Civic Science Sparks With … Science, Media, and the Public Research Group

June 27, 2022

Despite our best intentions to be curious and humble, many of us know the impulse to categorize opinions we don’t understand or agree with as irrational or otherwise deficient. Through research with urgency in a time of acute polarization, Dietram Scheufele and Nicole Krause work to illuminate where that tendency shows up in science communication, and the barriers it creates to rigorous and representative science and civic decision-making.  
As a leading scholar of science communication, Dietram has been a partner in the Civic Science Fellows program from its earliest stages—helping shape it as an incubation space for new connections between research and practice and between scientists conducting research and the communities whose lives could be impacted by it. With the current cohort, in addition to serving as a host partner, Dietram chairs the Practice and Science of Civic Science Advisory Committee that helps inform the learning component of the Civic Science Fellows program. Dietram is the Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-chairs the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Standing Committee on Advancing Science Communication. Nicky is the 2021–23 John Templeton Foundation Civic Science Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate with the Science, Media, and the Public Research Group at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.  
With support from the Templeton Foundation, Nicky is investigating the relationship between political polarization and alienation from science among many Americans—including conservative, Christian, and rural stakeholders—who are often categorized as “anti-science” and seen as having, as Dietram has described it, “pathologies” that need to be cured. These reactions to different viewpoints, as Nicky and Dietram point out, can end up reinforcing alienation and limiting our abilities to better understand complex issues and collectively build new, equitable solutions. 

Rita Allen Foundation President and CEO Elizabeth Christopherson reached out to Dietram and Nicole to hear about what they are learning from their partnerships and research, what keeps them motivated, curious, and humble, and what advice they have for advancing civic science work that bridges the value-based divisions we see in civic life. 

Elizabeth Christopherson, President and CEO, Rita Allen Foundation: Nicky, how would you describe yourself to the civic science network?

Nicole Krause: I am a social scientist specializing in science communication, with a focus on intergroup conflict and polarization surrounding controversial or high-impact science and technology. I also research misinformation as a component of science communication ecosystems, as well as the related topic of trust in science. My fellowship is focused on overcoming societal divides surrounding science and identifying ways to effectively reach audiences who may feel alienated from the scientific community, including conservative, religious, and rural Americans. 

Elizabeth: Dietram, you’ve been with the Civic Science Fellows program from the beginning and served as a resource partner in the first cohort of Fellows and now a host partner in the 2021-23 cohort. What stood out about the Templeton Foundation that signaled a partnership you wanted to grow as part of the Civic Science Fellows program?

Dietram Scheufele: This collaboration has really been the brainchild of Matt Walhout at the Templeton Foundation who deserves all the credit as matchmaker between our team at UW-Madison and organizations like BioLogos and RepublicEn. The result is civic science at its best: an unlikely partnership between politics, faith-based communities, and academia working together to shape better pathways forward that rely on but are not determined by science. It took a lot of listening and talking among all partners to get this off the ground, given how rare such collaborations are, at least within academia.  But we are very excited about this turning into a more sustained collaboration as we develop models for political debate that allows for a respectful airing of value-based disagreements precisely because all participants agree on the scientific fact base.  

Elizabeth: What is something you’ve learned from your partnerships/time together in the Civic Science Fellows program—either from each other or from your sharing work with Fellows and others? 

Dietram: When you, Brooke [Smith], and I wrote “The Civic Science Imperative” back in 2018, we probably underestimated how urgently the rethinking we were arguing for was needed within both science and society. Since then, disruptive pandemics, racial reckonings, and hyperpolarized political discourses, not just in the U.S., have elevated this “imperative,” as we called it, from an aspirational blueprint to an on-the-ground experiment for real-time capacity building and rethinking within science.

Nicole: To overcome some of the social group divides we see surrounding some areas of science, my project is, at least in part, focused on identifying shared values between conflicted groups. One thing that has been nice to see is some shared understanding of science as a source of wonder, hope, and power. Of course, there are important differences in how different groups conceive of science in these terms (which a previous Civic Science Fellow has examined, I believe), but my point is that I see appreciation for science even in talking with members of social groups who some might call “anti-science,” which is a ridiculous term. People are not anti-science, and most people are not “unreachable.” To conclude otherwise, I think, reflects a lack of imagination, or even a willful disregard for existing evidence.

Elizabeth: What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities from a communication perspective for civic science?

Dietram: The aspirations behind civic science might appear challenging, at first. Civic science is based on the idea that science is not always at the steering wheel when it comes to how democratic societies navigate the social, political, and value-based complexities surrounding modern science. And letting go of that control is difficult because most of us within the scientific community are not used to it. Listening and responding to input and concerns from communities and political groups who might not share our priorities and premises will take both humility and rethinking within science. But both are absolutely necessary if science wants to meaningfully contribute to the many challenges that democratic societies are currently facing. Civic science means that we fundamentally rethink how science can best serve society, especially as AI, brain organoids, and novel applications of genome editing reshape what it means to be human. That’s where we have unbelievably exciting opportunities in front of us.

Nicole: One big challenge for civic science is that we continue to see an overemphasis on “deficit model” thinking in science communication research and practice. One implication of our ongoing preoccupation with “deficits” in public opinion about science is that we tend to assume that we already know what our key “societal ills” are. For example, that people lack trust in science, or accurate information, etc.—and then we move quickly to prescribe solutions that are sometimes too insufficiently nuanced to be effective. Further, when we look so much at “deficits” of support for science, I think we pay too little attention to “surpluses.” We fail to ask questions like, “Is maximal trust in science what we really want, democratically?” or “As poll trends show historic inclines in trust in science among certain social groups, such as Democrats, should we be concerned about a kind of pro-science fanaticism, and its attendant effects on democratic deliberation and decision-making about science?” Finally, as we focus on “deficits” (or even on “surpluses”), we implicitly presume there is a correct (or more desirable) “baseline” attitude. Our approach essentially becomes a search for “deviance,” rather than “difference,” and it should go without saying that accusing people of deviance is a poor starting point for resolving conflict. 

Elizabeth: What’s an impact or success you’ve already seen or accomplished from your time with or in the Civic Science Fellows program?

Dietram: Our work here at Wisconsin has long focused on many of the questions that are central to Civic Science. How can we use insights from social science to better connect science with communities that are beyond the proverbial choir?  How can we help open channels of communication and engagement that are not always in and on science’s terms?  For me personally, it has been very exciting to see both cohorts of fellows making these questions an integral part of their intellectual and professional DNA, and – without being overly effusive – I cannot wait to see what they will do with this as they reshape their respective fields in the future.

Nicole: My fellowship involves research-practice partnerships, and, so far, I have started to build a connection with the organization BioLogos, which reaches faith-based communities regarding science. I have been able to share insights with them, as well as attend their annual conference. I have learned more quickly through my partnership with them than I would have on my own, and I have been able to narrow some of my research questions to design more focused data collections that I believe will be relevant to BioLogos’s work. It is helpful to have such a clear connection to organizations who can directly apply some of the things I am learning.

Elizabeth: Nicky, what are you working on for your fellowship project? How does it fit within the pillars of Civic Science learning? 

Nicole: Responding to my concerns above about a preoccupation with deficits and with knowledge, I am working to move away from these approaches and to ask other questions. As I have alluded to, I am looking at arrogance/humility in science and among scientists; I am looking at the morally expressive aspects of science or at the ways science and scientists can “signal” certain positions without even realizing it (e.g., talking so much about knowledge deficits implicitly reveals a high valuation of knowledge that some members of society may not see as paramount, etc.). I am also looking at how a “pro-science” social identity may be coalescing more than an “anti-science” identity (i.e., my point above about possible “surpluses” of support for science), and I am asking how such an identity might play a role in polarization or even politicization surrounding science. My desire to shift some common thinking has arisen directly from my effort from the outset of the fellowship to better understand the science-related attitudes of conservative, religious, and rural Americans. After even brief conversations with members of these groups, it is easy to see how off-base some of our most prominent discourse has been (or, similarly, how focused it has been on an oversimplified characterization of the worst arguments from extreme individuals). I hope I can provide some useful redirection and build a foundation for much larger projects.

Elizabeth: What excites you most about your project?

Nicole: In the short-term, I am very excited to field a large data collection that I think will provide empirical clarification of many of the points I am reflectively examining in my answers above. This data collection will help distill insights for practitioners, including the partners I am already working with, and will yield clear recommendations for future research. This will be a good transition to year two of the fellowship, and I am excited about the additional work it will undoubtedly inspire. 

Elizabeth: What is one piece of advice you’d offer to funding, host, and Fellows partners building new collaborations together and to build momentum for culture change?

Dietram: Since high school, I have been a big fan of Franz Kafka, who once wrote that we should only read books that sting and bite us. Everything that doesn’t, he said, we could “in a pinch, also write ourselves.” If civic science wants to work toward meaningful change, we need to listen to and engage with ideas that sting and bite us. Civic science will fall short if it sees its primary mission as working with communities whose goals, values, and outlooks we share. Democratically beneficial change will require building coalitions with groups whose politics, value priorities, and goals might not always align with mainstream thinking in science. Climate change, embryonic stem cell research, and—most recently— COVID vaccine hesitancy are powerful reminders of what happens when science cannot communicate beyond its own ideological echo chambers.

Nicole: I think that what I said above is a key point. We are looking too much for deficits of support for science, instead of at differences. Deficit thinking assumes we know best; that we already know what is “wrong” with people and what the desired outcome is. This will make it difficult to approach groups who feel alienated from science in a manner that suggests we’re open to listening or to understanding their views (a challenge which is already an uphill battle for scientists, whom large swaths of the American public see as self-interested or “cold”). The last thing we need is more reason for people to (justifiably) see scientists arrogant and out-of-touch. We also focus too much on knowledge concerns – i.e., we say there is not enough science literacy, not enough accurate science knowledge, not enough trust in science (which is a concern largely because of the belief that low trust will contribute to misperceptions or ignorance). Even if there is some merit to the “knowledge discourse,” we need to redirect funding and create culture change in other areas.

There are other divides that, evidence suggests, likely matter more than knowledge, and where it is less easy to simplify the problem to one of “public deficits.” There are values-based divides and moral divides. We will struggle to address the problems we care about (e.g., polarized science attitudes) so long as we overlook these divides, and so long as scientists lack awareness of themselves and their work as exhibiting value positions or being morally expressive. For more on that idea, I recommend looking at work by John Evans. Anyway, even our preoccupation with “knowledge deficits” likely signals to diverse publics a value system in itself—i.e., an obsession with competence, knowledge mastery, etc. We need more research and action that is not driven by deficit thinking. We need to better understand the value-laden and moral communications of science and scientists (including how these are perceived by the public).

“Effective communication requires being willing to listen and to learn. Nicky Krause understands that. Instead of accepting assumptions about what conservative, religious and rural audiences think and believe, she’s asking questions, listening to their concerns, and working to understand their perspectives. In doing so, she’s learning how to adapt her own ideas and words to create an inviting and collaborative conversation.”   

—Heather Templeton Dill, President, John Templeton Foundation

John Templeton Foundation Civic Science Fellow Nicole M. Krause is supported by the John Templeton Foundation.