Public attitudes to science: lessons for digital engagement?

For more than a year up to May 2011, I was exercised with (managing the) measurement of Public Attitudes to Science (more correctly, the sciences and research) in the UK – and beyond that talking about the process, thinking how measurement could be improved, and what else could be usefully examined.

And the key message in relation to publics’ attitudes to the sciences: broadly positive, but it’s complicated!  It’s not always easy to distil a consistent narrative, as attitudes are shaped by people’s’ seeming ability to hold multiple points of view about very similar topics (cognitive polyphasia – a phrase I wish I had the opportunity to use more often).

One thing that the UK series of studies have in common is their segmentation of the population into attitudinal groupings.  These aren’t hard and fast groups, rather ways of categorising tendencies to fit into a particular category.  Admittedly, I’m not an expert on the ins and outs of cluster analysis, but the groups do seem to stimulate genuine debate over their make up, what they mean for communication of science and science policy, and how people are and can be influenced to take an interest in the sciences.

The results of the survey also give those of us involved in any sort of comms activity an insight into public perceptions of consultation and participation, for example, and effectively demonstrate some of the prejudices that exist.  They also suggest that many  people want to know that someone is being consulted or involved in policy making, even if they themselves aren’t interested in getting stuck in themselves.

The Attitudinal Groupings

The six categories identified in the 2011 study can be summarised as follows:

  • Confident Engagers tend to have a strongly positive attitude towards science.  They want to be more involved in decisions about it, but are also keen for Government to put more of an emphasis on expert advice and evidence rather than public and media opinion   More likely than average to read broadsheet newspapers, they also get their information from a variety of media, including science blogs and websites. They tend to be relatively digitally engaged already and participate in social networking.
  • Late Adopters. This group tends to come to science once their formal education is over.  Their engagement is filtered through their daily lives and personal ethical and environmental concerns. They want to hear scientists talking more about the social and ethical implications of their work. They are also more likely than average to have internet access, and also more likely to be active social network users.
  • Distrustful Engagers are less trusting of those that work in science, and less confident in the Government‟s ability to regulate them. They tend to think the public should play a bigger role in decision-making on scientific issues alongside experts. They are also interested in personally becoming more involved in this.. Just like the Confident Engagers, this cluster is more likely than average to respond to engagement online, through  science websites and blogs. They are not however especially likely to use social networking sites.
  • The Indifferent tend to be much older than the other groups, with the majority being above pension age. While they are less likely to feel informed about science, they are not especially negative or worried about it. They tend not to be as interested in science as other clusters, and tend to be a lot less inclined to get involved in public consultations on science.   They tend not to use the internet, but find their information and news from TV and newspapers.
  • The Concerned  have strong views on the limitations of science when compared to other clusters.  They  are more likely than the other attitudinal groups to read tabloid newspapers and less likely than average to check websites specifically on science and technology, although their internet usage is otherwise close to average.
  • Disengaged Sceptics  tend to be less well-educated than other clusters, and feel less informed about science. While they tend not to be keen get involved themselves in decision-making, they would like the Government and scientists to listen to the public‟s opinions on science issues.  Television is a more important source of science information for Disengaged Sceptics than the internet, which they are less likely to use than average.

So, an interesting spectrum in terms of attitudes to science, but also willingness to get involved in social media and consultations.

Here’s the Digital Bit…?

Given that my role is about identifying where digital could help shape discussions around policy issues, knowing that these groups even exist can help in at least two ways:

  • Firstly, they’ll be relevant in trying to foster any conversation around science-related issues, so I’ll have them at the back of mind when developing digital engagement plans;
  • Secondly, they’re also potentially relevant when selling digital engagement as a concept, and assessing willingness of teams or individuals to use social media tools.   As the categories are broadly representative of tendencies within the population at large,they give some clues as to the range of attitudes that are likely to be encountered, and equally the strategies that can be adopted to promote usage further.

Selling Digital Engagement to the Different Attitudinal Groupings

  • Confident Engagers & Late Adopters: from a digital engagement perspective, these two groups could probably be combined into one – they’ll be the individuals in a Department who are potentially engaging online already, some of them possibly for work, others like late adopters in support of a particular cause In many respects they would make useful Champions or case studies whose confidence and enthusiasm could prove infectiousThey won’t necessarily need to be persuaded of the benefits of social media although they may need to be reminded that, to engage in a civil service work context has different connotations from engaging in a personal one.  This is especially true in the case of Late Adopters, where their personal usage could be overtly political.
  • Distrustful Engagers.  This group will already recognise the value of digital engagement to the extent that they already get some of their information from blogs, and may be prepared to engage online for work-related purposes.  While they don’t necessarily engage currently on social networks, they may be persuaded through combining an approach to monitoring which incorporates insights from blogs, with social networks being introduced at a later stage.
  • The Indifferent.  Given their age profile and the fact  they’re not that exposed to or experienced with the Internet, the Indifferent might not be such a large or identifiable group in a work context where internet usage is common. Where they do exist, this group will be the hardest to persuade about the value of engaging differently, and may need more concrete evidence through, for example, evaluation, case studies and individual testimony in an area that is close to their own particular interests.  They will likely need a more structured approach to developing skills and confidence if they are to progress further with using social media.
  • The Concerned and the Disengaged Sceptics would probably also benefit from a similarly structured approach.  One of the defining characteristics of disengaged sceptics, for example,  is that they want to know that Government is listening to and involving people in decision-making, so any approach to incorporating digital engagement should focus on its ability to achieve this.

And finally…

Of course, this is an artificial exercise and it won’t always be easy to identify some of these groupings in an organisational context.  They do, however, give some useful pointers to the types of approaches that could be adopted in encouraging and further embedding digital engagement, as well as highlighting some of the different types of evidence triggers that may be needed to influence behaviour, attitudes and uptake.

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