Science Heroes: Why Science Needs A Celebrity Spokesperson

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We exist in a strange society these days. Jenny McCarthy is viewed as an authority on vaccines and people listen to the opinions of Ben Affleck and Sean Penn when it comes to politics. Yet people who study and have dedicated their lives to these causes remain out of the limelight and hidden from the public. While everyone knows about celebrities who campaign on issues, how many people can name a researcher who study them? One  problem facing scientists is the lack of communication between science and the public: we’re perceived as living in the ivory tower of academia and are totally out of touch, or worse, we’re in the pocket of Big Pharma/Food/The Umbrella Corporation/Evil Faceless Corporate Interest.

But in reality, scientists are just regular people with an interest in one specific part of our world, and we want nothing more than for everyone else to find out work as fascinating as we do. It’s something that Jorge Cham of PhD Comics discusses in his TEDxUCLA talk, where he highlights how he was hired to create a video (that you may have seen) about the Higgs Boson.

There’s a definite gap between scientists and the public, and three questions immediately come to mind: 1) Why do scientists not engage, 2) How can scientists engage and 3) How do we find a celebrity to endorse “science”?

Why do scientists not engage with the public?

There are a number of reasons why scientists do not engage with the media, but they can be broadly grouped into three areas: 1) How it affects your reputation, 2) The time commitment and 3) Worries about the message being distorted.

There is a perception in the science community of “selling out” if you publicize your own work, and that you’re somehow “tainting” the name of science; although there is evidence for a (growing) number of people who view outreach as enhancing their reputation and consider it a way to differentiate themselves from the pack. A study of 648 epidemiologists and 706 stem cell researchers from the US, Japan, Germany, the UK and France who had published during 2002–04 in peer-reviewed journals revealed some interesting insights as to why scientists avoided the media (unfortunately, the article itself is behind a paywall). From the article:

Although “possible critical reactions from peers” were considered important concerns for 42% of the respondents, a similar proportion (39%) found “enhanced personal reputation among peers” to be an important outcome of media contacts.

The 42% isn’t entirely surprising. Many scientists are wary of what has been dubbed “The Sagan Effect.” The basic gist is that if you have time to communicate, you’re not spending all your time on research, and that’s what “real scientists do.” Sagan’s biographers suggest that he was denied membership to the National Academy of Science on the basis of his popularization of science. Thankfully, this perception is changing, albeit slowly.

The “Sagan Effect” remains a strong deterrent for many scientists who want to engage with the public | Image Courtesy NASA and Wikimedia Commons

But continuing on this point, communicating with the media is a significant time commitment – an article in Science Magazine interviewed Molly Crockett, a final year PhD student, who had a study picked up the media. She said “The week the research went out [was] pretty much devoted 9 to 5 to dealing with the press.” For professors and others who sit on multiple committees and have other commitments  this alone might be enough to put them off publicizing their work, given that this may not even be considered as part of their annual evaluation and the fact that we live in a “publish or perish” society. Again, this varies by organization. Some ask for your academic publications and presentations as well as any media appearances you may have made and do consider that.

Finally, there is a worry about the message being distorted:

Nine in 10 respondents identified the “risk of incorrect quotation” in stories as an important disincentive, and 8 in 10 felt that the “unpredictability of journalists” was also a problem.

I can’t honestly say that I buy this one. All the reporters that I’ve dealt with have been very professional and very respectful, and have asked for clarification when they didn’t understand the science. Indeed, almost all requested a copy of the publication beforehand to read it themselves to come fully prepared. But this doesn’t do much to assuage doubts, and researchers will continue to be skeptical.

How can scientists engage?

The current model of information transfer is rather archaic, and was designed for a system where the media acted as the gatekeepers to the public. Jacquelyn Gill of Contemplative Mammoth sums it up well:

For most scientists, I think the scientist-media model looks something like: 1) Publish ground-breaking paper in top journal. 2) Wait for university press office to write press release and maybe contact you. 3) Wait for phone calls and e-mails asking for interviews. 4) Answer questions. 5) Sit and wait for articles to be published while experiencing a mixture of nervous excitement and dread.

It worked well back in the days when we couldn’t engage with people directly. Reporters reported, researchers researched, and eventually you came together to communicate your research to the public. But now, with the advent of social media and the wonderful world of the internet, you can connect with people directly. Blogs, Twitter, even sharing studies on Facebook and LinkedIn groups are all ways to connect with others. If you want to communicate in a professional capacity, many organizations have guidelines (example: the Social Issues Research Centre). There is also a list of resources at the end of this article.

How do we find a celebrity to endorse “science”?

I started this post by talking about Science Celebrities. We have a few notable “famous” scientists – Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are both phenomenal science communicators. Both do a great job raising the profile of science, and showing that science can be fun and highlight why it is so important. There’s also the Rock Stars of Science Campaign which shows scientists as rock stars to try and make science “cool,” and features Joe Perry as their celebrity rocker (Link available here – WARNING: Link autoplays music when you click it. Ugh.)

But you don’t have to do something big to be a celebrity. And you don’t even have to be a PI to inspire others.

Because the best science celebrity is you.

Okay okay I know that sounds corny, but bear with me here.

I’ve alluded to how the balance of power has shifted. How we are now more able to connect with the public than we have ever been in the past, and how we now have the tools and abilities to be able to engage with people directly using a multitude of methods, ranging from using social media to going into classrooms to give talks and presentations.

Many scientists have embraced blogging as a platform. I’m not even going to try and list them all, but some big sources of science bloggers include our own PLOS Blogs network, ScientopiaScientific American, the Nature blogs networkScienceBlogsResearch Blogging and Science Seeker. Many of the authors are active on Twitter and Facebook as well, which all help to engage people electronically. You don’t even have to be “serious.” Sites like PhD Comics, XKCD and Science Is Awesome all engage people using humour.

Blogging not your thing? There are a several programs aimed at bringing science to life for youth. Two of the big STEM ones are Let’s Talk Science and Actua, which pair undergraduate and graduate students with teachers to present in classrooms. If you’re in Canada, CIHR has the Synapse program that will send you regular emails about upcoming mentorship opportunities in your area. Many of my colleagues are heavily involved in WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), which is only one of many organizations that are set up to encourage young girls to consider STEM careers.

The fact is that there is a communication gap between scientists and the public. When obtaining funding has become more and more difficult (only 18.4% of R01 grants get funded), it becomes imperative for us as scientists to continue to campaign and ensure the public realizes the importance of scientific research. Engaging the public using social media, giving talks and lectures at a level that your audience can understand and making science accessible to all will make you a Science Celebrity to those watching.


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