June 18, 2018–In a new Shorenstein Center study conducted with colleagues at Northeastern University, we assess major patterns in foundation support for nonprofit journalism and media in the half decade leading up to the 2016 election, focusing specifically on support for digital news nonprofits.
Launched over the past fifteen years, digital news nonprofits at the national and state/local level such as ProPublica and Texas Tribune, along with their public media peers, have aimed to fill gaps in coverage created by the dramatic decline of the newspaper industry. Most news nonprofits rely heavily on foundation funding as a primary or major source of revenue. Assessing foundation investments is therefore crucial, since they remain the financial backbone of nonprofit news, playing a behind-the-scenes role in guiding the direction of the field, including the types of subjects covered, organizations supported, and regions prioritized.
We assessed 32,422 relevant grants totaling $1.8 billion distributed by 6,568 foundations supporting journalism and media-related activities between 2010 and 2015. About a third of this funding or $570 million was dedicated to journalism higher education, the Newseum, journalism fellowships, and journalism research, legal support, and technology development. An additional 44% or $795 million supported public media and 5% or about $81 million backed nonprofit magazines.
In comparison, 20% or about $331 million directly supported national, local/state, and university-based digital news nonprofits. In evaluating direct support for digital news nonprofits, we conclude that many innovative projects and experiments have happened and continue to take place, but that grantmaking remains far below what is needed, even in an era of increased journalism giving following the 2016 elections. Our analysis identifies sharp geographic disparities in foundation funding, a heavy concentration of resources in a few dozen successful digital news nonprofits and on behalf of coverage of a few issues. At the national level, there was also the granting of money to a disproportionate number of ideologically-oriented outlets.
Although there are some success stories, neither the digital news nonprofit sector, nor any other form of commercial media have yet been able to meaningfully fill the gaps in coverage created by the collapse of the newspaper industry. A major challenge is that despite more than 6,500 foundations supporting journalism- and media-related activities during the first half of this decade, just a few dozen foundations have provided the bulk of direct support for news gathering. At the state and local level in particular, digital nonprofit media funding depends heavily on the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a few other philanthropies. Several trends since 2016, however, offer reason for optimism, including the launch of the NewRevenue Hub and NewsMatch, along with the considerable “Trump bump” in revenue at ProPublica, which has used the funds to expand its operations at the state and local level.
Several funding categories assessed in the Shorenstein study were not directly related to news nonprofits but represented activities or initiatives intended to enhance the field of journalism generally and its public understanding. These other categories of grants reflect the tough choices that funders face, as prioritizing one of these areas, even if to improve the practice and reach of journalism in society, may take away from direct support for nonprofit news production. Specific to these other activities:
Journalism and communication programs at universities along with the Newseum received $369 million or 21% of the $1.8 billion in relevant funding distributed over the six-year period.
Journalist professional development received an estimated $122 million or approximately 7% of the $1.8 billion in funding analyzed. These grants supported journalist associations, awards, training workshops, and fellowships.
Journalism-related research, technology development, legal support, and philanthropic coordination received approximately $79 million or 4% of all funding during the six-year period analyzed.
Relative to direct funding for non-profit news production, among the study’s key findings:
Public media received approximately $796 million or about 44% of the $1.8 billion in grant money analyzed. Much of this funding supported non-news content such as programming related to the arts, music, culture, or entertainment. Twenty-five public media stations and content producers accounted for 70% of all funding, with grant money going primarily to stations or content producers based in 10 states. Such concentration means that public media organizations across the great majority of states lack the funding necessary to evolve into digital news hubs producing local reporting that fills gaps in newspaper coverage.
Magazines generated an estimated $80.1 million in grant support over the six years assessed, accounting for about 5% of all funding. The nonprofit magazine field has winnowed to the degree that a few dozen publications received 99% of foundation funding with a similar number of foundations providing most of the support. Grant making also flowed heavily in the direction of ideological perspectives, with nine liberal/left wing magazines and five conservative/right wing counterparts ranking among the top 25 grant recipients.
National news nonprofits were backed by approximately $216 million in foundation funding or about 12% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. Eight out of 10 foundation dollars supported just 25 news nonprofits, with four investigative journalism units topping the list. The leading two dozen recipients were also notable for featuring six deep-vertical news organizations that specialize in coverage of topics like the environment, and six nonprofits that have a clear ideological perspective. Overall, national news nonprofits are highly dependent on about two dozen institutional funders for nearly 70% of the grants distributed over the 6-year period analyzed.
Local/state nonprofit news organizations received approximately $80.1 million or about 5% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. As foundations pursued strategies designed to fill gaps in local newspaper reporting, they focused primarily on 11 state/local public affairs news sites, six state/local investigative news units, and coverage specific to health care and the environment. Other major investments backed the Institute for Nonprofit News and related initiatives aimed at building capacity and collaboration across the nonprofit news sector. Local/state news nonprofits also depended on a limited pool of funders for their support, with the Knight Foundation driving most of the growth in the area, accounting for 20% of funding during the six-year period we analyzed.
University-based journalism initiatives that produce either local or national coverage of public affairs were backed by an estimated $35.9 million or about 2% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. Just five universities accounted for half of all foundation funding, and 16 of the top 25 grant-receiving campuses were based in either California or the Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. metro areas. In terms of major grantmakers, 25 foundations provided 91% of the funding in the area, with the Knight Foundation accounting for nearly a third of all grant dollars distributed.
In a paper published this week, I review the history of U.S. philanthropic strategy relative to climate change, before assessing the important 5-year period following the defeat of the 2010 cap and trade bill and leading up to the 2016 elections. I analyze $557 million distributed across 2,502 grants by 19 major foundations, detailing the financial support for specific strategies and solutions, noting longstanding patterns in funding, but also evidence of new directions. Today, major foundations are once again identifying next steps and possible new directions related to Federal and state policy. In the conclusion to the paper, I emphasize the implications for strategic philanthropy during the Donald J. Trump presidency and beyond. The peer-reviewed article appears at Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews Climate Change, a leading forum for analysis of the scientific and social dimensions of climate change, published in association with the UK Royal Geographical Society and Royal Meteorological Society.
Between 2011 and 2015, the 19 foundations I assessed continued to invest in efforts to shape Federal climate and energy policy, but redirected much of their funding to support actions at the regional, state, or municipal level, prioritizing the West coast, Midwest, and Northeast regions. In doing so, the largest environmental grantmakers remained committed to their decades-old policy and technology roadmap on climate change, investing in familiar approaches, strategies, and goals:
Large national organizations continued to be favored over smaller groups, with just 20 grantees receiving more than half the money distributed ($230.4 million).
Similarly, 1 out of every 4 dollars invested ($140.3 million) was dedicated to promoting renewable energy and efficiency-related actions across states and various industry sectors.
In comparison, only $10.5 million (~2%) was granted specific to promoting other low-carbon energy sources or innovation in these areas.
Of this amount, $8.4 million focused on making natural gas production safer and cleaner. Other grants went to evaluate carbon capture and storage ($1.3 million); to promote R&D spending ($573,000), and the role of government in fostering innovation ($100,000). No grants were dedicated to promoting nuclear energy, though $175,000 in grants were devoted to opposing nuclear energy for cost and safety reasons.
However, funders also responded to calls for new directions. Some of this shift occurred on the part of the Energy Foundation and other major funders such as the Hewlett foundation, but much of the change was also driven by smaller funders investing in complementary or counterbalancing strategies:
Of the $91.4 million in grants dedicated to climate mitigation and adaptation actions, more than $55 million was invested in building sustainable and resilient cities and local economies with $16.2 million of this total focused on the needs of low-income and minority communities.
Philanthropists were also aggressive in targeting the fossil fuel industry, spending $69.4 million to limit coal power, ban/restrict fracking, and hold the industry accountable.
Responding to calls to more effectively shape public opinion and influence voters, philanthropists devoted a combined $151 million to climate-, fossil fuel industry- and renewable energy-related communications, media, and mobilization efforts.
Climate Philanthropy in the Trump Era
In coming years, as the endowments of major foundations continue to grow, providing philanthropists with ever greater resources, they are likely to play an even more active and strategic role in funding actions to address climate change in the United States and elsewhere. In 2017, the Hewlett foundation, for example, announced it would spend $600 million over the next decade to combat the problem.
By framing the challenges and defining the solutions to climate change, as they did in the years following the defeat of the cap and trade bill, Hewlett and other major philanthropies are likely to deepen their ability to bind together organizations and leaders into shared approaches and strategies. In an era of political dysfunction and diminished public spending, many will look to philanthropy and their resources for answers. But as foundations consider next steps, several considerations are merited.
First, philanthropists and their grantees may want to reconsider their opposition to support for nuclear energy, their reluctance to consider carbon capture and storage, and the absence of funding to explore scientific and policy challenges related to geoengineering research. Analysts warn that the United States and many states will not meet their emissions goals if current nuclear power plants close, and if new plants are not built in the future. Several expert projections on decarbonizing the world and U.S. economies define an important role for nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage, and intense scientific debate continues over the technical feasibility of a 100% renewables pathway to decarbonization. Over the next few years, there is also likely to be considerable debate over geoengineering, as more scientists evaluate various methods and their risks, and as political leaders consider the option. However, during the post cap-and-trade years, not a single grant from among the 19 foundations focused on geoengineering research or its governance, a trend that should be addressed.
Second, In the post cap-and-trade years, the $151 million devoted by funders to climate change-, fossil fuel industry- and renewable energy-related communication activities were complemented by a combined $150 million spent by the billionaire Tom Steyer in successive elections to mobilize climate voters on behalf of Democratic candidates. Yet in 2016, despite the stark differences on climate change between Trump and his rival Hillary Clinton, Trump won a majority of the decisive Midwest battleground states. Nationally, Republicans retained control of Congress and strengthened their hold on state governments. Today, polling shows that although liberal Democratic voters consider global warming among the most important issues influencing their vote, among moderate-leaning Democrats and Republicans, global warming ranks as a mid- to bottom-tier priority. During the Trump years, similar to the post cap-and-trade period, given the challenges faced and the evolving political dynamics, critical evaluation of communication and mobilization strategies are needed.
DETAILS ON THE ANALYSIS
To review the climate and energy-related funding choices of major U.S. foundations in the post Cap-and-Trade years, during Spring/Summer 2016 I compiled a database of 2,502 U.S. grants distributed by 19 foundations between 2011 and 2015. I selected the 19 foundations based on their track-record of grant giving on the issue, their association with specific funding approaches, and the availability of grant specific information provided by way of their web sites or tax filings.
These 19 foundations represent the major agenda-setting funders in the U.S. on climate change and energy, with their history of funding stretching in many cases back to the 1990s, influencing the decisions and focus of many other grantmakers, shaping the direction of much of the non-profit and advocacy sector.
To inform analysis and conclusions, available white papers, strategy documents, calls for proposals, and annual foundation reports were also reviewed. For each of the 19 foundations, Table 1 in the paper summarizes the sources of grant information per foundation available at the time of data collection, the strategies used to identify climate change- and energy-related grants, years where missing data might exist, and other details on why they were included as part of the analysis.
Given the scope and breadth of U.S. climate and energy-related funding, I was not able to include all relevant grant makers as part of my analysis. But in selecting the 19 foundations to analyze, as highlighted in the previous sections, I focused on grant makers that have historically been among the largest and most influential funders of climate and energy-related policy options and technologies. For example, given the significance of the Design to Win alliance of funders, as summarized in Table 1, I began by including eight of the nine original allied funders. The ninth funder, the SeaChange foundation, was not included due to a lack of publicly available grant information. Further justifying their inclusion in the analysis, six of these eight Design to Win funders also rank among the top 50 environmental grant makers as tracked by the U.S. Foundation Center. These include the Hewlett Foundation (#1 in environmental giving), Packard Foundation (#2), Doris Duke Foundation (#15), Kresge Foundation (#16), Oak Foundation (#20), and the McKnight Foundation (#41). The other two original Design to Win aligned funders included in my analysis were the re-granting organizations Energy Foundation and ClimateWorks. I selected three other foundations because they rank among the country’s leading environmental grant-makers, and they have been recognized by scholars for their influence on the environmental movement. These three funders are the MacArthur Foundation (#17), Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation (#3), and Ford Foundation (#12).
Compared to these 11 major grant makers, I selected the other 8 foundations because of their comparatively unique focus, approach, or influence. The Skoll Global Threats Fund prioritizes investments in climate change communication, engagement, and media initiatives. The Surdna Foundation prioritizes a “next generation infrastructure” approach that emphasizes localized climate change mitigation and adaptation actions that serve the needs of low income and minority communities, with the goal of promoting justice and fairness. The Park Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund (#28 environmental grantmaker) are notable for supporting strategies that directly target the fossil fuel industry by way of communication, media and mobilization campaigns. The Wallace Global Fund has played a key role in coordinating the fossil fuel divestment movement. Along with Park, both the Heinz Endowments (#26) and Schmidt Family Foundation have prioritized stricter regulation and/or bans on natural gas fracking. The Bloomberg Foundation has prioritized the funding of litigation and advocacy to limit or shut down coal fired power plants. In sum, my analysis includes 8 of the 9 Design to Win alliance members for which public records are available, 3 of the top 5 U.S. environmental grantmakers, 8 of the top 20 such funders, and 10 of the top 50.
Once grants from each of the foundations were entered into a database, to record the focus of each grant, I developed and refined categories by reviewing foundations’ mission statements, call for proposals, annual reports, program descriptions, white papers, and other relevant information. I categorized each grant by the main focus as determined by the description available for the grant, by cross checking with the web site of the grant recipient, and by way of the relevant program description for the foundation. These categories include a focus on Federal, state, or local climate change policy actions and research including those related to agriculture, transportation, adaptation; and human dimension such as health, equity, or jobs; actions related to energy policy, technologies, and efficiency practices including their human dimensions; forms of climate change and energy-related communication, mobilization, media; and actions specific to regulating, restricting, or opposing the fossil fuel industry. To inform my review, I report combined funding trends from among the 19 foundations and across the five-year period 2011-2015, detailing the aggregate patterns by way of a series of main tables. In some cases, drawing on the compiled database, foundation specific totals for a particular organization or focus area are also referenced.
In 2014 biochemist Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley awoke from a nightmare that would shift the focus of her world-class scientific career. Two years earlier, with her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, now director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Doudna had achieved one of the most stunning breakthroughs in the history of biology, becoming the first to use a process called CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the genetic makeup of living organisms. Their “gene-editing” tool would allow scientists to efficiently insert or delete specific bits of DNA with unprecedented precision.
But as applications related to modifying human genes were soon reported in the scientific literature, Doudna began to worry. In the dream, a colleague asked if she would help teach someone how to use CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindrome Repeats). She followed him into a room to be greeted by Adolph Hitler wearing a pig face. The nightmare reinforced her belief that public discussion of the technology was far behind the breakneck pace of its emerging applications. She feared a public backlash that would prevent beneficial forms of gene-editing research from moving forward.
Doudna organized a workshop among scientists, ethicists, and other experts; they published a 2015 paper in Science urging an international summit on the ethics of gene-editing and a voluntary pause in scientific research that would alter the genetic makeup of humans. In a TED talk that year, she called for a global conversation about gene editing so scientists and the public could consider the full range of social and ethical implications. Her 2017 book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, coauthored with her former student Samuel Sternberg, follows up on these efforts.
In their book, Doudna and Sternberg systematically review the vast number of applications across the life sciences that CRISPR-Cas9 may enable. With livestock, gene editing can be used to produce leaner meat, to make livestock more resistant to infection, to remove allergens from eggs and milk, to reduce the use of antibiotics, and to achieve other outcomes that benefit human nutrition and animal welfare. In medicine, gene editing is being used to engineer mosquitoes so they no longer spread viruses such as malaria or Zika, and mice so they no longer transmit Lyme disease to ticks, thereby reducing infection rates among humans. In other applications, the gene editing of goats, chickens, and rabbits may allow pharmaceuticals to be manufactured more quickly, at higher yields, and at lower cost than by way of traditional laboratory methods. In the future, gene-edited pigs may even be a major source for lifesaving organ transplants, providing tissues that are less likely to be rejected by human patients.
In a process called somatic gene editing, scientists are exploring ways to treat diseases caused by a single mutated gene such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, and sickle cell disease. The patient’s cells in the affected tissues would be either edited within the body or edited outside and returned to the patient. In both cases, the corrections would not be passed on to offspring. But in terms of human applications, the most widely debated research involves so-called germline gene editing. This process would alter sperm, eggs, and early stage embryos to protect a child against inheritable diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and forms of cancer. But such techniques could also potentially be used to select for specific physical traits or to boost human performance by way of denser bones and greater endurance, creating so-called designer babies. In each application, as a human matured, the altered DNA would be copied into every cell, and passed on to their progeny.
Not surprisingly, public opinion surveys reveal widespread public reservations about the technology and a firm belief that scientists should consult the public before applying gene-editing techniques to humans. Given the many important considerations that gene editing raises, in 2017 the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that scientists invest in ongoing input from the public regarding the benefits and risks of human genome editing, and that more research be conducted to better understand how to facilitate such a process.
But to lead a national and global conversation about gene editing, scientists will need help not only from their colleagues in the humanities, social sciences, and creative arts, but also from journalists and philanthropists. Informed public discussion about gene editing is not possible without high-quality, sustained reporting from journalists with deep knowledge of the subject. And new initiatives designed to understand public attitudes, to facilitate public dialogue, and to report on the complexities of gene editing will not be possible without financial support from philanthropists and their foundations.
A skeptical public
Given that discussion of human gene editing still remains primarily confined to scientific meetings and to elite gatherings such as TED conferences, it is not surprising that a 2016 Pew Research Center survey showed that 42 percent of Americans have heard “nothing at all” about the topic, compared with 48 percent “a little” and 9 percent “a lot.” But polls also show that Americans hold fairly consistent opinions and judgments about gene editing, even as they possess very little information about the complex subject. To do so, individuals actively draw on their religious and cultural values, familiar narratives from popular culture, and similarities to past debates.
For example, in the same Pew survey, when asked about the moral acceptability of gene-editing techniques intended to give healthy babies a reduced risk of disease, only 28 percent of Americans consider the application acceptable, compared with 30 percent who say it is unacceptable and 40 percent who are not sure. Notably, among the one-third of Americans who can be classified as highly religious, only 15 percent consider such applications morally acceptable (see figure above). When asked separately if such an application meddled with nature and crossed a line that should not be crossed, 64 percent of highly religious Americans agreed with the statement.
For many religious Americans, gene editing is likely closely associated with past debates over embryonic stem cell research and fetal tissue research. In these controversies, Christian leaders mobilized opposition to government funding by framing research as a violation of religious teachings. From a traditional Christian perspective, human life begins at conception and is created in God’s image. Embryos are considered to be divinely created human beings. When scientists destroy or alter human embryos, they take on the role of God, violating divine will. Therefore, traditional Christians believe that embryo research is morally wrong and that if it is funded by the government using tax revenues, such funding makes all Americans complicit in destroying human life. In the Pew survey, for example, among those who said gene editing was morally unacceptable, more than one-third of responses made reference to changing God’s plan or violating his will.
But as various survey findings indicate, it is not just strongly religious Americans who have moral reservations about gene editing. Even among nonreligious Americans, 17 percent say that gene editing to give babies a much reduced risk of disease is morally unacceptable, and 37 percent say they are unsure. In a follow-up question, more than one-quarter of nonreligious respondents say they oppose gene editing to improve the health of a baby because it would be meddling with nature and cross a line that should not be crossed. When asked more specifically if saving a baby’s life required testing on human embryos or altering the genetic makeup of the whole population, about half of all Americans say that such scenarios would make the application less acceptable to them (see figure above). A 2016 survey conducted by Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health finds even stronger levels of reservations. In this case, when asked about changing the genes of unborn babies to reduce their risk of developing certain serious diseases, 65 percent of Americans said that such an application should be illegal. More than 80 percent said the same when asked about gene editing to improve intelligence or physical traits.
What explains the reservations voiced by both religious and nonreligious Americans? Bioethicists have used the term Yuck Factor to describe a “visceral repugnance” and “emotional opposition” felt by the public when they first hear about human genetic engineering. This repugnance, wrote University of Chicago ethicist Leon Kass in an oft-cited 1997 article in the New Republic, is an “emotional feeling of deep wisdom,” that leads an individual to “intuit and feel, immediately without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.” The Yuck Factor likely has its origins in Kantian and Christian philosophies of human dignity that permeate Western culture. These traditions, as political theorist Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University described in his 2002 book Our Post Human Future, emphasize that human life has a higher moral place than the rest of the natural world. Therefore, according to these philosophies, even at its earliest stages of development, human life should always be treated with a sacred respect.
Such teachings have shaped Western culture to the extent that their principles are passed on even to those who have never set foot in a church. The Yuck Factor is therefore a relatively intuitive response, a reaction formed below the level of conscious deliberation on the part of an individual, often in the absence of substantive information. When asked about emerging gene-editing techniques that would involve altering human embryos or engineering desired traits, most individuals probably have difficulty articulating why they might believe it to be morally questionable; they just know it when they feel it.
Although scientists hold a responsibility to engage the public about the social implications of gene editing, informed public dialogue ultimately depends heavily on journalists and their news organizations. Quality science reporting is essential to understanding how and why gene-editing research is being conducted, including the connections between new advances and ongoing debates over funding, governance, regulation, ethics, accessibility, uncertainty, and patent rights. Even in today’s dramatically altered media landscape, coverage in print and online, at both traditional and new media outlets, still drives discussion of complex issues such as gene editing. These news organizations provide the information, frames of reference, and narratives that scientists, journalists, funders, policy makers, and societal leaders frequently draw upon to set policy, make decisions, or communicate with various segments of the public who trust their advice.
Yet for the past two decades, the news media have faced crippling economic and technological disruptions that have forced cutbacks in the amount of reporting on complex science topics such as gene editing. As University of Wisconsin-Madison communication scholar Dietram Scheufele has documented, due to layoffs there are also far fewer veteran journalists on staff who can draw on decades of experience to provide their readers critical context. Industry practices within journalism have also changed. In a business model dependent on Facebook and Google to generate traffic and advertising revenue, former New Republic editor Franklin Foer warns that journalists are being told by their editors to actively seek out trending topics that are likely to catch on or go viral, rather than to rely on their news judgment to decide what are the most important stories to tell readers. As a consequence, coverage of gene editing loses out to the latest sensational cultural event or breaking political scandal. When gene editing is covered, headlines and story angles may exaggerate the technology’s promise and peril in an effort to win scarce reader attention.
Now is the time, therefore, for scientists and philanthropists to help journalists and news organizations to correct for these pressures and biases. They can do so by sponsoring workshops where a diversity of experts and stakeholders gather to discuss with journalists and editors the scientific, ethical, and legal implications of gene editing, making it easier for journalists to cover gene editing accurately and on a regular basis. Philanthropists, universities, and research institutions can also provide fellowships and other sources of financial support that enable journalists to spend the weeks and months required to substantively report on the subject.
But journalists are not the only professionals who are needed to write compellingly about the scientific and social implications of gene editing. Scientists, ethicists, and social scientists can also contribute commentaries and articles to the popular press, offering independent insights and context. In one initiative to help facilitate such articles, the Kavli Foundation is partnering with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and a number of science magazines and online publications (including American Scientist) to train scientists to apply the techniques and standards of journalism in writing about complex topics such as gene editing.
Investing in dialogue
Yet even as quality journalism provides the main architecture around which informed debate about gene editing will take place, the scientific community, along with universities, philanthropies, and research institutions, must also help create opportunities for direct public participation in dialogue and deliberation. Such an effort starts with the sponsorship of carefully conducted social-science research that assesses public discourse about gene editing, the sources of information and arguments that are shaping debate, and the factors that are influencing public attitudes. In turn, this research should inform the design and evaluation of a variety of dialogue-based communication initiatives organized by scientific organizations, government agencies, and universities.
Over the past decades, across Europe and North America, efforts to promote dialogue-based science communication have taken various forms, but as the University of Calgary’s Edna Einsiedel notes, each format shares a few common principles. First, in these initiatives, communication is defined as an iterative back-and-forth process between various segments of the public, experts, and decision-makers. Such approaches assume that there is no single “correct” way to talk about and understand the social implications of a complex subject such as gene editing. Second, rather than being top-down and controlled by scientists and their partners, societal leaders and the public are invited to be active participants in defining what is discussed, sharing their own knowledge and perspectives. Third, there is no single “public” with which to communicate or engage, but rather multiple “publics” exist. These include but are not limited to church leaders and congregations, racial or ethnic groups, parents and patient advocates, and political identity groups such as liberals or conservatives.
Among the most important types of organized dialogue initiatives are smaller, more intimate events that bring together scientists with other societal leaders to facilitate the sharing of perspectives, and the forging of relationships. In one leading example, the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science has organized workshops that convene scientists and clergy to discuss topics of mutual concern and possible disagreement such as embryonic stem cell research. To inform the discussion, focus groups were conducted in advance of the events, and the meetings were professionally facilitated. Scientists and clergy participating in the meetings indicated that the sessions helped break down stereotypes about each other, facilitating learning and mutual respect. In a related initiative, DoSER has worked with seminary schools and synagogues to develop curricula and resources that aid clergy in leading more constructive conversations about complex scientific topics with their congregations.
As these examples suggest, it is important to remember that religion is more than just a belief system that shapes how people understand gene editing. Churches are communication contexts where discussions can at times be framed in strongly moral terms by congregational leaders, reinforced by conversations that churchgoers have with others, and shaped by information provided directly when at church. For these reasons, on a topic such as gene editing, churches often serve as powerful networks of civic recruitment where congregants receive requests to voice their opinion to elected officials. During the debate over embryonic stem cell research, for example, among the strongest predictors of whether individuals had become involved politically on the issue was whether they had discussed or received information about the topic at church. In sum, when it comes to public dialogue about gene editing, scientists can either cede communication at churches to religious leaders or become active partners in facilitating and enriching church-based discussions.
Yet to promote broader public engagement across both religious and nonreligious segments of the public, the scientific community can also benefit by partnering with experts specializing in the humanities, philosophy, and the creative arts. Scholars in the humanities and philosophy draw on literature, religious traditions, and ethical frameworks to help the public consider what is good, what is right, and what is of value about a complex topic such as gene editing. Writers, artists, filmmakers, and other creative professionals are among society’s most inspiring storytellers about complex issues, and they are able to communicate about gene editing in imaginative, compelling, and novel ways. Integrated into public dialogue initiatives, their work can motivate different forms of learning, sponsor critical reflection and deliberation, and produce thought-provoking visions of the future.
In a past example that serves as a prototype for such initiatives, faculty at the University of Alberta in Canada hosted workshops in 2008 that facilitated discussions about the social implications of human genetic engineering among visual artists, scientists, bioethicists, and social scientists. Informed by their conversations together, the artists were commissioned to produce visual works reflecting on the themes discussed, while the other participants were asked to write short essays. The project culminated in the exhibit “Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society, and Art,” which toured North America. As part of the exhibit tour, forums were held at museum venues, generating local news coverage of the themes expressed. The essays along with the artistic works were published as part of a book and catalog sold at art museums, bookstores, and online.
Apart from artistic exhibits, classic works of literature and films can also serve a similar function in stimulating public dialogue. For example, the 1997 film Gattaca is often used in college classrooms to stimulate student discussion of the social implications of human engineering. Research suggests that rather than alarming audiences, science fiction TV and film portrayals may help familiarize viewers with the moral dimensions of human genetic engineering, thereby helping them overcome their intuitive Yuck Factor reservations. This year, in recognition of the 200-year anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, faculty at Arizona State University have published an annotated version of the novel that also features essays from scientists and scholars in the humanities and social sciences. With support from the National Science Foundation, the university is also coordinating nationwide events and activities at science museums and centers, which include exhibits, an online multimedia game, and at-home activities for use by parents. Each is carefully designed to foster discussion about the social and ethical dimensions of gene editing and other technological innovations.
For many, such broad-based initiatives may be beyond their ability to organize or to fund. Major investments in public dialogue and in supporting high-quality journalism about gene editing will take coordinated action from leaders of the scientific community and their peers across fields including the news media and philanthropy. But scientists and others should not overlook the contributions to public dialogue they can make starting right now. University scientists, by way of their classrooms and new degree programs, can partner with their peers in the social sciences and humanities to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to think critically about the future of gene editing and similar advances. At Cornell University, for example, one model to emulate is the undergraduate major in Biology and Society. Among the most popular on campus, the major enables students to group foundational training in the biological sciences with coursework in science communication, the social sciences, and the humanities.
Within their local communities, individual scientists can also actively encourage discussions about gene editing by way of informal conversations and by volunteering to give presentations to community groups, connecting with others by way of shared interests, values, and identities. Ultimately, for Jennifer Doudna, her goal is to motivate the next generation of scientists to engage much more actively and directly with the public, applying the principle of “discussion without dictation” on how gene editing should be used. All scientists, regardless of discipline, she argues in her recent book, must be prepared to participate in conversations with the public about the far-reaching consequences of gene editing and similarly powerful technologies.
Caulfield, S., C. Gillespie, and T. Caulfield (eds.). 2011. Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society and Art. Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta Press.
Doudna, J., and S. H. Sternberg. 2017. A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.
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Foer, F. 2017. World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. New York, NY: Penguin.
Fukuyama, F. 2003. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Funk, C., B. Kennedy, and E. P. Sciupac. 2016. U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to “Enhance” Human Abilities. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Published online June 26, updated November 2.
Kass, L. 1997. The wisdom of repugnance. The New Republic, June 2, pp. 17-26.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Nisbet, M. C. 2005. The competition for worldviews: Values, information, and public support for stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 17:90-112.
Nisbet, M., and E. M. Markowitz. 2014. Understanding public opinion in debates over biomedical research: Looking beyond political partisanship to focus on beliefs about science and society. PloS One 9(2):e88473.
Scheufele, D.A. 2013. Communicating science in social settings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(Supplement 3):14040-14047.
Scheufele, D. A., et al. 2017. U.S. attitudes on human genome editing. Science 357:553-554.
Shapshay, S. (ed.). 2009. Bioethics at the Movies. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
If you are reading this column, you have likely benefited from the scientific and technological advances that have transformed the world’s economy. For well-educated professionals who form the core audience for popular science magazines, these innovations have created new wealth and career opportunities. Yet paradoxically, the very success of the science and engineering sector has also created the conditions that have led so many others to distrust experts and the professional class. The same advances that have enriched those at the top of the global knowledge economy have also eliminated millions of jobs among those at the bottom, transforming entire industries and geographic regions, generating public resentment, and seeding political polarization.
When we think about the roots of antagonism toward scientific expertise in the United States, we too often focus on either partisan or religious differences. Yet analyses I have conducted with several colleagues of large-scale national public opinion surveys show that disparities related to income, education, and race play an even more important role in how Americans view the relationship between science and society, with these reservations transcending traditional left-right ideological differences.
When asked generally about the societal impact of scientific advances and technological innovations, those members of the U.S. public who express the strongest optimism tend to be white, hold a college degree or higher, and rank among the top quartile in terms of income. These individuals can justifiably expect that their careers will benefit from scientific innovations and that they will be able to afford new technologies and medical treatments. In contrast, individuals who express the strongest reservations about science and technology tend to hold a high school degree or less, earn less than $50,000 annually, and are more likely to be non-white. These individuals may be justifiably concerned about how they will compete in an innovation-based economy, afford access to new technologies or medical advances, and how such advances may reinforce patterns of discrimination and other social disparities (Nisbet and Markowitz 2014).
Perhaps in no area is the potential for public anxiety based on socio-
economic disparities clearer than in relation to driverless cars, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI). These innovations are promoted as boosting the economy, contributing to public safety and environmental protection, and enhancing consumer convenience. They are also likely to eliminate the jobs of millions of truck drivers, taxi operators, retail workers, and professionals. Tech companies risk further public backlash as they seek to fast track the adoption of driverless cars and AI applications, spending millions to avoid regulation (Lloyd 2017).
In a recent Pew survey, when asked to consider a future in which robots and computers can do many human jobs, more than twice as many Americans (72 percent) expressed worry than enthusiasm (33 percent) and a similar proportion expected that economic inequality would become much worse as a result of such advances. Concerns about the negative impact of workplace innovations were strongest among those lacking a four-year college degree (Pew Research Center 2017a).
Americans also express strong reservations about the impact on social inequality of biomedical innovations related to human enhancement. Strong majorities say they are “very” or “somewhat” worried about gene editing, brain chips, and synthetic blood and that these technologies would become available before they were fully understood. Much of their anxiety relates to anticipated disparities: more than 70 percent fear these innovations would exacerbate the divide between “haves” and “have-nots,” because they would only be available to the wealthy (Pew Research Center 2017b).
A Different Conversation
Noting broad-based public concern about the use of gene editing for human enhancement, a 2017 report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences recommended that scientists and policymakers should facilitate ongoing input from the public regarding the benefits and risks of human genome editing and that more research was needed on how to effectively facilitate such a process (National Academies 2017). Studies also show broad-based belief among Americans that scientists should consult the public before pursuing gene editing applications (Scheufele et al. 2017).
Yet if scientists, engineers, university leaders, and CEOs are to address growing concerns about gene editing and other technological innovations, they will need to turn to novel approaches for engaging segments of the public from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Traditional science communication efforts that focus on informally educating the public by way of TV documentaries, popular science books and magazines, and science museums tend to engage the best-educated and highest-earning Americans who on average are the heaviest consumers of these resources, a group that tends to be already enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and optimistic about technological innovations.
A recent Pew survey (2017c), for example, finds that only about 17 percent of Americans are active news consumers, defined as those who seek out and consume science news at least a few times a week. This group tends to be on average better educated, higher wage earners, and predominantly white. In turn, attention to science news along with socio-economic status are the strongest predictors of whether an individual engages in other informal science education activities, such as attending a museum, taking up a science-related hobby, or participating in a citizen science project.
Such disparities in attention present major barriers to addressing public reservations and misconceptions. Consider past communication and outreach efforts related to nanotechnology. Between 2004 and 2007, as hundreds of nanotechnology-related products and applications were introduced into the U.S. marketplace, knowledge of nanotechnology increased substantially among the best educated but declined among the least educated. These disparities in knowledge occurred even as news coverage of nanotech increased and government agencies, science museums, and universities invested considerable resources in informal education and outreach activities.
This “knowledge gap” effect has been tracked by researchers across issues for several decades. As an emerging scientific issue such as nanotech, gene editing, or artificial intelligence gains news attention and is the subject of outreach at museums and other venues, those individuals who hold higher socio-economic status are likely to acquire knowledge at a faster rate than their lower status counterparts, so that the difference in knowledge between these segments will tend to increase rather than decrease.
The reason for these disparities is that better educated individuals tend to absorb new information more efficiently and can rely on their equally well-educated friends and family members to discuss and follow up on concepts they do not understand. As higher wage earners, they also possess the financial means and time to take advantage of high quality sources of news coverage and to attend science museums and similar cultural institutions. In 2012, 40 percent of Americans in the top quartile of wage earners said they had visited a natural history museum or a science center during the past year compared to less than 20 percent among those in the bottom quartile. The knowledge gap effect has even been observed relative to media outreach strategies such as Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel programs that are intended to engage broader audiences who otherwise may never consume science-related information (Corley and Scheufele 2010; Nisbet et al. 2015).
Despite its popularity as a tool among scientists and their allies, social media are no panacea, and initiatives that invest heavily in social media outreach at the expense of other strategies may only reinforce disparities and divisions. According to Pew (2017c), a substantial proportion of social media users say that they incidentally bump into science news stories that they otherwise would not have sought out. But about twice as many social media users also say they mostly distrust rather than trust the science posts they encounter. This sentiment is in line with a growing skepticism of social media generally, and is confounded by the tendency for social media to facilitate the spread of misinformation, to foster incivility, and to inflame group based differences rather than transcend them.
Given public concerns about the role that scientific innovations will play in contributing to rising inequality, scientists and their partners must start to directly address these reservations. Traditional approaches to science communication will not be enough—nor will social media efforts—no matter how clever or well resourced. It is time to focus on novel methods for promoting a more fruitful dialogue about science and society, bringing scientists and people of diverse backgrounds together to spend time talking to each other, contributing to mutual appreciation and understanding, and forging new relationships and insights.
Corley, E.A. and D.A. Scheufele. 2010. Outreach gone wrong? When we talk nano to the public, we are leaving behind key audiences. The Scientist 24(1): 22.
Lloyd, L. 2017. A march won’t make the public respect science. Slate.com (April 14).
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Nisbet, E.C., K.E. Cooper, and M. Ellithorpe. 2015. Ignorance or bias? Evaluating the ideological and informational drivers of communication gaps about climate change. Public Understanding of Science 24(3): 285–301.
Nisbet, M., and E.M. Markowitz. 2014. Understanding public opinion in debates over biomedical research: Looking beyond political partisanship to focus on beliefs about science and society. PloS One 9(2): e88473.
Pew Research Center. 2017a. Automation in Everyday Life. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
———. 2017b. U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to ‘Enhance’ Human Abilities. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
———. 2017c. Science News and Information Today. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
Scheufele, D.A., M.A, Xenos, E.L. Howell, et al. 2017. US attitudes on human genome editing. Science 357(6351): 553–554.
Sept. 3, 2017 — In The Planet Remade (2015), journalist Oliver Morton imagined a future scenario where the Earth’s climate has been changed by geoengineering. A collective of countries with little power in world affairs secretly agrees to a low-cost plan to cool the planet. With funding from a billionaire, the collective flies several planes a day to spray tonnes of aerosol into the stratosphere, creating a veil that reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth, thereby dramatically slowing global warming. After eighteen months, the collective of countries discloses its activities – to massive uproar – at a United Nations (U.N.) climate summit, framing the veilmaking as an act of international civil disobedience. A U.N. resolution calls for a Convention on Climate Engineering and Protection. “Down on the ground,” wrote Morton (2015: 352), “people scrutinize sunsets with a new attention, comparing them in their imaginations with those they remember from their youth, or from just a few years ago.”
Morton, a veteran journalist who is currently editor of The Economist’s Briefings articles, said he wanted to craft a utopian vision of a climate future. It has been easier and more common, he wrote, to imagine catastrophic visions. His scenario allowed him to explore what he called “useful truths” about geoengineering, especially the belief that the application of a new technology should develop hand-in-hand with the governance of that technology (2015: 359). Morton discussed the potential negative consequences of the veilmaking scenario he outlined, such as the potential decision by some countries to see this climate cooling as a license to burn more fossil fuels. But, Morton concludes, there is a radical end to the scenario: “It works” (2015: 369).
The Planet Remade reflects a new direction in environmental journalism. This way of reporting on the environment is underpinned by the philosophy of ecomodernism, which argues that government-driven technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and ingenuity are the principle means by which societies can hope to achieve sustainable development. The distinguished environmental journalist Fred Pearce identified several of the ecomodernists’ core beliefs. “The modernists,” he wrote (2013), “wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanization and pro-geoengineering of the planet to stave off climate change.”
The application of these ideas, ecomodernists argue, would set societies on the path of sustainable development. Ecomodernism, in a vital first step, offers a foundational set of ideas and practices that define the broad concept of sustainable development itself. As Nature (2015: 407) has editorialized, sustainable development is a “catchphrase that neatly defines what the world must ultimately achieve, but nobody knows precisely what it looks like at full scale.” Such ambiguity presents a major barrier to collective action in support of specific policy actions or goals, since under such conditions, decision-makers and the public lack clear organizing principles or a paradigm by which to define and coordinate actions or solutions. Ecomodernism, more broadly, aims to reshape how citizens think about the relationship between society and the environment. As environmental journalist Keith Kloor (2012) wrote in Discover, the philosophy aims to “remake environmentalism: Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency.”
Journalism informed by ecomodernist ideas, we argue in this essay, fulfills a vital need in public and political debates over sustainable development. Ecomodernist journalism offers a particular vision of what sustainable development looks like and how it can be achieved. Ecomodernist journalism also critiques what its advocates view as faulty assumptions that underpin competing policy proposals for a sustainable future. And ecomodernist journalism brokers dialogue among different parts of society about realistic paths forward.
In this essay, we analyze the work of Oliver Morton and several other high-profile journalists writing on the environment and climate change who draw on and apply principles of ecomodernism to offer a distinct framing of sustainable development. We demonstrate how the philosophy informs the work of these writers and thinkers, and the particular approaches they take in assessing expert knowledge, evaluating policy proposals and technological options, and in brokering cross-cutting dialogue. Our analysis of these prominent writers and thinkers demonstrates that ecomodernist journalism has successfully gained global audiences, been assimilated into mainstream reporting, and has the potential to be the animating worldview that distinguishes the coverage of individual journalists and news organizations as they report on sustainability.
Ecomodernism and Environmental Journalism
Ecomodernism shares fundamental characteristics with ecological modernization, a distinct view of sustainable development described by European sociologists in the early 1980s. This perspective argues that economic growth can proceed in tandem with environmental protection. But in order for this to happen, modern economic and political systems, including market economies, industrial production, centralized welfare states, agricultural production, and scientific and technological institutions, must be restructured to achieve ecological reforms. As environmental policy scholar John Dryzek (2013) argues, the perspective is distinct from sustainable development more generally because it has specific ideas about how the state and government should be restructured. A central part of that social vision is the ability of governments to catalyze technologies that, by reducing resource consumption, stretch environmental limits, enabling economic growth to continue indefinitely. The key agents in ecomodernism are governments, companies, scientists, and moderate environmentalists, all motivated by “the common good or the public interest, defined in broad terms to encompass economic efficiency and environmental conservation” (Dryzek 2013: 174).
Ecological modernization also puts forward specific ideas about policy and governance. Governments, from this perspective, integrate environmental considerations into all public policies, set strong industrial regulations, and provide companies with incentives to innovate. Policies are forged in a consensus-based decision-making process, with governments, businesses, scientists, and environmentalists involved in planned policy interventions. While ecological modernization does not advocate for a system-wide overhaul, it does note that investment patterns, planning decisions, research funding, and policy decision-making will change significantly because of ecological reforms (Mol and Spaargaren 2000). Ecological modernization presents a third way between command-and-control environmental regulation and free market fundamentalism, offering “realistic utopian models for the future,” argues the sociologist Anthony Giddens (1990 cited in Mol and Spaargaren 2000: 38).
Following the failure of the 2010 U.N. climate change negotiations and emissions trading legislation in the U.S., there emerged a space in public life for new ways of thinking about environmental problems. A group of U.S. and U.K.-based scholars, writers, and advocates put forward ideas that broadly conformed to, but expanded on, ecological modernization. In Whole Earth Discipline, ecologist and futurist Stuart Brand (2009) laid out a range of innovation-driven strategies for achieving a sustainable society, his ideas captured effectively by the subtitle: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, And Geoengineering Are Necessary. Other prominent ecomodernist thinkers include green campaigner Mark Lynas who in The God Species (2011) similarly argued in favor of nuclear power and genetically modified crops as solutions to climate change and other problems. Science writer Emma Marris in Rambunctious Garden (2011) advocated for embracing the human-altered landscapes of cities, farms, and parks, challenging traditional conservation ideals of a pristine wilderness walled off from human interference. In Why We Disagree about Climate Change (2009), geographer Mike Hulme argued that climate change had been misdiagnosed as a conventional environmental problem. Instead it was a uniquely “super-wicked” problem, not something societies were going to end or solve, but a problem societies were going to do better or worse at managing over time.
These ideas and others have been researched, expanded on, and promoted by The Breakthrough Institute, a U.S.-based think tank founded by the environmental activists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. In 2015, the two brought together 16 other similarly-minded thinkers including Lynas and Brand to author An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Calling themselves “ecopragmatists and ecomodernists,” they argue that current environmental problems are not reason to call into question the economic policies and technological advances that have enabled human society to flourish over the past century. Indeed, halting the many societal gains we have achieved through technological innovation, they argue, rules out the best tools we have for combating climate change, protecting nature, and helping people. For ecomodernists, the urgent environmental problems we face are evidence in favor of more modernization, not less (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015: 7; Nordhaus et al. 2011).
Hope for a better future, they contend, starts with advanced technologies that intensify rather than weaken our mastery of nature. High-tech crops, advanced nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, aquaculture, desalination, and high-efficiency solar panels all have the potential to not only reduce human demands on the environment, but also spark the economic growth needed to lift people out of extreme poverty. These advances will enable more people to live in bigger cities that are powered and fed more efficiently. People in cities also tend to have fewer children, slowing population growth. From this perspective, technological advances and urbanization will free up more space on the planet for nature, “decoupling” human development from resource consumption. For ecomodernists, progress also requires respectful engagement with a diversity of voices and ideas. “Too often discussions about the environment have been dominated by the extremes, and plagued by dogmatism, which in turn fuels intolerance,” they wrote (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015: 31).
Not surprisingly, ecomodernist ideas are difficult for many journalists to accept or to apply to their coverage, since the philosophy is at odds with core tenets of the environmental movement, a tradition that has shaped the thinking of generations of writers, documentary filmmakers, and other media professionals. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), environmental journalism developed in the U.S. in the late 1960s, coinciding with the birth of the environmental movement (Fahy 2017). Carson’s seminal work created an entire genre of books, articles, news reports, and films that warned of the negative environmental and health impacts of industrialization, consumption, and technological advances, casting into doubt the claims of their promoters and defenders.
From this origin, two dominant discourses in journalistic coverage of environmental issues emerged. The first, as embodied by writers like Bill McKibben and many journalists writing for left-wing publications, framed problems like climate change as looming catastrophes, symptomatic of a capitalist society that in prioritizing economic growth and consumerism had dangerously exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet. This framing emphasizes the need for a new consciousness spread through grassroots organizing and social protest that would dramatically transform society, ending our over-consumption and material greed, replacing global capitalism with small-scale economies reliant on locally-owned farms and renewable energy sources. The second discourse, as embodied by writers like The New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman and most mainstream journalists, also emphasizes that limits to growth must be respected, but assumes that environmental limits can be stretched if the right market-based mechanisms such as carbon taxes are implemented. These market mechanisms would catalyze the transition to renewable technologies, conservation policies, and energy efficiency practices, enabling global economic growth to continue indefinitely (Nisbet 2014).
These two discourses are strongly reflected in U.S. and U.K. news coverage of the 2015 Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). There is near universal agreement among scientists that human-driven climate change is happening and that it is an urgent problem, but there are considerable uncertainties about the severity, timing, and location of climate change impacts (Painter 2013). Yet journalists around the world usually present future climate scenarios in the darkest of terms, warning of devastating disasters and catastrophes (Weingart et al. 2000; Painter 2013). Indeed, in coverage of the 2015 IPCC report, the dominant framing was that climate impacts would be disastrous, with journalists neglecting alternative possible climate futures. In comparison to the risks posed by climate change, the section of the report that dealt with actions to reduce emissions generated far less news coverage, even though it concerned apparently newsworthy topics such as the future of energy or whether energy should be produced or consumed in a more equitable and just way (O’Neill et al. 2015).
When journalists have covered potential solutions to climate change, they have tended to favor solutions consistent with the two dominant discourses. For example, when sixty-four journalists from Germany, India, Switzerland, U.S., and the U.K. were asked to rate various solutions to climate change, the reporters ranked highest energy policies that stressed renewable energy sources. They ranked lowest policies that advocated the expansion of nuclear power and carbon capture and storage technologies (Engesser and Brüggemann 2015). These findings suggest that many journalists embrace the idea that addressing climate change requires rapid technological innovations, as ecomodernists argue. But at the same time, they have a bias in favor of so-called “soft path energy” technologies, such as solar, wind, and geothermal energy, and a bias against “hard path technologies” like nuclear power or geoengineering, which are considered controversial, even though the IPCC report and many experts conclude that such hard path technologies are needed to meet global emission reduction goals.
Yet there are several journalists whose reporting is driven by ecomodernist principles. They are exemplars of ecomodernist journalism, showing what this type of reporting looks like in practice. Their journalism is distinguished not only by its perspective on sustainable development, but also by the particular roles that these journalists undertake in their work. Elsewhere we argued that these roles are useful ones for journalists to adopt in science policy debates more generally (Nisbet and Fahy 2015). As our analysis will show, with reference to the prominent work of several reporters, these roles can be applied to the reporting of sustainable development, an issue that draws on knowledge from various scholarly disciplines and which merges perspectives from politics, economics, sociology, and science.
Ecomodernists as Knowledge Brokers
In the first role, journalists reporting on sustainable development often serve as “knowledge brokers,” critically assessing the process of expert knowledge production, evaluating how and why scientific, economic, and policy analysis of environmental problems was undertaken, and how the findings were interpreted (Nisbet and Fahy 2015).
Andrew Revkin, who joined in 2016 the non-profit media organization ProPublica after more than two decades as a reporter and opinion writer at TheNew York Times, is a leading example of an ecomodernist journalist serving in the role of knowledge broker. He earned an undergraduate degree in biology and a postgraduate degree in journalism, before becoming a science writer with Science Digest in 1983, followed by stints at Los Angeles Times and Discover, where in 1988 he wrote one of the first national magazine cover stories on global warming. After joining The New York Times in 1995, he worked for almost five years on the Metro section before becoming national environment correspondent in 2000, reporting in the role for a decade before accepting a buyout from the paper, but staying on to write the Times’ “Dot Earth” blog (Nisbet 2013). With world population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050, Revkin’s focused on how to “balance human affairs with the planet’s limits.” Combined with elements of ecomodernist philosophy, Revkin’s experience enables him to critically evaluate the multiple perspectives and frameworks that are brought to bear on debates over sustainable development and climate change.
At “Dot Earth,” Revkin frequently warned about the tendency to hype scientific findings about environmental problems and to overlook the inherent uncertainty in research. He has been openly critical of the process by which institutions and journals “pump up the volume” on a specific research finding. This hyping, explains Revkin, becomes amplified by advocates, journalists, and bloggers on either side of an environmental debate and by news organizations and reporters “at the end of the chain” who have the incentive to search for “the front page thought” – the particular interpretation that will give their story the most prominence and attention. Revkin is also able to distinguish the various forms of knowledge that contribute to our understanding of climate change. In his writing and talks, he often refers to a figure that displays different distributions or “curves” of scientific knowledge about climate change. He explains that there is a “clear cut” convergence among experts that more carbon dioxide equals a warming world, but on specific impacts, such as increasing the intensity of hurricanes or the efficacy of alternative energy strategies, there is a much broader distribution of scientific opinion. That range of opinion, he argues, should be reflected in news reporting” (Wihbey 2011).
In 2012, Revkin served in a knowledge broker role during his extensive journalism about Hurricane Sandy, which flooded parts of the New York City/New Jersey region, causing dozens of deaths and billions in damages to property and coastal infrastructure. As the hurricane neared landfall on the U.S. East Coast, Revkin examined the connections between climate change and extreme weather. He acknowledged that #Frankenstorm was the Twitter handle for the hurricane. “While the echo of Frankenstein in that Twitter moniker can imply this is a human-created meteorological monster,” he wrote, “it’s just not that simple.” A huge number of factors shape how tropical cyclones form and grow. “There remains far too much natural variability in the frequency and potency of rare and powerful storms – on time scales from decades to centuries – to go beyond pointing to this event being consistent with what’s projected on a human-heated planet” (Revkin, Oct 28, 2012).
Amid storm-caused blackouts near his home in the Hudson Valley area of New York, Revkin sought to shift discussion away from what he believed was the polarizing and misguided discussion about whether or not climate change caused the storm. Instead, he framed the significance of the storm in terms of urban planning and resilience-focused construction. “While scientists and campaigners debate what mix of factors shaped this epic storm,” he wrote, “what’s indisputable is that much of the disaster that unfolded as it came ashore was the result of human actions and decisions – ranging from where we’ve chosen to build or subsidize development to how seriously our governments take the need to build with the worst in mind” (Revkin, Oct 31, 2012).
Ecomodernists as Policy Brokers
In a second complementary role as “policy brokers,” ecomodernist journalists distinguish themselves in their coverage by expanding the range of policy options and technologies under consideration by the public and political community (Nisbet and Fahy 2015). Because climate is so complex and the future cannot be predicted exactly, it is possible for different, but similarly plausible narratives to exist about policy options and technological fixes. In the face of such ambiguity, journalists can play a key role via their coverage by helping to construct a common outlook and language among networks of experts, advocates, and political leaders that aids in the coordination of decisions and actions. Yet if one problem definition and set of solutions, such as an emphasis on “soft path” energy technologies like renewables over “hard path” technologies like nuclear energy, are prioritized in news coverage to the exclusion of others, such influence can lock in powerful forms of groupthink that dismiss valuable alternative interpretations and courses of action, contributing to policy gridlock rather than progress (Nisbet 2014).
In working against such groupthink, the impact of ecomodernist journalists as policy brokers can be understood by way of several relevant areas of research. First, political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. (2007), drawing on a series of case studies, concludes that the broader the menu of policies and technologies available to decision-makers in science-related debates, the greater the opportunity for decision-makers to reach agreement on paths forward. Applying these principles to climate change, Pielke Jr. (a co-author of the Ecomodernist Manifesto) argues that once technologies are available which make meaningful action on climate change lower-cost and less threatening to the economic status quo, then much of the political argument over the scientific certainty of climate change causes and impacts will diminish. “The challenge facing climate policy is to design policies that are consonant with public opinion, and are effective, rather than to try to shape public opinion around particular policies,” Pielke Jr. (2010: 43) writes in The Climate Fix.
Carbon capture and storage by limiting emissions from coal and natural gas power plants, for example, could “transform the political debate” as it “does not demand a radical alteration of national economies, global trade, or personal lifestyles” and therefore “enfranchises the very groups that have the most to lose from conventional climate policies – from powerful corporate interests to many of the world’s poorest people,” wrote science policy scholar Daniel Sarewitz and Pielke Jr. in a 2013 article at The Atlantic.
Second, these conclusions are consistent with the social psychological research of Dan Kahan, whose experimental findings suggest that perceptions of culturally contested issues such as climate change are often policy and technology dependent and that polarization is likely to be diffused under conditions where the focus is on a diverse rather than a narrow set of options. “For instance, people with individualistic values resist scientific evidence that climate change is a serious threat because they have come to assume that industry-constraining carbon-emission limits are the main solution,” argues Kahan (2010: 297). “They would probably look at the evidence more favorably, however, if made aware that the possible responses to climate change include nuclear power and geoengineering, enterprises that to them symbolize human resourcefulness.”
Over the past decade, several ecomodernist journalists serving in the role of policy broker have helped to diversify the range of technological options considered to address climate change, calling greater attention to these policy and technology options. These journalists challenged longstanding claims by many environmentalists and activists that solar, wind, and other renewables are the only energy technologies needed to combat climate change; that genetic engineering was too risky; and that geoengineering should be off the table for consideration. In doing so, they shifted policy debate away from the narrow goal of making fossil fuels more costly to a broader focus on making a diverse portfolio of low carbon technologies less expensive; and to making society more resilient to inevitable climate change shocks.
Oliver Morton, for example, has long emphasized that a range of policy and technological options are needed to address climate change. In 2009, he argued in The Economist that a reduction in global emissions requires that governments help catalyze a massive new infrastructure to support carbon capture and storage, and subsidize the development of advanced nuclear energy technologies. In 2010, he wrote that it was clear after the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks that “the nations of the world will not commit themselves to controls on carbon emissions anything like as strict as enthusiasts imagined.” He proposed a broader approach to climate change that stressed the link between climate action and development, a focus on achievable goals like reduced deforestation, and a change in the mix of energy used in the world, a mix that should include geoengineering (2010, Nov. 22). Morton’s reporting is informed by his previous journalistic experience: He was energy and environment editor at The Economist, chief news and features editor at the scientific journal Nature, and editor of Wired UK.
Morton’s reporting of geoengineering culminated in 2015’s The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. He argued that the risks of climate change merit serious action, but bringing an industrial economy’s carbon dioxide emissions to zero is incredibly difficult because the world’s energy system is built on fossil fuels and maintained by a vast global infrastructure, such as mines and power stations, that will have to be replaced in order to rapidly reduce emissions and stabilize the climate. Geoengineering is therefore a useful response, he wrote, because it reduces climate risks “without impractically rapid cuts in fossil-fuel use” (2015: 4).
Morton also offered an explanation, grounded in the sociology of science, as to why politicians did not see geoengineering as a serious policy option. The political focus in the 1990s quickly narrowed to one issue: carbon dioxide. Amid the complexity of climate change, it was practical to focus on an agreed-on scientific problem that could be measured. “Carbon dioxide is a technical matter,” Morton wrote (2015: 142), “the sort of thing that fits well inside the realm of science, the sort of thing that scientists have authority to talk about.” Diplomats like it, too, as it made “climate change a thing-there-ought-to-be-less-of problem” with cuts that could be agreed-on, monitored, and verified (Morton 2015: 143). The focus on carbon dioxide reduction, he argued, neglected adaptation, which came to be seen not as a crucial counterpart of mitigation strategies, but as a second-choice strategy that left the world’s response to climate change badly served.
The Planet Remade argued for a wider discussion of geoengineering as part of a broadened set of policy response to climate change. There should be new settings for debate and new evidence to discuss in these settings. Such a debate would avoid a mistake that Morton (2015: 168) argues is often made by natural and social scientists: “to talk as though what geoengineering is has already been decided, rather than treating it as something still up for grabs.” He argued that the meaning of geoengineering was not fixed – it was still open to discussion and constructive debate, one that brought in issues such as the governance of new technology. A broader reflection on geoengineering, for Morton, is more than an exercise in evaluating policy and technology. It is also a way to imaginatively think about the impacts of climate change on the world and how humanity might react to those impacts, with or without geoengineering.
Another journalist who has undertaken the policy broker role is Eduardo Porter, who writes the “Economic Scene” columns at The New York Times. Like Morton and Revkin, he draws on highly specialized education and experience to inform his journalism, including two degrees in physics. He joined TheNew York Times in 2004 as a specialist in economics after a twenty-year career covering politics, finance, and business from Brazil, Tokyo, London, Mexico, and Los Angeles. Writing from an economics perspective, his point-of-view could be seen in his critical reporting leading up to and during the 2015 U.N. climate change summit, challenging arguments that solving climate change required a shift away from a global capitalist system towards small scale local economies powered by locally-renewable energy sources.
At the time, these decades-old arguments had gained historic prominence by way of Naomi Klein’s international best-seller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014). Reviewing a number of studies, Porter wrote that strategies focused entirely on local economies and renewable energy – strategies that featured in Klein’s book – were driven “more by hope than science.” In this case, “the goal of bringing the world’s carbon emissions under control is put at the service of other agendas, ideological or economic, limiting the world’s options,” he concluded. Instead, Porter (2015a) argued that dealing with climate change “requires experimenting intensely along many technological avenues, learning quickly from failures and moving on.” He argued, based on research he cited from various fields, that carbon capture and storage, and an expansion of nuclear power, are needed to address climate change. These technologies would not only be needed to serve as backups to the intermittent energy produced from solar and wind power, but also to meet the rapidly growing energy needs of India, China, and African countries.
Porter also rejected the strategy promoted by Klein and others of negative economic growth as a path to reduce emissions. “Whatever the ethical merits of the case, the proposition of no growth has absolutely no chance to succeed,” he wrote. He synthesized a range of expert views on this topic, interviewing historians and economists to argue that economic growth over the past century had created dramatic benefits for global societies. Economic growth, he noted, helped reduce war and conflict, enabled democracy and consensus-based politics, and empowered women. Discussing Klein, he wrote that he doubted that an end to capitalism “would bring about the workers’ utopia she appears to yearn for.” Zero economic growth, he warned, would instead provoke intense resource conflicts, endangering the powerless and poorest. A better way to serve the most vulnerable people in the world, argued Porter (2015b), is to shift from fossil fuels to a range of advanced low carbon energy technologies.
Ecomodernists as Dialogue Brokers
A third role that ecomodernist journalists play is that of a dialogue broker. In this approach, a journalist uses blogging, podcasts, video interviews, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tools to convene interconnected, cross-platform discussions among a professionally and politically diverse network of contributors and readers (Nisbet and Fahy 2015). Not only does this networked journalism approach aid efforts to contextualize and critically evaluate environmental debates, but the method is also guided by a philosophy that cross-cutting dialogue can help readers to better understand, and therefore accept, why they may disagree with others (Rosen 2012; Nisbet 2014). Using blog posts and other digital tools, dialogue brokers bring together multiple, contrasting perspectives about sustainability problems, while offering context on the scientific and policy arguments made. A core tenet for dialogue brokers is the need to welcome perspectives that challenge their own and that of their readers. As media scholar Donald Matheson (2004: 458) wrote, this is “a journalism of linking rather than pinning things down, that is situated within a model of knowledge-as-process rather than knowledge-as-product.”
The value of a dialogue-based form of networked journalism is supported by many of the arguments of social theorists studying the politically contested terrain of issues such as climate change. Political theorists have long argued that progress on climate change lies not in staking out a hardline position on a contested terrain and then castigating those that are in disagreement, but in recognizing and understanding multiple positions, and finding ways to negotiate constructively among them (Verweij et al. 2006). Dismissing alternative perspectives not only weakens our ability to understand the complexity of these issues, but also risks the loss of legitimacy and trust among key constituencies (Thompson and Rayner, 1998). In this scenario, what are needed then are journalists who convene discussions that force critical reflection and examination, rather than playing to an ideologically like-minded audience (Nisbet 2014).
In a leading example, at his former “Dot Earth” blog, Andrew Revkin not only functioned as a knowledge broker, but also as a dialogue broker. As a skilled convener, he used his blog and a variety of other digital tools to facilitate discussions among experts, advocates, and readers, all the while contextualising specific claims. As he told us in a previous interview (Fahy and Nisbet 2011: 783): “The blog is very different than most in that most blogs are built to provide a comfort zone for a particular ideological camp. … I’m not here to provide you with a soft couch and free drinks if you’re an enviro or if you are a conservative. It’s a place to challenge yourself.” Revkin’s past work at “Dot Earth” and current reporting for ProPublica is informed by his reading of social science research which led him to question his own journalistic assumptions about the best way to reach readers: “I had long assumed the solution to global warming was, basically, clearer communication,” he wrote (Revkin 2016: 32). “If we could just explain the problem more clearly, people would see it more clearly, and then they would change.”
Frequently at “Dot Earth”, Revkin merged the roles of dialogue broker and knowledge broker. In 2013, for example, he reported on a study in which scientists and energy analysts identified how New York State could run entirely on clean energy by 2050. The study was published in Energy Policy and it laid out a plan for the state to eliminate its use of fossil fuels and nuclear power. As a vision for a sustainable future, Revkin argued that the study worked best as a “thought experiment” that raised, as one of its central questions, the dilemma of whether such a dramatic shift in the state’s energy infrastructure matched the risks posed to the state by climate change. “That’s a question,” he wrote, “that will always – with or without industry lobbying – get varied answers depending on competing priorities and differing perceptions of risk across society” (Revkin, March 12, 2013).
Revkin created cross-cutting dialogue on this issue in several ways. When he reported the study on “Dot Earth”, he posted long excerpts of his questions and answers with the study’s authors, and then curated reactions to the blog post on Twitter from scientists, journalists, and energy policy scholars. Revkin also moderated a subsequent event to discuss the energy transition at Pace University in New York, where he teaches, that brought together the study’s lead author and a sustainable energy expert. He encouraged his readers to come to the event, watch the live video stream, post real-time questions to his blog, or contribute using specific Twitter hashtags. “My hope for our chat,” he wrote, “was that we could dig down a bit into how to move from ideas to action” (Revkin, March 11, 2015).
The dialogue continued months later as other researchers argued in Energy Policy that the original study overlooked technical and policy factors that could hinder the plan’s implementation. Revkin noted how the original authors defended their work in a response published in the journal. These contests over knowledge, and over the realisation of a sustainable future, were not confined to the pages of a specialist journal. Revkin (June 18, 2013) reported the ongoing expert debate, bringing into wider public focus these intense struggles over the production and application of knowledge.
A similar combination of dialogue brokering and knowledge brokering can be seen in the journalist Nathanael Johnson’s year-long series on genetically modified food for the sustainability-focused news and commentary site Grist.org. Although not an advocate of the ecomodernist philosophy, Johnson demonstrated in the “Panic-free GMOs” series how to report a complex issue charged with ideological conflict. As the introduction to the series (Grist 2013) explained, the journalistic exploration sought to see past the polarized thinking on the topic that veered between “dubious anti-GM horror stories” and “the dismissive sighing . . . of pro-GM partisans.” At first Johnson sought clear answers. But the reality he encountered was far more complex.
Johnson, who has written about the environment for several publications and is the food writer at Grist, brought several diverse perspectives on GMOs into dialogue. When he examined regulation, for example, he quickly came to an apparent contradiction. Genetic engineering’s critics say the industry is not required to test the safety of its products, while the industry says it conducts voluminous tests. “Both are correct,” wrote Johnson. “If you try to cross-check the claims of people on either side of the GM debate, you run into problems, because these warring clans speak different dialects. Their foundational assumptions point them in opposite directions, facing different landscapes and talking past each other” (Johnson 2013, July 10).
As he reflected on the challenge of coming to a clear consensus on GMO research, he noted that researchers from different disciplines become, as he put it, “balkanized.” He wrote: “Those familiar with the science basically agree on the evidence, they are just exasperated by one another’s values and customs” (Johnson 2013, Aug. 20). His in-depth reporting constrained him from broad, sweeping conclusions. Because every crop is different, he wrote, it is difficult to make major generalizations. Avoiding such mistakes can also help soften polarization. “If GMOs aren’t a monolithic entity, the stakes in this fight fall even further,” he wrote (2014, Jan 9). “It’s harder to get worked up about an issue when it’s a mixed bag of good and bad.”
A second conclusion grew from the intense debate generated by his work. Readers picked apart every point. Comment threads regularly ran to more than 200 entries. “Nothing else I’ve written, in more than a decade of working as a journalist, has generated this mixture of fascination and hostility,” Johnson concluded in his last piece for the series. After reflecting on what he called his “learn-as-I-go experiment,” he observed that critics and sources who disagreed with what he wrote were usually not disputing facts. “What seemed to bother them was my failure to interpret the evidence in a way that fit into a larger narrative.” These narratives were grounded in different views of nature and technology. For GMO opponents, the issue was a story about “corporate control of the food system, or unsustainable agriculture, or the basic unhealthiness of our modern diet.” For GMO advocates, the issue was a story about “the victory of human ingenuity over hunger and suffering, or the triumph of market forces, or the wonder of science” (Johnson 2014, Jan. 9). The different views were, in effect, narratives about contrasting visions of a sustainable future.
Conclusion: Ideas that Leverage Social Change
As ecomodernist journalists, Oliver Morton, Andrew Revkin, Eduardo Porter, and others have played a vital role in forging new narratives about environmental problems and sustainable development, challenging conventional assumptions, enriching the discussion of policy options and technologies, and encouraging cross-cutting dialogue. In these roles, they express, to varying degrees, ecomodernist ideas in their work: the centrality of technological innovation, the reliance on government investment to catalyze innovation, the necessity of a diverse portfolio of policy options and technologies, and the need for public forums that encourage critical self-reflection and solutions-focused discussion. Even when a journalist does not fully share the ecomodernist philosophy, as the example of Nathanael Johnson shows, their work can demonstrate the benefits of applying ecomodernist principles to encourage critical dialogue.
The ecomodernist journalists analyzed in this essay are successful because they share fundamental characteristics. They combine specialized education, often in different scientific disciplines, with years of experience reporting across different topics for various audiences and a variety of news organizations. This essential diversity of experiences, when combined in their journalism, allows them to evaluate assumptions and arguments about technology, society, politics, and the environment as they relate to the many dimensions of sustainable development. Moreover, these journalists are alert to the historical and sociological underpinnings of contemporary debates, including those influences that shape expert knowledge and conventional explanations about sustainability. The journalists analyzed here, furthermore, are based in the U.S. and U.K. If such a style of ecomodernist journalism can gain an audience in these countries with their traditions of antagonistic two-party political cultures, then it is likely that this style of reporting can gain an audience – and influence – in countries such as Germany, Sweden, or Norway with histories of consensus-based politics.
Ecomodernist journalists are therefore valuable examples for other reporters to emulate, and models to follow for news organizations seeking to improve their coverage of sustainable development. They demonstrate, first, how coverage of sustainable development can be brought into mainstream news coverage and commentary. Morton and Porter do not write only in specialized science or environment sections. Their work is integrated into their publications’ core coverage of business and public affairs. In other words, their work is not ghettoized, featured exclusively at the science page or in sections dedicated to the environment. There is a wider trend towards this type of integrated coverage of issues like sustainable development, as specialist reporters in the U.S. are being reassigned from the environmental beat and integrated into areas such as politics or economics – a process that has been called “mainstreaming” (Friedman 2015: 148). Such a process would allow reporters to apply their environmental expertise to mainstream news stories that address sustainable development.
Second, the popularity and longevity of Revkin’s “Dot Earth” blog and the success of Johnson’s series at Grist.org demonstrate that there is a global audience for networked, dialogue-based coverage of sustainable development. Third, as Morton, Porter, and Revkin demonstrate, journalists can and should offer readers a distinct perspective on sustainability. Given the scale of scientific and environmental problems societies face, notes media critic Jay Rosen (2012), coverage must have a view from somewhere. The ecomodernist view on sustainable development is one that can not only drive the work of individual journalists, but can be an editorial perspective adopted by news organizations, or can potentially form the perspective that distinguishes the approach of new digital ventures examining sustainability.
By applying their ecomodernist views and by serving in the roles of knowledge broker, policy broker, and dialogue broker, ecomodernist journalists help prevent other distinct perspectives from dominating coverage, challenging citizens to critically assess expert claims and deeply-held assumptions. As Revkin (2016: 35) argues, on the responsibility for responding to climate change: “We need edge pushers and group huggers, faith and science, and – more than anything – dialogue and effort to find room for agreement even when there are substantial differences.” Morton in The Planet Remade advocates for thinking about geoengineering as more than merely a technological fix. He argues that deliberation over geoengineering can be a powerful imaginative tool for identifying the levers that will move the earth system in ways that will help humanity. Those levers he advocates could be an institution, a shared goal, an idea – or all of them and more. In fashioning a new discourse that enriches thinking and sparks new ideas, Morton’s work and that of other ecomodernist journalists could prove to be one such lever.
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Sept. 1, 2017 — For most American college students, their first serious encounter with the theory of evolution may come as part of an introductory biology course. As surprising as this might sound, the unfortunate reality is that in many high schools across the country evolution is often avoided or covered superficially as part of a crammed science curriculum, taught by teachers who are under-qualified and poorly supported (Friedrichsen et al. 2016).
The lack of prior familiarity with evolution presents a particular challenge to religious students who are likely to have questions about how to reconcile what they are learning in the college classroom with their own faith. Surveys indicate that more than half of all students enrolled in introductory biology courses believe in God and consider themselves religious. If their questions about science and faith go unaddressed as part of their coursework, research suggests that learning is likely to be inhibited. Even though a religious student may successfully complete exams and assignments that test their knowledge of evolutionary science, their scores may not reflect a deeper acceptance of what they learned. These students may leave a course still doubting whether evolution is the best (and only) scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth (Barnes and Brownwell 2016).
Because of their experience in introductory biology courses, many religious students may also be turned off from pursuing a career in science. Studies indicate that students are more likely to choose a science career if they feel a sense of belonging as part of their coursework. Yet for many religious students, prevailing cultural cues tell them that science and religion are in conflict and that religious people lack competence or ability in science. Research shows that these false stereotypes, which are sometimes voiced by their instructors and peers, can harm the performance of religious students on science exams, further eroding their interest in science (Rios et al. 2015).
Much of student uncertainty about evolution may be caused by a lack of awareness of church teaching or doctrine on the matter. Most major religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic church, the Mormon church, and mainline Protestant churches, have either a neutral or explicitly affirmative stance on evolution, acknowledging the consistency with church doctrine (National Academy of Sciences 2008). In other religious traditions such as evangelicalism, high-profile scientists such as Francis Collins (2006) have broken ranks with church doctrine to discuss openly how they reconcile science with their evangelical faith. For conservative Christian students, research indicates that having such a role model is a key contributor to their acceptance of evolution (Manwaring et al. 2015).
Unfortunately, most faculty members in the life sciences are not prepared to adequately address the questions that religious students hold about the connections between science and faith. Surveys show that the great majority of life science faculty are nonreligious, and that many equate religious belief with fundamentalism, assuming that faith by definition is in conflict with science. Moreover, when asked, most do not see religion as a topic appropriate for a science course. Even those instructors who want to facilitate more thoughtful classroom conversations about science and religion often lack the confidence and training to do so effectively, and they therefore avoid the topic (Barnes and Brownwell 2016).
For these reasons, in recent years, researchers have begun to test approaches embedded in introductory biology courses for facilitating more constructive conversations about science and religion that promote student acceptance of evolution. The findings point to promising models for instructors to adopt and offer insight on strategies for encouraging more constructive public dialogue about science and religion more generally.
Getting beyond conflict
In a study conducted at Arizona State University, instructors led ninety-five students enrolled in an introductory biology course through a two-week module focused on science, evolution, and religion. In addition to chapters from their textbook on natural selection and speciation, students were also required to read Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a booklet published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2008).
The National Academy booklet was intended for use by scientists, teachers, parents, and school board members who wanted to engage in more constructive conversations with others who remain uncertain about evolution and its place in the public school curriculum. To guide their efforts, the National Academy commissioned focus groups and a national survey to gauge the public’s understanding of the processes, nature, and limits of science. The authoring committee also wanted to test various frames of reference that explained why alternatives to evolution were inappropriate for science class (Labov and Pope 2008; Nisbet and Scheufele 2009).
The committee had expected that a convincing storyline for the public would be a traditional emphasis on past legal decisions and the doctrine of church-state separation. Yet the data revealed that audiences were not persuaded by this framing of the issue. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, the research pointed to the effectiveness of defining evolutionary science in terms of social progress, explaining its role as a building block for advances in medicine and agriculture. The research also underscored the effectiveness of reassuring the public that evolution and religious faith can be fully compatible.
In light of this feedback, the National Academy committee decided to structure the final version of the report around these main points of emphasis. “The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith,” states the report. “Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future.”
In the Arizona State experiment, drawing on themes from the booklet, instructors emphasized that “scientists study natural causes within the natural world, whereas religious ideas address questions of morality, purpose, and the existence of a higher power.” If religious beliefs were limited to questions of purpose, ethics, and the existence of God, then they were not in conflict with evolution.
To evaluate the impact of the module, surveys were administered to the class before and after the module was completed. In contrast to the more than 50 percent of students at the start of the module who said they perceived religion and evolution as in conflict, only 26 percent said the same at the end, indicating that the module had reduced by nearly half the number of students holding a “conflict” outlook. More specifically, eleven out of the thirty-two students who said they perceived conflict at the start of the course shifted their outlook. Among those who were unsure at the start, eight out of fifteen indicated that evolution and religion were compatible after completing the module. Interestingly, there was no observable change in student scores on measures of religiosity (Barnes et al. 2017).
In a second study conducted at Brigham Young University, researchers focused specifically on how Mormon students—if informed of the Mormon church’s official neutral position on evolution—may be more likely to subsequently accept evolutionary theory. In this case, the Mormon Church maintains strict belief in God as the creator, but in its statements it does not confirm or deny the potential for theistic evolution, leaving room for Mormons to adopt a scientific interpretation. The experiment involved more than 1,500 nonmajors enrolled in introductory biology courses. In the test condition, as part of the semester, students participated in at least one lecture and discussion of a “BYU Evolution Packet” that discussed the official Mormon church stance on human origins. After reading the packet, during the class discussion, students were encouraged to ask questions and make comments. The control condition had access to the BYU Evolution Packet, but no time was spent as part of the course in discussing the packet (Manwaring et al. 2015).
For both the experimental and control conditions, overall student acceptance of evolution increased across the semester, and this greater level of acceptance remained five to seven months after completion of the course. But in the experimental condition that included the lecture on official Mormon teachings, gains in acceptance of evolution were significantly higher than in the control condition. As the researchers note, at the outset of the course, those students who held more misconceptions about the Mormon church’s stance on evolution were some of the least likely to accept the theory of evolution. Their analysis indicates that the booklet and single lecture on the topic corrected many of these misconceptions among the participating students, which in turn led to the higher gains in student acceptance of evolution in comparison to the control condition (Manwaring et al. 2015).
For most college students, the introductory courses they take during their first few college years may be the only thoughtful discussions of science and religion that they can draw on for the rest of their adult lives. If these students leave a science course lacking a strong motivation for further information on the topic, they can easily avoid the many available popular science books, articles, and films. When they do incidentally come across coverage in the news media, evolution is most likely to be framed in terms of controversy and irreconcilable conflict with religion (Mooney and Nisbet 2005).
We tend to think about general science education at the college level as a vehicle for imparting knowledge about the physical world, particularly in terms of basic science literacy. But general education science courses should also serve a core civic purpose, imparting critical understanding of the complex relationship between science and society, modeling for students’ thoughtful ways to negotiate differences. The first few studies formally evaluating approaches to discussing evolution and religion are models to build on. More research is needed to expand the evidence-base specific to evolution and to evaluate approaches for effectively discussing other challenging topics such as climate change or gene editing.
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