Ask and you shall receive - smart consultation leads to better science, by Nick Fisher

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.

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.

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 Nick Fisher and Julian Cribb, who have been working with the Invasive Animals CRC at Canberra University.

Nick Fisher is a Visiting Professor, Statistics at University of Sydney.

Julian Cribb is the principal of Julian Cribb & Associates, consultants in science communication, and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering.

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