How To Sell Science

11 12 2010

The above poster was created to promote the Rock Stars of Science campaign!

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One of my favourite shows of all time, the West Wing, had the President discussing the fact that despite solid scientific evidence suggesting that the existing drug policy should be changed to reverse the 2-to-1 funding ratio for narcotics law enforcement to treatment, science simply doesn’t sell, and the public will not buy what science has to say about the issue.  They will simply see a change in policy as the government becoming soft on drugs and crime.

Setting aside my own thoughts on drug law enforcement versus treatment, the salient issue for me today is how do we make science sexier?  How do we make people care?  How do we convince the public that what we have to say is valid and useful and directly applicable to their everyday lives?

I’ve always believed that part of the problem is that as scientists, we are trained to explain the significance of our findings in a reasonable, measured manner, so we cannot simply say that we found an HIV vaccine (just to be clear, we haven’t really found one yet…), for example, without qualifying that it only worked for a small proportion of people and only for a year because that’s how long the study lasted for.  In the fast-paced world of today, the public has no time and no interest, and perhaps not enough scientific education to understand the details of the findings.  The media knows what the public wants, and so it takes advantage of the disconnect between scientist and public to distort findings and create sensationalized news.

Scientists are constantly frustrated with our inability to engage the public, because without public interest and attention, there is less government funding for the research, and our findings make less of an impact in how the world is seen and run.  This frustration can force us to make mistakes in hopes of reaching out to the public, such as the recent NASA gaffe about how finding bacteria grown in arsenic opens the possibility of finding life in parts of the universe that might otherwise be considered uninhabitable.  I think part of the issue is that the findings may not have been as conclusive as it was announced to be, but the other part is the huge leap to the conclusion that this finding greatly increases the possibility that there is life on other planets.

Of course, the scientists aren’t really saying that the findings, if true, would mean that life has been found on another planet, but certainly, NASA would have known that the way in which they presented their findings would lead to the media spinning the story to insinuate to the public that finding these arsenic-resistant organisms means we are one step closer to finding alien life, essentially sensationalizing the story.

As a result of this news, both NASA and the scientists are being attacked by other scientists, questioning the validity of the study and the way in which the news was revealed to the public.

In short, my point is that communicating science accurately to the public and getting the public to care and understand the findings is a huge challenge that we, as scientists, are not very good at, but this is a problem that needs to be tackled, because it affects everyone.

How to communicate science is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart (because I think scientific findings can be so beneficial to progress in the world in all domains of life if politicians and policy makers could understand the findings and take them seriously), so I have blogged about this before, but the point of my post today is that I actually have some examples of how some people are finally tackling this important issue!

The Rock Stars of Science campaign pairs well-known celebrities, like Sheryl Crow, Timbaland, Josh Groban, Bret Michaels, and Keri Hilson, with leading scientists to bring more awareness to the scientists and the research that they do in hopes of engaging the public.  I think this is a great start to building these types of relationships, but my greatest critique about the project is that it’s unclear what the organization does other than make these great posters.  From what I can gather, online donations are collected and donated to research.  It would be great, though, if the stars could be leveraged in other ways, such as with tv ads, concerts, etc., for the same cause.  This may be happening, but it’s just unclear from the website that it has been.

My other critique of the campaign is that it seems to focus on medical research, which is great because their message is on giving back by helping find cures and taking science from bench to bedside.  However, if other similar organizations can focus on the importance of basic research in areas like physics and chemistry, that could really help the public understand that all research builds upon each other, and without basic research in very remote areas of science, there would not be any medical advances at all.

Now if only they got all the stars together and created a nerdy theme song with the scientists…like this one:

The other fantastic initiative related to science communication that I discovered was started by the great Alan Alda, the actor from M*A*S*H, the West Wing, and many other credits.  Essentially, he started a program that trains research scientists in improvisational acting in hopes of improving their skills in communication to the public.  I think this program is exactly the type of thing we need in science, and I can’t decide between wanting to be part of this program and helping organize it!  Probably both!

If you’re interested, please read the article, because I think it does a great job of summarizing why the program was instigated and why it’s important. As Alan Alda, who first realized this communication problem when he interviewed hundreds of the world’s top scientists about their discoveries for Scientific American Frontiers (a show on public television from 1993-2005), puts it, “We need to talk to the public.  This is holding back the country, and it’s holding back the world from making progress on what we now know…The affect, facial expression, body language — these are things that you wouldn’t think are part of a scientific presentation.  Emotion is so important.  In scientific communication, emotion is probably trained out of us, but there’s no reason why it can’t be included.  Science is a great detective story, especially when you’re talking to the public.  You want them to get involved in this interesting, emotional tangle.”

I am now applying to study at the Centre for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University =).

I think a next step should be for governments to hire more scientists (and/or involve them and value them more) so that they can have regular conversations with policy makers and explain the significance of certain findings, both to downplay findings that are overinflated and trumpet the ones that didn’t have great PR.

In essence, I think we need more scientists to help government officials see more clearly the value and objective truths of science.

Of course, scientists are still human, and thus we also have political biases just like everyone else.  The trick, I think, would thus be to select a panel of scientific advisors that as a group have relatively balanced political opinions.  However, as a recent news article from the journal Science brings up, the vast majority of scientists are liberal-minded, so finding conservative scientists to fill these positions may be a challenge.  If there could be more scientists with more conservative political ideologies, the hope is that they could better convince their governmental colleagues of what science brings to the table.

Why most scientists are left-leaning is an interesting question by itself, but I think I will hold that thought for another day…

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23 12 2010
Science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before. | Eastwood Zhao

[…] back to the quotation, “Science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before,” how much does this […]

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