«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»
... Now there is a realization that we need to step into the public fray if the voice of science is to be heard.” She benefited from media training in her days at the helm of the NSF, including “learning how to answer questions that don’t have answers.” Colwell says scientists “need to respect good science writing. It’s tough to get it right.” She urges her colleagues to “speak as scientists on issues and learn how to work with the press.... If we don’t put out the information, we have ourselves to blame.”33 Colwell and other scientists are concerned about declining science coverage for the public. “The quantity of science reporting has decreased alarmingly,” says Colwell. Donald Kennedy, a Stanford University biologist who is the former editor of Science, agrees: “There are huge gaps.... So many metCornelia Dean, quoted in Alex Jones, “Covering Science and Technology: An Interview with Cornelia Dean,” The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 8 (2) (Spring 2003): 5.
32. Cornelia Dean, interview by the author, March 21, 2006.
33. Rita R. Colwell (former Director, National Science Foundation, 1998–2004; currently Distinguished University Professor at University of Maryland, College Park, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Chairman, Canon US Life Sciences, Inc.), interview by the author, February 18, 2006.
24 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA ropolitan dailies with substantial audiences have lost science pages in the last ten to twenty years.” At the same time, says Kennedy, the scientific community has gradually become “more willing and much better at learning how to talk to the press and describe our results in language people understand.”34 In addition, many scientists are taking their work directly to the public through popular books and blogs that combine their scientific knowledge with engaging writing—the best of both worlds.
Changing Role of Science in the Political and Financial Landscape
The scientific community is only one constituency in the science and publicpolicy world. However, it has traditionally held a privileged place in American discourse, and research funding has enjoyed bipartisan support in the nation’s capital. But in recent years, science and science policy, as well as research budgets, have come under greater attack from legal, cultural, and religious organizations with powerful political clout, each of which has claimed its own part of the science-policy turf. Scientists and the organizations that represent them have increasingly found themselves in unfamiliar territory: sometimes treated as if they were just another special-interest group in the messy political food fight.
Under the Bush administration, many scientists and journalists felt that science was politicized to a greater extent than ever before. The Republican
War on Science, by journalist Chris Mooney, summarized the criticism:
With the ascent of the modern conservative movement and its political domination of the Republican Party, two powerful forces had fused.... On issues ranging from the health risks of smoking to global climate change, the GOP had consistently humored private industry’s attempts to undermine science so as to stave off unwelcome government regulation. Meanwhile, on issues ranging from evolution to embryonic stem cell research, the party had also propped up the Christian right’s attacks on science in the service of moral and ideological objectives. In short, the GOP had unleashed a perfect storm of science politicization and abuse, in the process precipitating a full-fledged crisis over the role of scientific information in political decision-making.35 A New Yorker article by science writer Michael Specter reached similar conclusions: “From the start of his first term, George W. Bush seems to have been guided more by faith and ideology than by data in resolving scientific questions,”
34. Donald Kennedy (Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University;
former Editor-in-Chief, Science; President Emeritus and Bing Professor of Environmental Science and Policy Emeritus, Stanford University), interview by the author, February 18, 2006.
35. Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (New York: Basic Books, 2005), introduction, http://www.waronscience.com/introduction.php.
I M P RO VI NG RE P ORT I NG ON S C IEN CE AN D P U BLIC P O LICY 25he noted. “On issues ranging from population control to the state of the environment, and from how science is taught in the classroom to whether Iraq’s research establishment was capable of producing weapons of mass destruction, the Administration has repeatedly turned away from traditional avenues of scientific advice.”36 Critics, including many in the scientific establishment, felt that the Bush administration’s conservative philosophy politicized science to a greater degree than previous administrations: controlling whether research could take place (stopping federal funding of new avenues of embryonic stem cell research), whether scientists could talk about what it means (controlling statements by federal scientists about climate change), and whether regulatory agencies could act (the Food and Drug Administration disregarded scientific advisory committee and staff advice that emergency contraception, “the morning after pill,” should be approved for adult over-the-counter sales before finally granting approval in August 2006).37 The New Yorker’s Specter, author of the 2009 book Denialism, acknowledges, however, that the “problems facing American science have not been created by a single politician or party: they reflect a fissure in society which has grown wider as science has edged closer to the roots of life itself.”38 As a result of a virtual stalemate in Washington over the most contentious scientific issues, many of the battles have gone out to the states and localities. In the face of the Bush administration’s 2001 mandate that banned federal funding of newer stem cell lines created from human embryos, controversial stem cell research became the subject of ballot initiatives in California and other states that were considering funding it themselves.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama as President of the United States brought a new proponent of science and scientific integrity to the White House as well as a sense of optimism that science would be restored to a place of honor at the highest levels of the federal government. Indeed, President Obama’s inaugural promise to “restore science to its rightful place” was followed by the appointment of a number of top scientists to key administration posts and advisory positions—from Harvard Kennedy School’s climate expert John P.
Holdren as Science Advisor to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy. The Obama administration poured economic stimulus money into energy R&D, launched initiatives to protect scientific integrity and openness in government, lifted the Bush administration’s ban on federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research, and gave a boost to science and technology education.
However, the bipartisan improvements that many had hoped for in Congress have not materialized: far from it, the nation’s legislators seem to be locked in partisan battles with each other and the Obama White House on
36. Michael Specter, “Political Science: The Bush Administration’s War on the Laboratory,” The New Yorker, March 13, 2006, 62.
37. See, for example, Marc Kaufman, “FDA Official Quits over Delay on Plan B,” The Washington Post, September 1, 2005.
38. Specter, “Political Science,” 68.
26 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA issues key to science policy, with energy and climate change legislation foremost among them. Indeed, the fissure in American society over contentious science-related issues continues to widen.
Unfortunately, in many cases, the media have helped light the fire rather than bring light to the controversial science-based issues. National news coverage of congressional and administration actions in the science and technology arena has been conducted by both science and political reporters for the major papers. But in many cases the coverage has fallen once again into predictable political dueling rather than in-depth coverage of the science itself.
And as the fights have moved across the country, science-policy coverage has increasingly been carried out by political or general-assignment reporters with little or no knowledge of the underlying science. In the blogosphere, where the gloves are off, opinions too often overpower facts.
THE PUBLIC ROLE IN SCIENCE AND POLICY DEBATE
The role of the news media in conveying the latest information about science and public policy is crucial, providing Americans with frontline coverage of current controversies facing society. The problem is that the audience is composed of many publics, each bringing a different background and personal agenda that is influenced by cultural and religious beliefs, education, political affiliation, gender, and age, among many factors.
Surveys show that television is still the main source for information about science and technology in its myriad forms. But the use of the Internet is growing rapidly, while print media are losing ground. A 2010 NSF report shows that 40 percent of Americans said they still get their science and technology information from television; 28 percent cited the Internet; newspapers and magazines totaled 22 percent; books 3 percent; and radio 2 percent. The proportion using the Internet has more than tripled since 2001, and the Internet is the main source for learning about specific scientific issues, such as climate change and biotechnology.39 Use of the Internet is higher among younger Americans and increases with education and income. However, it is not an either-or situation: a 2008 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press report noted that audiences are often getting their information from both traditional print and electronic media and the Internet, “blending these sources together rather than choosing between one or another.”40 Public understanding of science is another problem. While many people are supportive of science, they still don’t know much about the basic tenets of science, says Jon D. Miller, a political scientist who has spent three decades conducting survey research for the NSF and many European governments.
39. The National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators report, chap. 7, “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” includes detailed information on information sources, interest, and involvement, http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind10.
I M P RO VI NG RE P ORT I NG ON S C IEN CE AN D P U BLIC P O LICY 27Miller has found that only about one in five Americans is “scientifically savvy” enough to read the Tuesday New York Times Science section, while the rest “just don’t know” that much about science.41 He considers “civic scientific literacy”—defined as a “level of understanding of scientific terms and constructs sufficient to read a daily newspaper or magazine and to understand the essence of competing arguments on a given dispute or controversy”42—as crucial to a citizen’s ability to participate in public-policy debates involving science or technology.
In terms of basic scientific knowledge, Miller’s surveys suggest that about half of Americans know that Earth orbits the Sun (and not vice versa); about half know that humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time; less than one-third know that DNA is a basic genetic building block of life (some have guessed it to be the Drug and Narcotics Agency).
Basic knowledge of DNA is important to understanding stories about the human genome, genetic engineering, or the stem cell debate. But Miller’s surveys show that, a year before the 2004 election, 40 percent of those surveyed said they had never heard of stem cell research, despite considerable coverage of it from the time President Bush took office in 2001. On the evolution debate, his research shows considerable polarization, with only 14 percent definitely supporting the concept of evolution, one-third saying evolution is false, and the rest holding more tentative positions in between.
An important component of scientific literacy is formal education through science courses. But the media are an ongoing form of informal education, playing “a critical role as an early warning system” for the general public about news and issues of importance in science and technology, says Miller. For example, after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January 1986, within three days 97 percent of Americans had seen pictures of the accident on television.
They followed up for more in-depth information by reading newspaper coverage; “today they would go online,” says Miller.43 Other early-warning systems come through “social and interest groups that are able to activate large groups of people” using email messages, mass mailings, or social media tools. “The public doesn’t create issues. Interest groups and political leaders create issues. The public reacts to issues,” says Miller. He notes that the United States is unique among Western industrialized countries in that religious groups have such a strong impact on public opinion and policy.44
41. Jon D. Miller (John A. Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies, Michigan State University;
former Director, Center for Biomedical Communications, Northwestern University Medical School), interview by the author and comments from symposium presentations, American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, February 17–19, 2006.
42. Jon D. Miller, “The Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy,” Public Understanding of Science 7 (1998): 204.
43. Miller, interview by the author.