PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


Neuroscientists’ perceptions of public representations of science
A cross-national comparison between Germany and the United States

Joachim Allgaier   Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany

Dominique Brossard   School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

Sharon Dunwoody   School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA

Hans Peter Peters   Forschungszentrum Jülich, Germany

A topic that has been comparatively neglected in the science communication and science policy research literature is the question how media coverage of science and research can influence science governance processes. Previous research showed that researchers try to use the media to legitimize their research and attract research funding. However, it must be assumed that public expectations about research and especially the representation of such expectations in the media might have an influence on how research is regulated by the state or self-governed by scientific institutions.

Here we assume that scientists and researchers might react to public images of their research in two ways: First, by adapting their actual research practices to an image of research that is desired by the general public. Second is by choosing self-representations that live up to the expectations of the public. Hence, we are interested in examining ‘informal’ governance aspects of research through various media channels. We have chosen neuroscientific research as a case study. Research in the multidisciplinary field of the neurosciences is particularly interesting for studying governance processes since it is a field where various ethical, social, legal and economic issues and interests collide and, also, because various topics related to the neurosciences have generated a substantial amount of media coverage in the recent years.

In order to be able to investigate informal governance empirically it is important to first get an understanding of how neuroscientists themselves perceive the public image of research and also where they get their information from on science and society. To investigate this matter further we conducted a cross-national online survey in the USA and Germany. We assumed that media usage behavior differs between researchers in the USA and in Germany. 500 Neuroscience researchers from both countries, who had at least two publications in peer-reviewed journals in the field of the neurosciences, were sampled randomly. They were asked how they evaluate the impact of various information channels (e.g. print media, online news, TV and radio programs, blogs) on policy makers. It was also of interest how the neuroscientific researchers perceived the impact of media coverage of science on the general public. Furthermore, neuroscientists were asked about their own use of information channels. Another issue that was considered was the role of blogs and virtual social networks (e.g. facebook, LinkedIn) for the information strategies of neuroscience researchers.

The survey is in the field as the abstracts are reviewed, results are expected for late fall. The results will inform further steps in a comprehensive research project about informal governance aspects of research in Germany and the United States. These include the analysis of formal institutional ways of governing research in the neurosciences in the two countries; a cross-national comparison of media coverage of research in the neurosciences; and also focused interviews with senior neuroscience researchers in order to investigate how the neuroscientific community perceives its media image and the impact media coverage of their research field has on their research and working practices. Similarly, we also want to find out how neuroscientists assess the impact of media coverage of research on science policy makers and the general public.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.