Science Policy Not a Top of Mind Priority for Public
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."
Now that Obama has his science and environmental policy team in place, there's great optimism for important new directions in policy. Yet it will take smart and effective communication to meaningfully engage Americans on these policies, especially in the context of an overwhelming public focus on the economy.
Consider that in a WPost/ABC News poll released today, when asked in an open-ended question to name the most important problem the President and Congress should focus on, 55% named the economy, 1% named gas prices/energy, and less than 1% named greenhouse gases/global warming.
When asked specifically in a follow up question, "Apart from dealing with the economy, do you think Obama should or should not implement policies to try to reduce global warming," more than 70% of the public said "yes," but more than a 1/3 said that Obama should wait to take action rather than focus on the problem immediately.
On stem cell research, the outlook is even tougher. Only a bare majority (52%) agreed that Obama should expand funding for embryonic stem cell research, with more than a third saying that the Administration should wait on the action rather than make the expansion immediate.
These results should not be interpreted as a public that "doesn't value science" or respect scientists. Nor should they be blamed on science literacy.
Rather, on climate change, it's a matter of the economy swamping almost every other policy priority from immediate public focus and perceived urgency. And on stem cell research, in the context of a billion dollar government stimulus debate, the issue of expanded funding probably seems almost trivial. The stem cell results also reflect an American public--on the right and the left---that remains ambivalent about what they see as great medical promise balanced against lingering ethical reservations, concerns that go beyond the right-wing religious objections that have dominated news coverage.
So what is a solution? On climate change, continue to focus on re-framing the issue in terms of economic growth, technological innovation, and job creation. But also be honest about the hard choices and uncertainties involved in putting the country on a path to (renewable) energy independence.
Stem cell research is a tougher challenge. News attention to the issue has plummeted, meaning fewer reminders to the public of the promise of the research to save lives and grow the economy. With so many other issues controlling news attention, it's going to be tough for stem cell advocates to break through the competing noise.
I also think with a change in Administration, there's the opportunity for a more substantive dialogue with important stakeholder groups about the range of ethical, economic, and technical uncertainties in the increasingly complicated field of stem cell research.
The Bush compromise decision put stem cell advocates in crisis communication mode, while Democrats eagerly sought to exploit stem cell research as a wedge issue. The result was a potentially damaging over-simplification narrowly focused on social progress versus moral fundamentalism. Of course, any expert in the field would tell you the issue is far more complicated than it has been portrayed even in our best news coverage.
The Obama era means that it's time that we invested in a serious national conversation about the future of biomedical research.
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