Scientists risk becoming 'PR hacks'
ABC, 3 July 2009
Calls for scientists to do a better job at framing research for public consumption threaten to turn scientists into "spin" merchants, says one expert.
Dr Joan Leach from the University of Queensland made the comments in response to an article in [the June issue of] Nature Biotechnology, which offers several recommendations to improve the communication of science.
The article, by social scientist Professor Matthew Nisbet, of the American University in Washington DC, and colleagues, says scientists need to take better advantage of frames to communicate their messages.
Frames are stories that help people understand how complex issues are relevant to their lives. They are used by journalists, and by audiences themselves, to bring attention to particular aspects of an issue to make sense of it.
Those involved in public relations try to "reframe" issues the media has framed in a way that is unfavourable to their clients.
Frames over fact
Research suggests frames are a key influence in shaping people's response to science and technology.
For example, if people are opposed to genetically modified crops because they frame them as a tool by multinational companies to control the food chain, they are unlikely to have their views changed by being given more technical facts about genetic modification.
Nisbet and colleagues say, the traditional model of science communication ignores the role of framing and assumes that when controversies in science occur, public's ignorance of the scientific facts is to blame.
They say scientists need to understand the importance of framing in effective communication. But they warn that scientists must be careful when to avoid frames that "hype" their research.
They urge researchers to be "true to the state of the underlying science" to avoid jeopardising public trust in science.
For example, say Nisbet and colleagues, in promoting human embryonic stem cell research around the 'hope for cures' frame, some advocates have given the false impression that available therapies are just a few years away when they are not.
"Similarly, some industry advocates have reframed food biotech as a moral quest to improve global food security, but their promise of 'putting an end to world hunger' dramatically oversimplifies a complex problem," write Nisbet and team.
They argue that both researchers, who are eager to secure funding and prestige, and journalists, who are looking for a newsworthy angle, are jointly to blame for overhyping research in this way.
Risk of spin
But Joan Leach, who leads the University of Queensland's science communication program is not so sure scientists should be framing their research for public consumption.
Leach supports the role of science media centres, which help scientists to contribute their informed opinion to public debates. She sees this as quite different from teaching scientists the tools of public relations.
"Of course they can talk about what they're doing, but why train them up as PR hacks," says Leach, who has written an article on framing in a recent edition of Issues Magazine.
Leach says scientists already "spin" their work to funders and to their peers within science.
But she says this is quite different from using the tools of public relations to lobby for particular perspectives in the public and political arena.
"It's a kind of scientific-political agenda," Leach says. "That would be a shift in the way we think about the role of scientists in society."
On top or on tap?
Leach says society has traditionally asked for scientists to be "on tap", giving their opinions to those who make decisions.
The call for scientists to be involved in framing puts them more "on top", she says, deciding how their research should be received by society.
Leach says Nisbet and colleagues' call for scientists to frame their science in a way that is "true to the state of the underlying science" implies there is one correct way to frame research.
But, she says there are many competing frames, and these need to be debated publicly in a democratic way.
"I think we've got to be careful about giving researchers a privileged place to put their frames out there," says Leach.
Leach argues public communication of science is best left to a diverse group of independent professional science journalists, especially trained in framing science.
She says more resources should be made available to increase the diversity of such professionals to ensure a diversity of frames for audiences.