April 17, 2024

Marketing science better

Science has a serious marketing problem, Google co-founder earlier this year. He even suggested that the solution was tying tenure and grants to the media impact of research. Without going this far, communications expert Matthew C. Nisbet, of American University, has created a stir amongst US scientists by urging them to "frame" their messages so that the public will buy them.

"If scientists don’t evolve in their strategies, they will essentially be waving a white flag, surrendering their important role as communicators," he writes in the magazine The Scientist. In recent times, sailing has not always been smooth in areas like evolution, plant biotechnology, nanotechnology, and climate change.

"For example, when scientists are speaking to a group of people who think about the world primarily in economic terms, they should emphasise the economic relevance of science — such as, in the case of embryonic stem cell research, pointing out that expanded government funding would make the United States, or a particular state, more economically competitive," he writes.

Is this just gilt-edged spin-meistering? Not at all, says Nisbet. The facts must always be presented truthfully, but they do not speak for themselves. Most people prefer to make up their minds on the basis of what they already believe. This leaves scientists with little choice but to connect with the public by framing the debate in terms which laymen can understand.

The stem cell debate is one of the few issues in which scientists have successfully used framing, says Nisbet, although he acknowledges that some of its supporters have "gone too far in employing the social progress frame, giving the impression that research advances are right around the corner."