Faculty Interviews

Portney: Transmission of Information and Risk Awareness from Scientists to Policy Makers and to the Public

Kent E. Portney
Kent E. Portney
Article by Carol L. Goldsmith, MPA;
Kent E. Portney, Ph.D.;
and Jeff Sammons

We rely on experts in science and technology to advance the cutting edge of their fields and develop breakthroughs that improve our lives, increase efficiencies, and make the world a better place.

We also rely on policymakers to make the decisions for our country that chart the course for government, have significant impacts on business, and shape our society.

Sometimes, however, the transmission of scientific and technical information fails as it makes its way from scientists to policymakers, or from scientists to the general public. Going beyond a basic understanding of information, an even more significant factor that often fails to be transmitted is the understanding of risk associated with these technologies.

The Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy (ISTPP) in the Texas A&M Bush School of Government and Public Service studies the transmission of information between scientists and the general public and how and under what conditions this information is translated into effective policies and efficient resource allocation decisions. Faculty members, researchers, and students are going beyond simple opinion polls or surveys. Using political science, sociological, risk analysis, and other established theories, they design and oversee large, nationally representative public opinion surveys of the U.S. adult population. These surveys ask questions on concern, knowledge, attitudes, risk perceptions, and policy support about critical public issues including water, energy, climate change, and the water-energy-food nexus. The responses to the survey questions are quantitatively analyzed to test theoretical models of risk perception and policy support. The findings from the tests, published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at academic conferences, expand our knowledge of how the policy process works, where it works well, and where it fails.

In May 2012, a National Energy Policy Survey 1 was conducted by ISTPP in cooperation with the Crisman Institute for Petroleum Research and the Texas A&M Energy Institute. ISTPP researchers continue to analyze the results of this survey to ascertain the public’s attitudes, perceptions, and preferences on a broad spectrum of energy issues. Several of these studies examined the public’s views on the risks and benefits of various energy sources and related policy preferences. By knowing this, researchers can help identify how to best frame the scientific information to inform policies choices that will guide a national energy policy that promotes national security, economic vitality, and environmental quality. Two of ISTPP’s recent publications based on the National Energy Policy Survey are discussed below.

ISTPP has also conducted other major surveys that relate to energy production. In the last 10 years, ISTPP has conducted four surveys on climate change and public perception. The most recent survey on this topic, the 2013 National Public Climate Change Survey was administered in November 2013 and continues to provide insights into associations between climate change, knowledge, public discourse, perceived risks, policy preferences as well as political party identification and other demographic factors. And, as many people recognize, energy production and consumption are large contributors of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

More recently, Dr. Kent E. Portney, professor in the Bush School of Government and Public Service and director of ISTPP, and Dr. Arnold Vedlitz, professor in the Bush School of Government and Public Service and director emeritus of ISTPP, have led efforts to examine emerging issues like the Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus. And as the name implies, this issue has strong implications for energy research, technologies, utilization, and policies.

The WEF nexus is a term used to describe the inherent interconnection between the global resources of water, energy, and food. In this framework, as one resource is greatly impacted, the other two resources will see some level of impact as well. Considering potential actions or scenarios with the WEF nexus in mind is a way to gain a more accurate understanding of the true ramifications of decisions or actions.

The study of these three resources as an interconnected trio is relatively new, and in the world’s first policy and public opinion study of WEF issues, ISTPP associates led by Portney, looked at public attitudes regarding concerns and knowledge about water, energy, and food issues; awareness and knowledge of the interconnections; policy preferences; and personal behavioral changes involving water and energy. This scientific survey, conducted in August 2015, collected responses from a representative sample at the national level, the state level in Texas, and the local level in Houston. The researchers are just beginning their study of these results. So far, as reported in numerous conference papers and presentations, they have found that the recognition of risks related to the WEF nexus and the desire to have the government and the private sector work together to find solutions was similar across many demographic and political groups in the U.S. and Texas.

“It’s clear from our research that there are many people who have a fairly high level of understanding of the water and energy linkages, and of the water-food linkages,” said Portney. “Linkages between energy and food are far less well recognized by people.” The patterns are essentially the same for people in Texas as for people in the rest of the country.

Portney explains, “Public policy makers make decisions that affect water, energy, and food, but even if they have some understanding of the interconnections, they very likely do not know how residents and the general public see these interconnections. In order to help decision makers in making these decisions and for the public to accept these decisions, the public needs to know and understand what’s going on.”

A true understanding of the interrelationship between the finite resources of water, energy, and food is key to developing policies for governments, as well as strategies for organizations and businesses. As we look to the future and attempt to prudently manage our resources, we will need to find common ground to work together. As part of finding common ground with other individuals or even constituents, one beneficial aspect is learning how actions or words may be perceived. And, another beneficial aspect is understanding and communicating the type of scientific knowledge needed by the public and decision makers to make informed policy choices. Two recently published articles by ISTPP researchers emphasize these points.

Results were recently published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science 2 (available online), based on examination of word choices in the 2012 National Energy Policy Survey conducted by ISTPP, with analysis from Vedlitz, Dr. James W. Stoutenborough, and Dr. Scott E. Robinson. The study attempted to ascertain whether the words used to name a process used to extract natural gas from underground rock formations influenced a person’s attitudes and policy preferences toward this particular technique.

The researchers used a survey experiment to compare two different expressions for this extraction process, with half of the respondents receiving questions that refer to the technique as “hydraulic fracturing” and the other half, as “fracking.” The first hypothesis stated that those exposed to the “fracking” treatment would have opinions and attitudes that differ from those exposed to the “hydraulic fracturing” treatment, and the second hypothesis expanded that line of thinking by indicating that the difference in opinions would be greater the more respondents are presented with the word “fracking.”

The group then analyzed the effects of framing for the two treatments to compare responses to questions concerning opinions and attitudes about the extraction technique. According to the study, “the results suggest that the concern over this terminology may be greatly overstated. The survey results suggest that while people who are more familiar with fracking are more likely to have strong opinions (as is often the case across various policy controversies), the choice of terminology is not having a large effect in framing the debate. The use of shorter, more familiar terminology is not biasing reactions against the extraction technique.”

In a second recent study published in the journal Energy Policy 3 (available online) and based on the 2012 National Energy Policy Survey conducted by ISTPP, Stoutenborough and Vedlitz examined the knowledge/information deficit model (KDM), which suggests that as the public becomes more informed about specific scientific issues, they will be more likely to evaluate these issues – specifically risks associated with those issues – in a manner that is similar to experts. Stoutenborough and Vedlitz previously revealed that there is an important difference between individuals who actually have scientific knowledge of an issue and individuals who think they have scientific knowledge of an issue, and that KDM is accurate for climate change issues for the first type of knowledge, but not the second. This particular study attempted to extend this research to determine whether the same pattern holds in the energy domain.

Looking at risk perceptions of three different energy technologies – nuclear energy (low risk, according to science), coal pollutants (high risk), and bird and bat mortality caused by wind turbines (inconclusive risk) – they found that individuals with actual scientific knowledge are more often aligned with experts on risk perceptions. Additionally, they found that individuals who think they have scientific knowledge of a particular energy technology consistently over-estimate risk.

Therefore, Stoutenborough and Vedlitz conclude, “If an individual’s level of scientific knowledge predicts one’s risk perceptions, and risk perceptions predict policy preferences, which can then influence the behavior of policy actors, then the public’s understanding of these complex issues becomes a lynchpin to the policy process. These results, in combination with existing research, suggest that it is not enough to have some understanding of an issue. Indeed, if some rudimentary understanding were sufficient, we would find attitudinal congruence with our perceived measures of knowledge. Instead, these results indicate that a more scientific understanding of an issue is a necessary component to making informed policy decisions.”

[1] GfK Custom Research, LLC administered this national public opinion survey of adults 18 years and older, drawing its sample from its web-enabled KnowlegePanel®. GfK also administered the 2013 National Public Climate Change Survey and the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Public Opinion Survey.

[2] James W. Stoutenborough, Scott E. Robinson, and Arnold Vedlitz. 2016. “Is ‘Fracking’ a New Dirty Word? The Influence of Word Choices on Public Views toward Natural Gas Attitudes.” Energy Research & Social Science 17: 52–58. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2016.04.005.

[3] Stoutenborough, James W. and Arnold Vedlitz. 2016. “The Role of Scientific Knowledge in the Public’s Perceptions of Energy Technology Risks.” Energy Policy 96: 206–216. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2016.05.031

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