Framing science - scientists should adopt new communication techniques

Seed Washington Correspondent Chris Mooney and American University professor and ScienceBlogs contributor Dr. Matthew Nisbet are co-authors of a provocative new article in Science entitled, Framing Science.

The article suggests that as the 2008 election approaches, scientists should adopt new communication techniques, rather than merely seeking to, get the facts out there." In the April 6 issue of Science, the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the authors propose that as topics such as global warming, evolution and embryonic stem cell research gain considerable public attention and become enmeshed in political controversy, scientists must learn to shape or "frame" knowledge on these issues to make it personally relevant to diverse segments of the public.

"In writing this article together, we argue that scientists shouldn't exclusively blame politicians and journalists for gridlock on issues like climate change," says Mooney. "Part of the problem is that scientists carry with them the wrong assumptions about what makes for effective communication."

The authors point out that when scientists discuss science-related policy questions in technical language, many members of the public tune it out. Moreover, even while continuing to employ traditional modes of communication, scientists themselves have come under increasing attack for being too atheistic, too self-interested and/or too liberal. Scientists can improve their communication skills by applying research on ,framing, and other work in the social sciences. As the article puts it, "Frames organize central ideas in a debate, defining a controversy so that it will resonate with core values and assumptions. Frames pare down complex issues by giving some aspects greater emphasis than others. They allow citizens to rapidly identify why an issue matters, who might be responsible and what should be done."

"Our suggestions should not be confused with spin; rather, we are advocating the conscious adoption of more effective (and thus, more informative) communication techniques," said Dr. Nisbet. "Already, influential sectors of the scientific community are beginning to realize that new public engagement strategies are desperately needed."

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