National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
April 6, 2010 • Volume 7 / Number 7

A Conversation With

A Conversation with Dr. Robert T. Croyle on Communicating Science

Dr. Robert Croyle Dr. Robert Croyle

Dr. Robert T. Croyle is the director of NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences (DCCPS) and co-author with Drs. David E. Nelson and Bradford W. Hesse of the book Making Data Talk: Communicating Public Health Data to the Public, Policy Makers, and the Press, published by Oxford University Press in 2009. The book analyzes research on the presentation of public health data and provides practical solutions for how scientists can better communicate data to the public. Drs. Nelson and Hesse discussed the book at a recent cyber-seminar.

Where did you get the idea for the book Making Data Talk?

Over the years that I’ve been at NCI, I’ve observed that our Institute, and NIH as a whole, doesn’t always do the best job in terms of explaining evidence. There are a lot of people who study how to communicate numbers effectively, but a lot of what they learn never gets used in practice. The idea behind the book was to pull that information together in one place. DCCPS is also expanding NCI’s support for research on communication itself, and the Centers of Excellence in Cancer Communications Research (CECCRs) are a big component of that. The CECCRs are an ongoing effort to bridge the gap between scientists and practitioners, but also an effort to get various scientists to work collaboratively so that people in medicine, behavioral science, and public health will generate evidence-based models to inform communication strategies.

What are some of the more significant missteps members of the media make in communicating science?

One challenge is the way the press allocates coverage of cancer issues, which ultimately has an impact at the policy level and among the public in terms of what issues receive attention. For example, we know that breast cancer gets more media coverage than lung cancer, even though lung cancer is a much greater cause of cancer death in the United States. A few years ago, we did a national survey of science and medical journalists, and we asked them how they decide what to cover. We found that they often rely on a local practitioner to interpret new scientific evidence, which can be a concern if the source has limited experience.

What is the best way to filter the surge of health information?

Information alone is not what people want. It’s only the first step toward getting access to a service or an answer to a specific question. By itself, disseminating information to increase awareness doesn’t do a lot of good, unless that effort is coupled with action steps, connecting people to the service providers, hospitals, health educators, and cancer programs that provide care.

In cancer prevention, the greatest opportunity is where we have good evidence that leads to actionable strategies for reducing risk or improving prevention and treatment. By growing the field of communication science, we can increase the impact of scientific discoveries on public health.

There has also been an explosion of information about peoples’ genetic susceptibility for certain diseases. How do you foresee people using this information?

As more genetic information becomes less expensive and widely available, what people are going to be most interested in are the things that they can do something about. There will always be some people who say, “Tell me everything you know about me.” These people, like scientists, have a great need for information, and they have a great tolerance for ambiguous information. They’re curious. But I think there is a larger group of people who are going to be less curious about genetic information unless there is something they think they can do with it.

What is the specific role that government agencies such as NCI have in communicating health information?

I think there has been steady but slow progress in the government about making both information resources and strategies more user-centered, whether through Web usability testing or surveying the public to identify needs and wants in terms of information.

Cancer is a word that sparks fear, and our survey data continue to show that many people associate cancer with death. So the people who are communicating with the public about cancer need to be sure that the information they provide addresses both the need for facts and also the need to reduce fear. We should make a clear distinction between trying to persuade people and trying to inform them.

Particularly for the government, transparency in this process is key. I think it’s important to clearly define information that is provided to be useful versus information that is part of a public relations campaign. If the priority is institutional self-promotion, as opposed to health promotion, this can undermine trust. NCI’s most precious and fragile asset is our credibility. Effective communication about new discoveries can mobilize our scientists and empower patients. But we also need to be honest about how much remains to be learned.

—K.M. Crane