment in the future.”

The proponents of Proposition 71 were also successful because they used their money well. They raised more than $20 million and spent that amount on meaningful ads in California, while the opposition spent only about $200,000. Although polls in August indicated about equal support and opposition to the proposition, by November it passed with 59 percent of the vote.

However, the proponents of the proposition sometimes exceeded the bounds of currently available evidence, Nisbet pointed out. When John Edwards was campaigning in 2004 as the vice presidential nominee, he said that stem cell research would enable Christopher Reeve to get up out of his wheelchair and walk. That was “going too far in terms of what the timeline for actual therapies might be,” Nisbet said.

On the other side of the debate, the opponents of the proposition knew that attacking the moral status of stem cell research would resonate only with their base, not with the broader public. To capture the middle ground, they cast the debate in terms of public accountability. The same thing happened with an ultimately successful campaign to amend the state constitution in Missouri to protect stem cell research. Opponents asked whether stem cell research serves the private interest or the public interest, used catch phrases like “big biotech,” and asked who was going to watch the scientists.

Successful framing requires research on how nontraditional audiences perceive science and what aspects of complex science debates are personally meaningful to them. On the basis of those results, further research can explore which phrases, examples, and metaphors succeed best in conveying that meaning. Data on public opinion that is more localized would be very useful in this effort, Nisbet noted. Although the National Science Foundation regularly publishes analyses of public attitudes about science in its Science Indicators reports, there are no state-level polling data about science. “A useful project would be to put together resources and apply for grant money to try to target key states, and look across key states in terms of gathering comparative methods on public opinions, state poll reviews, and meaningful ways to inform a broader public debate and communication,” Nisbet said.

Effective framing also requires that there be “a lot of coordination and discipline in how you apply these messages,” said Nisbet. National communication campaigns need to be coordinated, whether the topic is stem cell research or climate change. The message at the national level needs to be coordinated with the message at state and local levels. Proponents of a position then need to be very good at getting into local newspapers and appearing on televisions shows. Polls show that the number one source of public affairs programming for about 65 percent of Americans is the local news, so scientists, spokespeople, and other organization leaders should seek especially to cultivate contacts with local media outlets.

Recruiting and training of opinion leaders is another effective approach in framing scientific and technological issues, Nisbet said. These opinion leaders can convince members of the public to pay closer attention to science, and they are very good at passing information to others and convincing others to adopt a certain position. In such cities as Seattle, New York, and San Francisco, universities are collaborating with science media and graduate students at universities to create regional hubs for science communication. In particular, universities “are increasingly seeing evening programs as a very important way to generate adult programming and regional collaboration in science.”

Universities and other institutions also are using new media like blogs and networking sites to make learning about science a social activity. According to Nisbet, every university research communication office should have a blog that focuses on the local dimensions of science in the community. There is a demand for local news about science, but people need a place to go for that news. Also, “one of the ways that science organizations can effectively use blogs is as a fact check function,” Nisbet observed. “So when reports are released by institutions or there’s breaking science news and there’s distortion in the coverage, that’s a way to [track] reports, correct distortions, and have something that’s up and that’s quick. It takes institutional investment and a staff person who’s good at running the blog. But I think blogs can be very effective as a direct communication tool.”

It also is important to have strong relationships with churches, temples, and
mosques. “As many of you know across the country, churches are very important places for communication not only about personal and social issues but also policy issues,” Nisbet said. “Scientists and scientific leaders should be visible as spokespeople at churches, and religious leaders should be invited to speak at universities and research institutions.”

Documentary films on issues involving science and technology can be excellent communication tools, as evidenced by the success of Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth. “Teaming with filmmakers or film producers to bring films and scenes to the local community–and staging forums around these films–is a very important way to not only inform people about science [but] also to make the science social and to build community interaction,” Nisbet said.

Not everyone at the convocation agreed that the framing of issues in science and technology is desirable. “I think that [framing] is a detriment, quite frankly,” said Lynn Elfner. To influence policy, it may be necessary to find a “hook” in the journalistic sense to communicate a position. “But I know from experience that the more you’re an advocate for something, the less you are respected for the information you’re presenting,” Elfner said. “If you get billed as having a narrow position, then your credibility is going to go down the tubes.”

Pister noted that scientists and engineers can adopt a range of positions in the framing of issues. Quoting from a recent book by Roger Pielke (2007), he cited four idealized models for the role of a scientist. First is the disinterested pure scientist who does not get involved in policy discussions. Second is the science arbiter who provides expertise on narrowly defined and testable questions. Third is the honest broker who provides a suite of scientifically informed policy options “in much the same way that a travel guide provides information on restaurants or hotels in unfamiliar territory,” Pister said. And fourth is the overt advocate for a position. “Those four categories really cover the . . . space of information that we’re trying to transmit to people,” said Pister.

A note on Lyn Elfner’s comments at the end. I had the chance to have breakfast with Lyn at AAAS this year to discuss the communication of science advice. One thing that we discussed is that framing does not always mean advocacy, in fact in the majority of issues and contexts, it does not translate into an advocacy role for scientists or their representatives. Instead, it’s a way to connect and package science information in a way that is more meaningful, interesting, or useful to many state legislators, journalists, or stakeholders. For more on this angle, see The Scientistcover article from last year, especially the conclusion section.

Here’s how we close the article:

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. Not all effective communication is spin. 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 same 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.

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. 14

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, in spite of clear mandates by most federal funding agencies to include outreach and education components in grant proposals. These failures, unfortunately, are partly due to the fact that scientists and their organizations continue 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. Wilson employs a similar strategy by penning the forward to a forthcoming book by former Republican Congressman Newt Gingich. In A Contract with the Earth, Gingrich and his co-author Terry L. Maple argue that environmental stewardship is “a mainstream value that transcends partisan politics.”

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, conducting 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.

Key Recommendations

1. Do the research. Communication is a science. Skill and personal experience should be informed by a systematic understanding of the media system and how non-traditional audiences make sense of various issues. In collaboration with communication researchers, scientists and their organizations should employ surveys, focus groups, experiments, and other social science techniques in order to identify effective messages and media platforms. Moreover, because communication is a science, it is important that individual scientists rely for guidance on the leadership, coordination, and resources of their institutions and organizations. Likewise, institutions and organizations have a responsibility to provide such guidance.

2. Stay on message. People who seek to downplay global warming and evolutionary theory are successful, in part, because they maintain consistent messaging around a narrow set of frames. Where appropriate, message discipline has nothing to do with being simplistic, but rather with providing tailored information that addresses the handful of schema that audiences are most likely to use when making sense of an issue.

3. Focus on editors, producers.
Create fellowships to enable mid-career general assignment editors and producers to learn about science and science coverage. These editors make decisions about how much attention science should receive, how science is defined in headlines, footage, or call outs, and whether or not specialist science reporters should be kept on staff. Currently these types of fellowships target reporters rather than their editorial counterparts, but many media decision makers come from a background in political reporting, where a focus on conflict and personalities are the norm, a style that does not adapt well to coverage of science.

4. Think local news. Surveys show that local television news is the dominant source of public affairs-related information for the U.S. public. Therefore, in order to reach non-traditional audiences, scientists and their organizations need to be on local television news. Major national communication efforts should be closely coordinated across local media markets, with specific scientists, institutions, or organizations serving as the local angle and spokesperson.

5. Strengthen partnerships with churches.
In many areas, churches serve as influential communication contexts. Scientists should be familiar speakers at churches on topics ranging from the environment to stem cell research. Invite churches on tours of research institutions, and ask local religious leaders to address scientists on issues of concern.

6. Facilitate incidental exposure.
With so many competing content choices online, the challenge is to find ways to “incidentally” expose audiences to science in places where they are not looking for it. One way is to cultivate ties with popular (non-science) bloggers, providing them with information and angles that are of interest to their readers. Include links to science-rich information, such as a National Academies report. For example, in the context of invasive species, carefully framed information about the value and utility of evolutionary biology could be made relevant to blogs about farming, gardening, or fishing.

7. Communication training for young scientists.
College and doctoral students in the sciences should be offered courses and training in communication. These courses introduce young scientists to research on the intersections between science, the media, and society, and provide valuable professional know-how and skills.

8. More funding for science communication.
Encourage Congress to authorize additional money at funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation for grants supporting science communication initiatives.


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