USDA Hatch grant awarded to LSC assistant professor to fund research aimed at unpacking the meaning of hope towards science

man smiling at camera
LSC assistant professor Todd Newman.

Much like in the realm of marketing, the starting point to effective science communication is understanding the emotional, sensory, and cognitive reflexes that influence how subsequent information is consumed and interpreted.

A survey done by ScienceCounts, an organization that LSC assistant professor Todd Newman is collaborating with, found that when the U.S. public hears the word “science,” the feeling of “hope” is elicited for 63% of respondents. Hope is a nuanced feeling, with contributions from numerous personal values and beliefs influencing what different segments of the public hope for and why. As the next step towards a unified vision for communicating the promise of science, Newman is aiming to unpack the different meanings of hope and a Hatch grant from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) program will allow him to do that.

The USDA Hatch Program allocates money to land-grant universities that can be distributed to faculty for research. At University of Wisconsin–Madison, Hatch funds are only available to College of Agricultural & Life Sciences departments. These funds are set aside for new faculty members to conduct research in the realm of agricultural and social issues.

We know how the public reacts to science at the basic level, in terms of responses and emotions, but Newman wants to go deeper. “How can we think more strategically, whether it’s framing, understanding effective sources, or other communication tactics to tap into that?” Newman has looked at these questions before with scientists, but with the Hatch grant funding, he can focus on the public’s reactions.

Part of Newman’s research will contain a public opinion survey that will be distributed to the public. “[The survey] would be looking at the American public and how they view science as an institution and the different ways in which science connects to their daily lives and essentially carry out a branding analysis of how the public thinks and feels about science,” explained Newman. A major focus of the research is drawing on frameworks from marketing and branding, which a lot of science communication often does not explore.

Qualitative research is also on Newman’s agenda. He plans to conduct interviews and focus groups to further understand the nuances in how the public thinks and feels about science. His methodology comes from a “classic branding framework” that states that any product or service you interact with touches you in three different ways. “There’s experiential, you experience it in a certain way. There’s a symbolic aspect, you identify with it. And then there’s the functional . . . This is called Brand Concept Image Management.”

Branding is not new to Newman ­– the LSC professor recently co-authored the book “Brand,” which analyzes different branding strategies across different sectors of society.

“Basically, I’m trying to take that and apply it to science,” said Newman.

Like a product, science is functional, experiential, and symbolic. Most of the scientific community has been focused on the symbolic aspect of science, but Newman wants to take it a step farther. “People have really strong feelings about [science], really positive feelings about [science], regardless where you fall in these demographic items,” explains Newman, “but when science begins to be applied to different things, whether it’s climate or COVID, that’s when the whole complexity of these issues begin to unravel.”

The Hatch grant provides two years of research funding and most of those funds go towards funding a graduate student. This year, Newman is working with Ph.D. student Shiyu Yang. The two of them will work together on designing survey questions, preparing focus groups, collecting, cleaning, and analyzing data, and more. LSC is known for its collaborative research environment. “We work really closely with the grad students on research, sometimes undergrad too, and I think we have a pretty mutually beneficial relationship,” says Professor Newman.

Newman’s goal is to get the results of this two-year project published with Yang. He hopes to influence the academic community by introducing the idea that branding and marketing strategies can benefit science communication. On a different level, he hopes to engage those who don’t have a background in science.

With the grant money being distributed in early October, Newman and Yang are hard at work preparing for the next two years.

Story by Jori Skalitzky, LSC B.S. ’22 and LSC’s 2020-21 Lenore Landry Scholar