Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
Matthew Nisbet: Well, I think the biggest thing for pharmaceutical and biotech companies is to think about not necessarily the dissemination of a message but as a way to start a relationship with key publics and key stakeholders. A lot of what goes on with industry science in relationship to the public is a matter of trust building and relationship building and that can be done through transparency and accessibility to information, but also engaging in dialog. The type of town meetings, science cafes where interested members of the public can turn out and hear about the science that goes on at pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology companies but also hear from experts who are experts on the ethics involved, the regulation that's involved and the policy and the legal issues. And not just hear from them but also present their own viewpoints and enter into a conversation. Not only is it informational but its relationship building and it can also be fun. I've also suggested I think documentary film is a good way to present the complexity of a lot these scientific regulatory and ethical questions. And documentary film can be used in these type of town hall meetings where people come out, watch a short documentary film that presents the complexities, issues, and maybe shows kind of multiple perspectives from patients and from companies, from scientists and then have a panel and kind of town hall meeting discussion about the issues that were raised in the documentary film.
Question: Why are commercials for erectile dysfunction drugs so successful?
Matthew Nisbet: Well, you know, I think that's the- the direct to consumer marketing is very good for getting the attention of patients and increasing awareness about the availability of certain types of drugs and certainly they're going to pay attention to it if that drug is specific to something that they might have related to a disease or-- that they might suffer from or that a family member might suffer from. On the other hand, I'm not sure what it does in terms of enhancing the public perception of the pharmaceutical industry relative to regulation or relative to public policy or in terms of trust or relationship building. And I think other mechanisms and other modes of communication are definitely needed to achieve those goals.
Question: Do our egos resist simplified information?
Matthew Nisbet: Well, you know, I think, you know, in the short term what we can do with an adult population that is done with their formal education is we can figure out a way to use the media to engage with them to present complex issues in ways that they understand and that matters to them, that's personally relevant. That's probably the best we can do, but in the long term, we need to certainly continue to invest in really strong formal education in science about the scientific method, about the facts in the context of the history of science, but also I think at the college level especially students need to learn about the sociology of science, the role that the institution of science plays in our society, how its funded, the politics of science, kind of the social side of how science is done. You know, scientists work within institutions; institutions have their own imperatives and also a media literacy component. How does the media cover science? What are really good sources to read and enjoy science once you're done with your formal education in science? And in that way we're achieving two things. One, we're providing a college educated American public with the context that they need to be scientific citizens to make informed choices about science policy. But the second thing that we're doing is we're actually socializing college students into enjoying and understanding where they can follow science once the four science courses they might take as a non major are over. And that could be "The New York Times" that could be "Popular Science" books, that could be magazines like "SEED Magazine" or "Scientific America".