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Guest Thinkers

Framing Science at the BIO 2008 Conference, San Diego

At the BIO 2008 International Convention coming up in June in San Diego, I will be participating in a panel on the communication challenges facing biotechnology. Below are the details on the panel, followed by a 500 word summary of the key points of my presentation. Readers should find the themes familiar.

Communication Challenges: Defining the Industry for Policymakers and the Public
Conference Breakout Sessions
Track Policy
Date/Time 6/19/2008 4:00 PM – 5:30 PM
Location San Diego Convention Center
Room 25 A

One of the key mandates offered up by policymakers taking part in a special session at the 2007 convention entitled “How Much Does Washington Value Biotechnology Innovation”
was for the industry to “define itself before others define you.” Biotechnology is still a foreign word to many audiences, including policymakers and their constituents. In presenting biotechnology’s potential, all its stakeholders–scientists, industry leaders and advocacy groups–must be aware of how information and scientific data translate into public opinion. This session will take a broad look at the future of biotechnology communication and draw upon recent case studies and new informational paradigms.


1. Explore the communication challenges faced by every biotechnology player and examine how public perception is influenced by the science media, popular press and industry representatives.

2. Address how policymakers can better understand scientists and how scientists might enhance/evolve their image with the public and policymakers.

3. Educate on the ways in which opinions are strengthened or changed by new information.

Richard Gallagher, PhD – Chair and Moderator
The Scientist


Matthew Nisbet, PhD
American University

Seema Kumar
Vice President, Global R&D; Communications
Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Services, LLC

Christine Kehoe
Senator, D-San Diego

Barry O’Leary
Chief Executive Officer
IDA Ireland

Summary of my presentation:

Solving the Communication Challenge in Biotechnology

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D.

Across sectors of research and development, the biotechnology community should pursue three closely related areas of public engagement activities.

First, while continuing to invest in improved science education, new initiatives should also introduce students to the social history of biotechnology, with a focus on governance, ethics, the news media and popular culture. As future citizens and consumers, this “science civics” curriculum would prepare students to follow biotech news and events in the media, and to fit these events into a bigger picture about the relationship between science and society.

Second, there also needs to be continued investment in “public dialogue” initiatives such as deliberative forums and science cafes. These town meeting-style events involve presentations by a panel of experts followed by questions and small group discussions among the lay-person attendees. Deliberative forums are a very effective tool for generating a conversation among highly engaged citizens and for building trust. These forums also allow for the early identification of emerging public concerns.

But like any other tool, deliberative meetings have obvious limitations. Research shows that the citizens who are most likely to attend and speak up are those who are already informed and active on an issue. Sponsors therefore need to carefully recruit participation from members of the community. Participation can also be boosted by hybrid meetings that pair the screening of a documentary or dramatic film with a panel discussion.

The third area focuses on successfully managing the “media frames” and mental categories by which political journalists, pundits and the wider public interpret biotechnology. Historically, the biotech community has been very effective in working with science and business reporters and in building an enthusiastic audience at these beats. Yet when major focusing events occur, biotechnology increasingly spills over to the political and commentary sections of the news, generating a sharp increase in media visibility and wider public attention. Under these conditions, the emphasis in coverage is on risk, ethics and conflicts of interest.

For the otherwise inattentive public, news about biotechnology can be the ultimate ambiguous threat, meaning that depending on how the problem is framed, the public will pay more attention to certain considerations over others. These selective interpretations then activate a train of thought that lead to reputation-altering attributions about the nature of an issue (e.g. risky, unethical), who or what might be responsible (e.g. industry) and what should be done in terms of policy (e.g. more regulation).

When biotechnology hits the political and opinion beats, the communication challenge is to “re-center” the perceptual playing field. This means shifting interpretations back to an emphasis on shared values, scientific promise, transparency and economic benefits. In any area of biotechnology, figuring out the specific messages that trigger these preferred interpretations takes careful audience research, involving focus groups and surveys of key “swing publics.” Besides prospective audience research, the biotechnology community should also cultivate stronger relationships with independent, third-party experts and opinion-leaders who are likely to serve as sources for political journalists or as commentators. Similarly, the biotech community should build stronger relationships with political reporters, columnists and editors. These political journalists can be invited to participate in specially tailored conferences and fellowships and in sponsored biotechnology policy programs at leading journalism schools.


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