Naming and Framing Citizen Concerns about Emerging Technology

How can researchers engage the public on complex, profoundly important science and technology issues? First, throw out the deficit model of science communication and listen to the concerns of everyday citizens.

Kettering Foundation research has long found that there is real political power to be had in the way issues are named and framed. The manner in which a problem is articulated has the power to either engage people as citizens and actors or push them to the sidelines as spectators. At the same time, the manner in which issues are framed has the power to produce fruitful conversations, during which options and trade-offs are evaluated, but it also has the power to produce divisiveness and unproductive debate. Kettering has seen these fundamental problems of issue naming and framing play out across a wide range of arenas and topics. Lately, though, it seems as though a certain class of problems, those with a scientific component, are especially mired in polarization and rancor.

With this as background, Kettering set out to find whether there was anyone in the natural sciences, frustrated with the current state of affairs, who might want to explore new ways forward. This led to an exploratory research exchange at the Foundation entitled “Science and the Cultivation of Public Judgment.” Building on this exchange, Daniel Sarewitz later joined us as a featured speaker during a Dayton Days research session. Out of this came the present opportunity—collaborative research between the Kettering Foundation and Daniel Sarewitz and his colleagues at Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (CSPO).

As it currently stands, there are a number of domestic and international initiatives in the “science and democracy” ballpark. However, many of these operate from a deficit standpoint, meaning that the real problem is usually articulated as a matter of citizens lacking scientific literacy. A proper understanding of the issue at hand is certainly important, but so too is the manner in which issues are named and framed. If issues are named and framed in technical ways that fail to consider what is valuable to citizens, there will be great difficulty in engaging citizens and promoting productive conversations. After all, these issues are matters of judgment—ones in which citizens in communities must collectively decide what they ought to do about the problems that confront them. What can be done to jump-start the routines through which citizens and communities begin to exercise the judgment necessary to confront these thorny issues?

The idea here is to try something different—for a group of scientists to experiment with the democratic practices of naming and framing, such that citizens and communities might productively confront difficult issues on the horizon. As Sarewitz discussed in his remarks to the research session and in his essay for Connections, Kettering’s annual journal, the issue at hand is self-driving cars, the emergence of which raises a number of economic and safety concerns that communities will be forced to confront. To do this, CSPO will start with citizens (as opposed to starting with policymakers or experts) to ascertain what concerns people when they think about self-driving cars. These citizen concerns and expressions of things held valuable will serve as the basis for an issue guide that communities might use.

Two CSPO members have participated in a Kettering exchange of issue guide writers to learn and share ideas with others around the country who are similarly attempting to more democratically name and frame issues. We at Kettering stand to learn a great deal from CSPO’s efforts. We will be able to see, through an issue guide, how a complex scientific issue can be named and framed. Perhaps more important, though, we will learn from the reflections of the CSPO scientists themselves. What did they learn through this work? How, if at all, will this impact what they do moving forward? Are these democratic practices consistent with their role as scientists?

This post was originally published in Connections, the annual journal of the Kettering Foundation. Nicholas A. Felts is a program officer at the Kettering Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected].