LSC and Comm Arts professors granted NSF award to develop community-driven science communication strategies focused on Black American experiences

Research shows Black Americans in the United States were disproportionally affected by COVID-19 when compared to their Latino, Asian and white counterparts. However, the Black American experience, along with the earned mistrust held by Black communities as a result of  racism and discrimination, can pose certain challenges for effective communication on issues related to science and medicine. Therefore, there is a need to work with Black communities to develop community-driven, effective strategies for public communications.

From left to right: LSC assistant professor Todd Newman, Communication Arts assistant professor Lillie Williamson, and LSC professor Michael Xenos.

To tackle this communication challenge LSC professor, Michael Xenos, LSC assistant professor Todd Newman, and Communication Arts assistant professor, Lillie Williamson, were awarded a $576,061 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to gain a clearer understanding of how Black American experiences shape their beliefs and attitudes about science-related topics in the  United States.

Michael Xenos is a professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Life Sciences Communication. He is an expert in research on the political dimensions of science communication and has long focused on the extent to which internet and social media help individuals learn about political issues, form opinions and participate in politics. LSC assistant professor Todd Newman is an affiliate of the Robert F. and Jean E. Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. He is an expert in strategic communication and currently focuses on the role of strategic communication across science and technology issues. Lillie Williamson is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Arts. She is an expert in health communication and her research focuses on medical mistrust and others ways racial experiences and health communication interact to influence health disparities.

This 3-year NSF grant will support research that will help guide more effective and inclusive public engagement efforts and provide practitioners with new insight on how to responsibly address past and present racial inequities across a variety of scientific and policy areas.

Part of this NSF grant will go towards understanding specific ways that underlying beliefs and worldviews about science and scientific institutions are related to science misperceptions among Black Americans. Through a partnership with healthTIDE – a state-wide network of place-based community partners that focus on reducing health disparities – the other part of their research will be working directly with Black American communities to develop and test communication strategies for more effective efforts to combat science-related misinformation and misperceptions.

An important component of this project is a series of community conversations to establish and support a rich dialogue between researchers and members of Wisconsin Black communities. This will ensure that the insights and recommendations produced from the project are founded in the lived experiences of Black Americans as the center focus of their engagement with scientific information, institutions, and careers.

“This project brings together the two related fields of health communication and science communication,” said PI of the project, Michael Xenos. “We are excited to engage with and learn from community members to not only answer critical research questions surrounding medical and science mistrust and racial disparities, but also foster mutual respect and ongoing dialogue between the research done at UW-Madison and communities throughout Wisconsin.”


Written by: Jocelyn Cao, LSC M.S. ’23
Published: September 2022