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Communicating the Science

New Approaches Needed to Engage the Public

By Keith Robinson

Among the Hollywood tabloid publications with their screaming headlines in the checkout line of a West Lafayette, Indiana, supermarket is a stack of little brochures inviting shoppers to read more about this: "How Can I Avoid GMOs?"

For any organization opposed to genetically modified organisms in food, there is perhaps no better place to get its message out than a grocery store. The message by the Non-GMO Project, which provides third-party verification and labeling for products that do not contain GMOs, could be a powerful one for some of the curious who might skim through the pages as they wait for the cashier to ring up their groceries. They might even drop the free brochure into one of their bags and take it home.

Dietram Scheufele"The issue of GMOs is probably the best example of the scientific community not communicating well," says Dietram Scheufele, who researches public opinion and attitudes toward emerging technologies. In addition to the science, we need to tell the public about potential uses from it, he says. (Photo by Sevie Kenyon/CALS Communications)

There is considerable public debate over genetically engineered foods. Are they safe? Do we need them? Should packages of food containing GMOs be labeled as such? In the public arena, convincing people can depend greatly on how the message is conveyed to a targeted audience. The Non-GMO Project brochure states the group's position to the grocery-shopping public in simple language that most people understand, largely free of scientific terms.

Scientists, on the other hand, convey their research largely to other scientists, such as through journals and at professional meetings. They have their own "language," or jargon, that lay audiences find difficult to comprehend.

"The issue of GMOs is probably the best example of the scientific community not communicating well," says Dietram Scheufele, the John E. Ross Professor in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "Science has treated the public as a large lecture hall. That puts people to sleep."

Scheufele, who researches public opinion and attitudes toward emerging technologies, says the scientific community needs to inform the public not only about the facts of research but also about potential uses stemming from it and any ethical considerations tied to them.

"The scientific community's traditional approach is that we should educate the public about the science," he says. "It's not just about teaching the science."

Perception vs. Science

Whether the public accepts a scientific finding can depend on how it perceives the science. The debate over GMO foods in some ways is similar to the controversy over irradiated meat going back to the 1980s. Low-dose irradiation treatment to kill potentially harmful microbes in food is not widely used in the U.S. because of the public's perception that it might be unsafe, despite scientific studies concluding that it is effective, has no adverse health consequences and does not change food's nutritional qualities. While it appears that irradiation has been increasing recently in the U.S, it has not fully taken hold.

Alan Mathew, head of Purdue University's Department of Animal Sciences, says the public incorrectly associated "irradiation" with "radioactive" and largely rejected it.

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"The term 'genetically modified' isn't a lot better; that can scare people away," he says.

With debate over GMOs on the public agenda, information about them needs to be conveyed in ways that would enable the public to better understand how agriculture is working more efficiently to help feed a rapidly growing world population, says Jane Ade Stevens, CEO for the commodity groups Indiana Soybean Alliance, Indiana Corn Marketing Council and Indiana Corn Growers Association.

How to do that effectively is the challenge, especially since some groups intensify their messages in high-stakes public issues by adding the element of emotion—even shock and outrage—such as by staging demonstrations to get attention from the news media and policymakers. Scientists would not use such tactics; it's not in their DNA.

The need to improve communication is not limited to scientists. Stevens believes even farmers should learn how to talk more effectively to the public about their livelihood and the issues.

Producers Join Conversation

"There are state and national programs to teach farmers how to talk to consumers about issues so that the public can better relate to them," she says. "Farmers have their own lingo, and it is not what my neighbor in the city would understand."

Stevens has participated in forums, organized by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, in major cities such as New York during which scientists, consumers and agricultural leaders have discussed high-profile public issues, including genetically engineered food.

The alliance, composed of 80 organizations led by farmers, ranchers and partners in agriculture, promotes discussion of issues on its website Food Dialogues, which includes an entire section devoted to GMOs.

Unbiased Research

Purdue University, as a land-grant institution, conducts research, including that involving genetically engineered crops, in an unbiased, objective manner and applies it in a variety of ways to benefit the public, such as through Purdue Extension educational programs in all of Indiana's 92 counties. Among Purdue Extension's most important missions is to translate the research generated by scientists on campus for the public good.

Purdue Extension collaborates with the Department of Agricultural Communication, whose professionally trained writers, editors, multimedia specialists, graphics designers and exhibits designers help the public understand scientific research conducted in the Colleges of Agriculture, Health and Human Sciences, and Veterinary Medicine.

"We know how to communicate complicated ideas to various audiences, whether they be students, farmers, the news media or many others," says Beth Forbes, department head. "And we reach them by means that they use and appreciate." (See related article "Translating the Science" below.)

Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin says communicating science in ways the public can understand will help them find its importance and relevance to them. In an era of dwindling traditional news media such as newspapers, he says the scientific community must reach audiences more effectively, such as through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

"The media is changing," Scheufele says. "There are fewer science writers in the mainstream news media today. Online sources help to overcome gaps created by the loss of the conventional media. Communication is an art but a science, too."

Translating the Science

Here are some means that Purdue's Department of Agricultural Communication staff use when working with researchers and Purdue Extension specialists to talk about science to the public in interesting ways.

  • News releases: News writers report results of research in terms that general readers can easily understand, and they emphasize the potential practical uses of the research and how it could benefit society. News releases contain multimedia components such as video that complement the messages. They are sent to local, regional, national and international news organizations, and other audiences, often landing on literally thousands of websites. AgComm also shares news releases through social media such as Twitter.
  • Multimedia: Editors, graphic designers, web developers and videographers help researchers reach the right audiences in the most effective form, such as with a printed publication, a website, a mobile app or an integrated campaign. Publications are made available to the public through Purdue Extension's The Education Store, many of them for free. Recognizing changing ways of communications, AgComm now offers some products as apps, such as the popular Corn & Soybean Field Guide and 50 Trees of the Midwest.
  • a Purdue University ZipTrip electronic field tripThousands of students learn about science through electronic field trips.
    zipTrips: The virtual electronic field trips introduce middle school students to the wonders of science—and science careers—by bringing Purdue scientists into the classroom through live webcasts that feature factual, unbiased scientific information presented in an entertaining way. Students interactively visit labs, greenhouses and other places on campus. One program, "The Green Machine," explores the many fields of study in plant sciences, such as genetics, robotics, climate change and global food security.
  • Exhibits: Purdue AgComm staff combine Purdue research with interactive and informative activities, resulting in museum-quality exhibits that use computers, video games and other educational media for audiences of all ages. The exhibits go to such venues as the Indiana State Fair, museums and science centers. A new exhibit that debuted at this year's Indiana State Fair is The Edible Journey, which introduces various elements of food production to young people—farming, transportation, food processing, local foods and the science of food.