The mRNA vaccine shows the importance of selling science

To gain the public's trust, the world's innovators need to communicate better

Anti-vaccination protesters join an anti-Ulez rally on Oxford Street in central London last month. PA Wire
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As Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman celebrate their highly deserved Nobel Prize for breakthroughs in RNA, scientists and other innovators must work harder to ensure that more of the public accepts crucial scientific and technological advancements such as those they brought to the world.

Technology has little value if people reject it, particularly as the stakes today are higher than ever.

Humans and the planet need to address a raft of existential challenges in the coming decade – from climate to health – that require first-of-a-kind solutions. A failure to better explain these new approaches risks undermining our ability to deploy them.

One of the greatest risks is not the opponents of science or luddites, but that the innovators themselves – scientists, technologists and chief executives – will inadvertently slow the adoption of their breakthroughs by communicating in ways that are inadequate.

Just as the words of a chief executive or politician can bring down a company or government, the way innovators speak about their own breakthroughs has a lasting impact.

An added challenge is the anti-science sentiment found among certain sections of the global population these days.

Individuals, companies and even some governments are undermining the credibility and trustworthiness of scientific findings and the scientific method itself in the so-called “War on Science”.

These efforts muddy the thinking about science, undermine public trust and derail rational policy decisions on topics ranging from climate change and vaccine uptake to broader public health initiatives.

Instead of comparing RNA to software, we used a training metaphor. The results were dramatic

But anti-science sentiment does not need a lobbyist. Conspiracy theories bubble along in the collective psyche and echo in pop culture, with scientists often portrayed in movies as reckless creators, from the genetic experiments in Jurassic Park to the scary scientist premise of Stranger Things. From Dr No through to The World is Not Enough, roughly a quarter of James Bond’s on-screen villains are scientists.

As the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker says in How the Mind Works, compelling stories are the lens through which our minds make sense of the world, and conspiracy theories, shrouded in ambiguity and intrigue, capture the imagination.

As tough as the world may be for science, however, the biggest challenge comes from the innovators themselves, who often fail to methodically consider how to best communicate what they do.

Take RNA, the scientific breakthrough for which Prof Kariko and Prof Weissman were awarded their Nobel Prize.

To simplify for broader audiences, vaccine company leaders now often describe RNA as the “software of life”. This seems like a good analogy at first glance. It is reasonably accurate and accessible. Most people know what software is.

But when we tested this language with US-based focus groups, the message was not effective. Most participants had an open mind towards RNA vaccines, but the term “software” evoked viruses or other misuses of technology.

We then tried an alternative approach with the focus groups, reminding people that scientists solve problems, including diseases, using RNA, and chose a range of metaphors to explain how RNA works.

Instead of comparing RNA to software, we used a training metaphor, which directly reflected how vaccines prepare the immune system against infections.

The results were dramatic. When larger audiences were polled, net support for using RNA increased by up to 29 per cent.

This was not just a one-off. We tested a range of metaphors and repeated these tests months apart. Statements that remind people of scientists’ motivations and problem-solving skills, of the progress that science is making, and using appropriate metaphors, get higher support. The highest-scoring explanations were just as honest as the least effective, but the explanations were simpler, spoke to the benefits, and most importantly, explained how scientists have put in decades to make RNA work in practice.

Development of these new approaches to communicating about RNA was not done by creative whim, but by leveraging the half a century of peer-reviewed research into communication and behavioural science.

These findings give clear guidance as to why scientists so frequently fail to communicate effectively.

First, people will not trust you just because you are a scientist. Peers may be impressed by your credentials, but parading them can also be counterproductive.

Messengers matter deeply and in our work around RNA, we found that people trusted frontline practitioners, such as doctors, much more than lab scientists.

One of the most dangerous beliefs by the scientific-minded is that data alone can sway opinion. Behavioural scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that facts, in isolation, fail to convince people.

Scientists and other innovators must resist deep explanations of what is new and, instead, focus on what problem they aim to solve and why. Excited innovators often end up confusing and alienating audiences, making them more sceptical.

We urgently need persuasive narratives that help reshape the public’s perception of scientists from a fear of Frankenstein to a celebration of heroes such as Jennifer Doudna and Marie Curie.

To solve the existential challenges faced by humanity and the planet, innovators must remain bold and ambitious, but remember the methodical approaches they learned at the workbench or in the lab.

Specifically, they must learn to communicate science using the science of communication.

Published: October 03, 2023, 9:40 AM