LSC researchers on the pitfalls of using public meetings to set science policy

LSC faculty alumnus Andrew R. Binder (Ph.D., ’10), now assistant professor at North Carolina State University, along with Professors Dietram Scheufele and Dominique Brossard, authored a recent opinion piece in The Scientist on the use of public meetings to gauge public opinion on science policy.

Town hall meetings may be a good way to hear a range of strong opinions, but as measure of overall community opinion on an issue, they leave lot to be desired, especially when it comes to highly contentious issues. Studying the siting of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) new National Bio and Argo-Defense Facility, show the downside of using community public meetings to measure public acceptance of contentious proposals.

One of the proposed sites was on UW-Madison land near Lake Kegonsa. That site was rejected, to a large extent because it was rated low in terms of “community acceptance,” which the DHS considered to be an important criterion.

Town-hall meetings were a key tool used by DHS to rate “community acceptance,” and the accuracy of that measure was the subject of the study by LSC researchers. They summarized their results in an opinion piece in a recent issue of The Scientist.

Researchers looked at DHS’s rating of community acceptance in the six NBAF finalist communities they studied, and compared those ratings to what they learned by surveys of the larger populations in those towns and interviewed with local journalists and community leaders.

They found that the intensity of expression of negative opinions in public meetings, amplified by news media accounts, led to significant underestimates of public support. “…[U]sing public meetings may actually promote policy choices that are diametrically opposed to public preferences,” they write.

This spotlight is adapted from eCALS, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences weekly e-newsletter. You can view the original post here.