Framing Science

Appearing as the cover story for the October issue of The Scientist, I’ve teamed up with my colleague Dietram Scheufele to pen a 4,000 word feature that expands on the Framing Science thesis previously introduced in short articles at Science and the Washington Post.

There’s a great deal of context and research outlined in this article, so I hope everyone gets a chance to read the full text. (Currently, it’s subscription protected.)

Allowed the luxury of space, we provide a fuller discussion of the origins and nature of research on framing. We then describe a common set of frames that previous work has identified as playing out over and over again across science-related issues. We also detail how past research helps explain the communication dynamics of the stem cell debate as well as the public trajectories of plant biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Importantly, in the article we address several concerns that people have raised about framing. We specifically counter critics who say framing is just spin; who argue that science cafes and other deliberative forums are the best mechanism for engaging the public; and who insist that “scientists should stick to the facts,” letting institutional press officers handle the public translation of their research.

We end the article by issuing a call to action, emphasizing research on framing as offering a valuable third way in public communication. In an 800 word side bar, we detail eight specific recommendations for applying research on framing.

I’ve excerpted part of the conclusion to the article:

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, despite clear mandates by most federal funding agencies to include outreach and education components in grant proposals. These failures, unfortunately, are partly due to scientists and their organizations continuing to confuse strategic, goal-directed communication with marketing and public relations….

….On major issues such as climate change, nanotechnology, and the teaching of evolution, science organizations should work with communication researchers to conduct 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.

In his editor’s note to the issue, Richard Gallagher echoes our important distinction between framing and spin. In this direction, he even quotes Luna the Cat and Maria Taylor, past commenters at ScienceBlogs.

On the difference between effective framing and spin, Gallagher writes:

Scientists must be constantly aware of this distinction and act accordingly. Action is necessary because, as one of the more pragmatic and apposite comments from “Maria Taylor” puts it, “If you don’t frame it, others will.” That’s absolutely true, and surely all researchers would rather provide the framing for their own work than have Fox News do it for them.

Gallagher also recognizes the importance of the discussion that has taken place over the past several months, and invites readers to continue sharing ideas at The Scientist web site:

We’d like to keep the discussion going now that we’ve published this important piece. If you have thoughts on the subject or experiences good or bad to relate, add your point of view to the discussion thread on the Nisbet and Scheufele article online.


  1. #1 Hugh Miller
    September 26, 2007

    I appreciate your efforts at emphasizng the ‘framing’ of science. I have found that this is very important in teaching biology to non-science majors in college. My approach in class is to use what I call “hooks” that the students are familar with to assist with developing new concepts. I think that this approach is even more critical with the public since the vast number of people do not have college experience. Keep up the good work.

  2. #2 Steven Saus
    September 27, 2007

    I’m also appreciative (although I’m on the other side of the paywall, alas). I’ve been fascinated with framing since I was turned onto Lakoff, and my wife’s research with non-traditional students has given her similar insights. Your statement:

    “Tailoring communication efforts to fit with publics from different social and educational backgrounds is not an option, it is a necessity.”

    is dead-on with her experiences with students who aren’t all 18 to 22-year-olds from college-prep high schools. Just as you advocate for scientists, colleges and universities are having to revamp and rework curricula to adjust to reaching a broader audience.

    Again, huzzah, congratulations, and thanks!

  3. #3 Luna_the_cat
    October 3, 2007

    Technically, I think I’m *still* a commenter on Scienceblogs, not just a past one, even though I tend to fade in and out according to the degree of my time and energy available for internet commenting. :-)

    I don’t think they should have any fear of this particular debate going away, though. It may wax and wane in people’s attention, but I think the issue itself has plenty of staying power and isn’t going to be forgotten. Modern industrialized culture is largely centered around mass media (well, that and shopping, the two not necessarily being separate), and access to and the dissemination of information is a major world issue. I just can’t see this fading away, which means that the professionals in all fields are going to have to work with it.

    Besides, like it or not, the major component of almost everyone’s environment is “other human beings”, and other human beings have this annoying tendency to hold all sorts of differing beliefs and priorities (even where they are blatantly wrong! The nerve!), and to a large extent this controls where and how resources are allocated, what is legal and what is penalised. We can either spend our lives battering our heads off the brick wall of basic human psychology, or we can learn to work with that psychology as effectively as possible, in all its emotionally-oriented and irrational glory — but the one option we are not really presented with is ignoring it, as long as we have an interest in doing anything which requires resources and the involvement of other people.

    I wish that presenting “just the facts” and teaching people how to evaluate things rationally were enough. The world would undoubtedly be a better place. That is a Utopian dream, however, and I can’t say that I have ever seen a successful Utopia implemented, in the available historical record. I don’t expect this one to do any better. And the harm and failure of projects like “abstinence-only sex education” fundamentally comes about because these projects are based on an idealised picture of how people should act, or should be made to act, and the failure to deal pragmatically with how people actually do act. Scientists are supposed to deal with how the world actually acts, realistically. Let’s not make the same kind of mistake as abstinence-only sex ed. Let’s make arrangements to deal with people as they actually are.

    It’s not like we can wait for the generations which may be necessary for a sea-change in cultural attitudes towards science and rationality, either. We are facing a number of fairly time-critical issues these days. For example, am I willing to wait around while various species go extinct in order to focus on resolving the deeper philosophical issues of how humans relate to the rest of the planet, and whether or not it is our “right” to use it up? Well, not so’s you’d notice, no. I would prefer to take whatever short term steps are necessary to preserve the maximum number of species, so as to have something left to deal with on the long term. I’m not saying that the long-term philosophical questions are unimportant, because patently they are, nor am I insisting that we shouldn’t be pushing on them, because there is patently a need to.* But on a purely pragmatic level, there are reasons to work with what actually exists now.

    And what exists now is an increasingly sophisticated network of political interests with increasingly sophisticated ways of manipulating public information and opinion already — we fail to deal effectively with that at our peril, however much we feel good about our principles by holding ourselves “above it”. With regards to framing, it is far more difficult than “spin” because we still do have an obligation to fact and accuracy — we can’t simply say whatever will get us the result we want, we are constrained to truth and accuracy. But ignoring how we present issues and how people can interpret them, entirely in favor of focusing on the accuracy of the fact, really does leave interpretation in the domain of political (and often purely monetary) interests. The record so far indicates that this will not necessarily help the majority of people.

    All of which is a long-winded and rambling way of saying that, yes, this “framing” issue has legs and will be running for a while yet.

    *(Nor am I suggesting that religion should ever get a “free pass” from any criticism, for any PZ fans out there!)

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