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Using town hall meetings to gauge public opinion can lead to misguided science policy, research suggests

Town-hall-style meetings may provide useful insight as  to the range of views on a controversial issue, but they’re not all that great a measure of the overall community’s opinions, says a team of science communication researchers. That’s especially true when the issue has to do with deciding where to site a controversial facility—such as a nuclear power plant, biohazard lab or even a cell-phone tower.

“Using public meetings may actually promote policy choices that are diametrically opposed to public preferences,” according to an article in The Scientist authored by Andrew Binder, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dietram Scheufele and Dominque Brossard, both faculty members in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communications.

These conclusions come from studying an issue that’s painfully familiar to many at the UW-Madison: The process of selecting a site for the Department of Homeland Security’s new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The UW-Madison was an early contender for the NBAF; it had proposed putting it on UW land near Lake Kegonsa in the Town of Dunn. The Wisconsin bid was rejected in large part because it scored poorly on DHS’s criterion of “community acceptance.” DHS eventually opted to locate the facility in Manhattan, Kansas.

The research team looked at the site evaluation process in six communities that were finalists for the NBAF. They looked at how the DHS rated each proposal in terms of community acceptance, then compared those ratings to what they learned from surveys taken in those communities and interviews with local journalists, policy-makers and community leaders.

The conclusion: The DHS underestimated actual public approval. In communities where community acceptance was rated relatively low, it turned out that a substantial share of the population was supportive. The DHS was likely unduly influenced by vocal public opposition, the researchers say. So were people in the community.

“Citizens mistakenly saw the climate of opinion as overwhelmingly negative, influenced in part by contentious public meetings and the resulting news coverage,” the authors say.