Each Friday during the semester a group gathers in Hiram Smith Hall to discuss ongoing research projects, many lead by graduate students, surrounding public opinion on controversial science issues. The group is the Science, Media & the Public (SciMep) research group which explores issues relating to the social, legal, and ethical implications of scientific issues and emerging technologies.
The group is housed in Life Sciences Communication and the principle investigators include LSC chair Dominique Brossard, LSC professors Dietram Scheufele, and Neil Stenhouse, and chair of the Department of Communication Arts and LSC faculty affiliate Michael Xenos. In addition, graduate students from different departments, including LSC, the Department of Communication Arts and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, participate.
The group’s focus is unique. According to LSC chair Dominque Brossard, “SciMep is one of the only research groups looking into these types of issues. We are in an era of rapid technological change and media convergence, so it is important to look at the intersection of science, media and public opinion. Many of scientific issues we talk about are complex and they don’t happen in a vacuum. The public is an integral part of the conversation, whether they know it or not.”
Recent work by the group has included surveys about public attitudes on human gene-editing, genetically engineered crops and the Zika virus. The group also conducts experimental studies on message processing, tracks media patterns, and studies the public’s understanding of controversial topics. As such, the group frequently publishes cutting-edge research including a recent publication that received extensive media attention on how online incivility affects the public’s perception of the media, a concept deemed the ‘nasty effect’. (Summaries of this study were featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and hundreds of other media outlets) Additional publications focus on a range of topics, from the #arseniclife controversy to public perceptions of portrayals of female scientists in social media.
In addition, SciMep also serves as an opportunity for graduate students to learn the fundamentals of research and apply their skills to different projects. Many of the projects are being led by the students and the PI’s serve to guide the process. LSC doctoral student Kate Rose leads the weekly meetings. “SciMep is a great opportunity for me to practice presenting my data and defending my work. It is also great to work alongside the PI’s and learn from them,” Rose said. “Students can ask questions on data analysis and aid in survey design, so they end up learning a lot about the research process by participating.”
LSC master’s student Chris Wirz has been a member of the group since he was an undergrad. “SciMep has really helped me grow and learn as a student. I have had the opportunity to lead research projects and ask questions on data analysis and survey design, so I have learned a lot by participating.” notes Wirz.