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Hunting for Science Messages
Rick Borchelt

My friend Joe Culver and I both grew up in the swamplands of the Mississippi River, in the “Little Egypt” area of Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky that provides a migration stopover for millions of geese and ducks every winter. Duck hunting isn’t so much a pastime there as it is a way of life, a religion almost, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows either of us that duck hunting becomes a metaphor for much of the work we do these days in science communication.

Culver, a former newspaper science reporter and now editor at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, likens scientists’ current fascination with influencing science policy or funding — by sending out reams of press releases and glossy brochures — to the desire to have duck for dinner. We might think that there could be a couple of ducks in the pond up on the hill in back of the cabin, and we might want one of those ducks for dinner.

To get the duck, we’d fill a gallon bucket with steel shot. Then we’d sneak up the hill, yell “Boo!” and throw the shot up in the air, hoping that (1) there were ducks in the pond in the first place, (2) that they fly up in a panic, (3) that they collide with our shot with sufficient force to knock them down, and (4) that we didn’t hit blue jays and robins instead of ducks.

With apologies for the homespun metaphor (and to vegetarians), this is exactly the approach most of the scientific community takes to reach the ears and minds of the people who determine science policy in the United States. There’s a prevailing notion that the best way to reach national leaders, particularly those who influence policy and funding for science, is through the mass media — daily newspapers, magazines, radio and television. The assumptions here are either that sufficient numbers of interested people in America’s heartland get jazzed enough to raise a groundswell about science among policy-makers and decision leaders in Washington, or that these decision-makers themselves go directly to mass media to meet their information needs in science and technology. They “fly” directly into the “shot” we’ve thrown out in great quantity via the media’s press releases, Web sites and newsletters.

For many reasons, those of us who do public science communication for a living have had our reservations about this line of reasoning. If saturation coverage in the mass media meant anything at all, public political literacy would be astoundingly high. As it is, disgraceful numbers of Americans cannot name their congressman, senator, governor or a Supreme Court justice. Moreover, many people could not name a political race for which the decision hinged in large measure on any scientific or technological issue.

Our suspicions were confirmed in some elegant research conducted recently by Jon Miller at Northwestern University. With funding from the Department of Energy under a research program in public communication that I was coordinating at the time, Miller sought to determine exactly who these science policy leaders and decision-makers are, and where they got their information about science and technology.

Miller found that the pool of people who actually get in the game on most science and technology policy issues is very small — usually a few hundred. The entire universe of decision-makers and policy leaders for all of these kinds of issues numbers only about 8,000 people.

Miller also found that these people consume information voraciously. They read newspapers, books and magazines. They browse Web sites; most of them are very Internet-savvy and have computers they use at both work and home. Given this information, you’d think that throwing a lot of information about science into mass media would have an impact.

What emerges from this research is that decision-makers and policy leaders are not passive consumers of information. They don’t read just anything that is dumped in front of them. They actively seek information about issues where they think they need to know more. And they are very particular about where that information comes from. They give very high marks on credibility to scientific journals, national laboratory reports and scientific organizations. But they rate commercial television news dead last and most print mass media rather poorly as well.

In short, they’re not likely to run into the shot, and even if they do, they aren’t likely to pay enough attention to even be stunned, much less be brought to the dinner table.

If we are serious about getting information into the hands of science policy leaders and decision-makers, we need to target them directly; 8,000 people is the size of a hamlet in New England. We can find ways to interact with them directly — through the Web, through professional organizations, through the scientific literature — and not surrender our messages and our hopes for disseminating them to reporters, editors and news anchors whose capacity to accurately transmit the message in the first place requires a great leap of faith.

Increasingly, we’re learning that affecting science policy and science funding is a game of focusing messages, not increasing the bandwidth. We would do well to think more strategically about how to bring these ducks to the table.

Borchelt is director of communications for the Genetics & Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University’s Washington, D.C., campus. He is a former press secretary to the Science Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, and was a White House special assistant for public affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Clinton.

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