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Worldwide, and especially in Australia, much valuable science is being wasted or stalled through what is known as technology rejection – the public’s hostile reception of new technologies or scientific…

The public often thinks science and technology are the cause of their problems, not the solution. Erik Berndt

Worldwide, and especially in Australia, much valuable science is being wasted or stalled through what is known as technology rejection – the public’s hostile reception of new technologies or scientific advice.

This isn’t always the fault of the public. It’s often the fault of the scientific process for not bothering to find out in the first place what the public wants or knows and what it doesn’t. The grand assumption - “we’re scientists. We know what’s best for you” - still rules.

As a result, research institutions and technology companies are constantly ambushed and surprised when society doesn’t embrace their latest offering with wild enthusiasm, but instead carps, objects and wants it regulated, retarded or banned. The issue is that in a democracy people consider they have a right to say what they think, to use the products and eat the foods they prefer, and to take a good hard look at anything new before they decide to accept it.

What the public knows, but science sometimes chooses to overlook, is that many of the ills in society today are the result of the use, misuse or overuse of various technologies. Indeed, much science is devoted to repairing them. Take, for example, the paradox that tens of thousands of scientists are working worldwide to prevent and cure cancer – while tens of thousands more are adding daily to the toxic miasma of 83,000 man-made chemicals, many of which are known to cause it.

The more educated a society becomes, the harder the questions it asks about science. US Department of Agriculture

Educated people in modern society are aware of the downsides of science, as well as its upsides. They grew up on stories like thalidomide, and have a fair grasp of the origins of many contemporary diseases and the risks inherent in modern technologies, especially untested ones. They are cautious about GM food, stem cell science or nanotechnologies because they know that scientists do not have all the answers where these powerful, disruptive technologies are concerned. The more educated and democratic a society becomes, the harder the questions it asks about new science and technology. As former UK chief scientist Bob May liked to point out, an educated public becomes more like scientists: sceptical.

Yet many high tech firms and research centres are still confounded by this problem: labouring for years and spending millions to develop something the public takes an instant dislike to. They generally comfort and excuse themselves by shooting the messenger – blaming a green group, the media or a consumer lobby – rather than asking themselves: what did we do wrong?

The short answer is that they failed to do research. Not scientific research, but research into public attitudes, values and wishes. They then sprang an unwanted product on an unsuspecting “market” - and were shocked and offended when it failed.

The good news is that this no longer needs to happen. Thanks to a novel approach, developed within the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, any scientific centre can find out how the public is likely to receive its latest innovation, and what drives its attitudes for or against any new technology or scientific advice. This applies equally whether it is climate change policy, or the introduction of a new mobile widget.

The technique is known as Reading the Public Mind (RtPM), and it uses an advanced statistical internet survey method to obtain a moving picture (as distinct from a snapshot) of public opinion in real time. It enables the user to drill down into what motivates the public for or against a particular issue or technology now – and how the balance of the pros and cons shifts over time.

This is an important advance over the traditional opinion poll or market research, which only take expensive one-off snapshots and, unless accompanied by costly qualitative research, do not reveal what drives public attitudes.

Finding out the limits of public enthusiasm can help advance new animal control methods. AAP

The Invasive Animals CRC used this method experimentally to assess public attitudes to invasive animals (such as rabbits, foxes, cats, cane toads and camels) and to the ways they are controlled. The CRC has been working on a range of sophisticated new control methods for these feral menaces, it did not want to be taken by surprise by public refusal to sanction their adoption and deployment. It also wanted to understand what the public knew and did not know about invasive species, and where education might be needed.

Over three years of surveying community attitudes, using a constantly changing sample of the population, it discovered many interesting things about what the public thought about this issue. One of the most striking was that Australians generally dislike feral cats – whereas scientists, fearing public criticism from cat-lovers, had long avoided doing research into their control. The technique was also able for the first time to measure the actual impact of public education campaigns (for example, about rabbits and camels).

Assessing public attitudes this way:

  • helps technology developers anticipate public or market reaction
  • helps scientific leaders plan research better, favouring those technologies most likely to be adopted or commercialised
  • anticipates both hostile and positive reactions and responds with public education or by altering research tack
  • assesses whether a communication initiative has fallen on deaf ears, or actually influenced public perceptions.

All of this adds up to more science adopted, less rejected and a better return on the taxpayer’s $9 billion-a-year science investment.

If Australian science is to genuinely benefit society as it should, then it needs far better tools to understand public attitudes and how they affect likely rates of adoption. It needs to become more sensitised to how Australians at large will respond to new technologies and insights. This will not only increase the impact of science. It will help make us a smarter society.

This article was co-authored by Julian Cribb. He is the principal of Julian Cribb & Associates, consultants in science communication, and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering. Both Nick and Julian have been working with the Invasive Animals CRC at Canberra University.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Catherine Simpson

    Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Macquarie University

    Thanks for your article Julian and Nick. I would really like to find out what you mean by RtPM research. Have you published a research paper along these lines which gives more explanation? In this particular article you've described what it's not, but not what it is (granted you only had a few 100 words!)
    From your slides (http://www.crca.asn.au/sites/default/files/presentation/2009/04_0900_-_1030_Julian_Cribb_-_Will_they_use_my_science_CRCA_0.pdf) it looks like the questions you are asking in RtPM are more far-ranging that much superficial market research, but I fail to see how this qualitative research technique; ie interview-based internet survey (if that's what it is) differs from the relatively sophisticated research techniques that are currently on offer in the social sciences (along with all their associated shortcomings). Please explain to a mere humanities academic ... before I have to surmise, with respect, that this is another example of 'scientist knowing best'.

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  2. Nick Fisher

    Visiting Professor, Statistics at University of Sydney

    The most recent relevant peer-reviewed article is:
    Fisher, N.I., A.J. Lee & J.H.J. Cribb (2011) — A scientific approach to monitoring public perceptions of scientific issues. International Journal of Science Education Part B, 2012, 1 – 27, iFirst Article.

    It’s downloadable from my website at
    http://www.valuemetrics.com.au/pdf/Scientific-Approach-to-Monitoring-Public-Perceptions-of-Scientific-Issues.pdf

    and contains references to related peer-reviewed articles we have written.

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  3. Susan Kirk

    logged in via Twitter

    Yeah survey your publics. It's a no brainer really. How many billions are being spent on GM technololgy that has buckleys of being accepted.

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    1. Ian Smith

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Susan Kirk

      Although GM research wouldn't likely be wasted as it has other non food uses; medicine production, 'green' oil production, etc.

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    2. Jeremy Hall

      PhD student

      In reply to Ian Smith

      ...and probably won't be so unpalatable if the foodbowl dries up and only GM plants can grow ;)

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  4. Craig Miller

    Associate Environmental Scientist

    And of course there is Participatory Action Research. An intensive process, but if you want to co-learn with your stakeholders, and achieve a general consensus on what needs to be done, e.g. to achieve NRM outcomes, then there are few better ways.

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  5. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    This process has been evolving for well over 30 years and more. While I do welcome this article and its associated paper as a contribution to academic research, there is nonetheless nothing new in it.

    It rather points to the sad fact that like public policy, 'scientific research' is often very far behind the eight-ball, merely formalising and validating what many people already know, and have known for years. That should not be read as an attack on the value and efficacy of scientific method but…

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    1. Susan Kirk

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Hi Gil, No its not new (in our domain soft science) because we understand people or at least we should try to and I know in my discipline we are expected to find out who these people are so that we can communicate to them including those 40%, paradoxically, who may be illiterate. The point is yes we would know who they are or we should. I must say a lot of comms campaigns take place without this knowledge. I think the point is here is that science does not take into account its stakeholders and…

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  6. Jeremy Hall

    PhD student

    Cool article. I'm starting to agree that learning to mass-communicate is one of the biggest challenges science faces, so it's nice to see the Conversation is focussing on it.

    By contrast, I just did a Google news search for "science communication". Nothing on the first page suggested that anyone is aware of a problem (except maybe a report from India about a 'media in science'-type conference that just ended there).

    I think first step in gaining public trust is making people aware that science communication is a challenging issue, and that scientists know that and want to address it.

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  7. Nick Fisher

    Visiting Professor, Statistics at University of Sydney

    The Conversation piece did not make it clear that our approach is critically dependent on some statistical methodology that we have developed over several years in the context of a CRC conducting research into methods for managing invasive species. The methodology provides a means of managing COMMUNITY VALUE, based on a proven marketing methodology for managing Customer Value.
    The benefits of the approach include:
    1. a means of identifying important issues calling for greater public awareness…

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