Health and Healthcare

How to communicate the benefits of scientific innovation

The science of communication – including testing your approach – can significantly increase support for new technologies.

The science of communication – including testing your approach – can significantly increase support for new technologies. Image: Unsplash.

Thomas Crampton
Head, Corporate Affairs, Greenlight Biosciences Inc
Rob Blackie
Founder, Rob Blackie Digital Strategy
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  • Addressing the world's major challenges, from climate change to health, requires first-of-a-kind approaches.
  • There is a risk that scientists will slow adoption of their own innovations simply by how they communicate.
  • The science of communication – including testing your approach – can significantly increase support for new technologies.

Are bananas safe to eat? Of course. But 20 years ago, a hoax persuaded people that bananas contained flesh-eating bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stepped in, setting up a hotline to explain why this was untrue – an action that, paradoxically, gave the rumour credibility. It circulated for a decade.

In 2005, a CDC “myth-busting” pamphlet was found to actually reduce willingness to receive the flu vaccine because it inadvertently fed into medical myths, which readers remembered while the truth faded from memory.

If the world’s most respected disease control agency can get it wrong, who can get it right?

Have you read?

Just as communications can backfire for a politician or CEO, it can backfire for scientists, with lasting consequences and adverse effects for humanity. A particular challenge for science is how prone it is to conspiracy theories or simply being misunderstood.

Today’s cutting edge scientific and technical innovators face a more acute challenge than almost any previous generation. Humans and the planet must 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.

Where can communication go wrong?

Researchers often believe that data are sufficient to win arguments, but behavioural scientists have shown that facts are not enough: scientific explanations of new technologies often collapse under the weight of their good intentions.

Vaccine company leaders often describe RNA as the “software of life.” This seems like a good analogy at first glance. It is reasonably accurate, and most people know what software is. But when we tested this with focus groups, the message wasn’t effective. Most people weren’t instinctively opposed to RNA vaccines, but the term “software” implied viruses or other misuse of technology.

In fact, the public can be suspicious of science – and of scientists at for-profit companies; worse, they feel that the system is rigged or worry that scientists may not be careful enough (cue the Frankenstein framing).

Public fears and conspiracy theories can have a deep impact. They can slow down adoption of safe and effective new technologies. We need to fix this if we are to address humanity’s greatest challenges.

Conspiracy theories exist for understandable reasons and can flourish anywhere. In countries where corruption, persecution, or racism at the hands of the government is rife, vaccine hesitancy persists, according to a study in Nature. Yet nations like Germany and France have also long had a challenge with vaccine hesitancy.

These theories are often based on popular stories that we use for entertainment. Think about how pop culture portrays scientists in many variations of Frankenstein, from Jurassic Park to The Fly to Stranger Things. As Stephen Pinker says in How the Mind Works, stories are how our brain makes sense of the world, and conspiracies often make for excellent stories.

If we are going to gain public acceptance for science, we need to build convincing stories and build on a more positive portrayal of scientists. Think about pop culture characters from Back to The Future’s Dr Emmett Brown to Star Trek’s Mr Spock.

Which methods of communication work best?

To test the impact of our communications, we tried an alternative approach. We reminded people that scientists solve problems, such as diseases, using RNA, and chose a range of metaphors to explain how RNA works. Instead of comparing RNA to software, we used training as a metaphor, which directly reflects how vaccines prepare the immune system against infections.

The results were dramatic. When polled, net support for using RNA increased by 29% –equivalent to 10% of the population supporting RNA who previously hadn’t.

Net support for a novel scientific or technical concept - RNA in this case - varies depending on how the technology is introduced and framed.
Net support for a novel scientific or technical concept - RNA in this case - varies depending on how the technology is introduced and framed. Image: GreenLight Biosciences

This is 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. In fact, the best statement we’ve tested swings an astonishing 18% more of the population toward support of RNA. It’s just as honest as the least effective way of describing RNA, but the explanation is simple, it talks about the benefits, and most importantly, it explains how scientists have put decades of work into making RNA work in practice.

Humans don’t act predictably, but we do act consistently. If you want to influence people to support your cause, start by simply asking them what they think and listen intently.

In forming your approach, treat people with respect and speak to ensure that you engage with them on their terms in a way that encourages them to hear your message. There is a science to understanding how people hear your message. Simplify your message as much as you can. Then test it on the public to make sure that this has worked, comparing it to alternatives. Ideally do this several times so that you are confident that you have robust results.

Scientists need to resist their natural instinct to dazzle with data. Instead, by modifying their approach and trusting that language matters, they can get it right and communicate science using the science of communication.

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