Standing up for Science, part 1

Feb 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Social & Ethics

My next couple of posts are going to be a report on a media awareness workshop I attended on February 10, 2012 at the Broad Institute at MIT. I think that in genomics there is going to be great opportunity and great responsibility for scientists to tell fascinating genomics stories, reflecting good science, as this field explodes with information. I hope that researchers will become more involved in getting out the word, and this workshop provided a peek into how science and the media can work together to serve us all better.

Part I: Scientists who have faced the media

For a long time I’ve been wondering about the best strategies to stand up for science. How can we effectively communicate to everyone how fun and wonderful science is, how exciting discovery can be, and how we come to good decisions about all sorts of things that have underlying scientific evidence—medications or treatments, nutrition, and government policies?

There are multiple aspects to why we need to do that. We need to ensure that we have the public’s support for the work we do—so that we can continue to get funding, and be allowed to keep working on things like stem cells or teaching evolution (which happen to be crucial for me personally). And I think we have a responsibility to take the knowledge that the federal government has helped us to obtain—via our scholarships and grants—to help our communities make better choices for their health and our environment. Sometimes it seems incredibly difficult to get the messages out, though, in a world where celebrities and a media culture seem to be stacked against us.

Well, it turns out, it’s not all that bleak. There are organizations who want to help spread the message, and journalists who want to help. And frankly, last week I had a look at the future of science communication—and it looks tremendous to me. We can do this.

I attended the first US Science Media Workshop organized by Sense about Science and the Cambridge Science Festival. Sense about Science is a UK non-profit that I’ve admired for a long time. I think that their work in connecting scientists and journalists, and debunking bad science coverage in the media, is a terrific strategy. And I’ve been yearning for something similar in the US. The Cambridge Science Festival has been active locally in getting science in front of the public in novel and clever ways. This duo teamed up to invite young scientists to a workshop that introduced these eager science communicators to the realities and strategies of getting good science out into the public sphere.

The workshop was structured really nicely. It consisted of a panel of scientists first, who described their experiences with the media and with media frenzy. Chris Reddy, Sara Seager, and Jeff Lichtman come from various scientific fields, but have all had media encounters on their work and on topics of public interest. But also they may have opportunities to influence policy makers too—there’s great similarity between media and policy conversations. So as not to implicate any particular parties in stories that may be “telling tales”, I’m going to describe the take-home messages I got as being from the panel as a whole. But each member offered helpful personal experiences to illustrate the way things may go in media encounters. (Other insights might be found with the twitter hashtag #voysmediaworkshop that was used for the meeting.)

Points I took away and things to think about from the scientists:

  • Media outreach is worth doing. We have a responsibility and an opportunity to engage people in science and critical thinking. There are benefits for the public and benefits for science.
  • The passion we have for our work and our field is valuable. Use it.
  • But there are considerations about what you (especially aimed at a pre-tenure scientist population in the room) have to lose or gain from media encounters. There can be challenges: time spent, department/funder politics, public feedback or pushback.
  • Do not editorialize: stick with the facts and the data. If you say something like, “It’s my personal opinion that MegaCorp sucks and I hate them…” what will get reported is “Scientists say MegaCorp sucks”….  Related to this: be careful about getting too comfortable or too flippant. Guess what will become the big-font pull quote in the middle of the page…? Have your “A-Game” on all the time.
  • You may need to step back from specific conclusions. If you don’t know an answer, say so—don’t leap off into speculation. Offer to connect journalists with someone who might know though. But there are robust ideas that are supported by the big scientific picture that you can use to support issues.
  • Think about what your audience needs to know: what I know, what I don’t know, and what’s changing with this topic that matters to them.
  • Plan for the interview and questions. You don’t have to answer the minute some journalist calls you. Say you’ll call in a half an hour and have some thoughts organized. Clarity matters.
  • But respect journalists time—they may have 3-4 hours to pull together something. You may have a short window of opportunity. There may be a difference on some stories: journalists on a longer piece without immediate deadline may have more time to get answers. But on breaking stuff, turnaround may be short.
  • Understand journalists’ perspective: you’ve had 5 years on this project, they have 4 hours to distill and convey it. Jeff Lichtman described this as “an impossible funnel”. But be sure to allocate enough time for the interview so you can get your main points clear. And patiently explain stuff.
  • Have your main message organized with bullet points in big text on your desk in front of you. Say it different ways, repeat it. Convey your main idea = your goal. You may have to pull them your way a bit.
  • Scientists encouraged follow-up email with main points. [Note: Matthew Herper saw my twitter comment on this and concurred: “@matthewherper: Start and finish with your main point. Make it more than once. Provide written follow-up.”]
  • Build relationships with journalists before or between events so you are the person they come to when it’s valuable for you and for them.
  • Analogies really help to take the technical stuff to the level the public can grasp it.  Embrace metaphors. Eschew acronyms.
  • Uncertainty is hard to communicate. Think ahead about ways to do this.
  • Chris Reddy had a great way of commenting on the process of science (also hard to convey): it’s like a crossword puzzle where we are entering new info, sometimes erasing old stuff. But it’s not a house of cards that falls if one data point ends up not what we thought it was.
  • You might be misrepresented—sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally. Most science journalists are not doing “gotcha” work—but sometimes topics are politically charged. Sometimes quasi-documentary stuff can misuse comments/context.
  • Damage control if an interview went badly or errors? Fixes are unlikely to matter much. Minor stuff, let it go. Major stuff, letter to the editor. Sometimes online versions can get updated. Decide how much there is to gain from a fix. Post-publication conversation with a journalist in a nice way may prevent future perpetuation of the misrepresentations if the topic gets revisited at a future time.
  • Respectfully comment on other’s scientists work—not raising personal disagreements. Can be tricky though. But if their work is out there, they should be prepared for comments on it.
  • Get to know the press officer at your institution beforehand. For big things, ask them to sit in with you.
  • You can do some pro-active pitching. Send a paragraph about the work, why it changes things, etc. Contact your press officer for that too.
  • Note: you don’t have to be aiming for the NYT or the WSJ. There are other ways to use new media and social media to get the word out and start exploring relationships with media types. There are local radio stations who want content. Student newspapers. Organization newsletters. All sorts of ways to begin to get into this arena.

I asked the panel if they filter who they’ll speak to—are some news organizations just not worth talking to (tabloids, etc)? The panel responded that sometimes they are just too busy to do some media and might not reply to an email request, but in general the sense seemed to be that all media is worthwhile to get good science in front of the public. They said that you can do some research on a reporter before you talk to them to learn more about them. Look them up in the NASW, Google their past work.

For the young scientists in the room, there were concerns about upstaging PIs, or making mistakes, or even just being allowed access to the outlets. The panel acknowledged that there are real issues there, and you need to decide for yourself how the gain/loss equation might work for you. But if you are really eager talk to your PI about it before an opportunity comes up, offer to participate should the chance arise. Seek out more training or preparations opportunities: Chris Reddy talked about a good experience with an outreach training fellowship (Aldo Leopold Leadership Program) and Sara Seager recommended a valuable book (Marketing for Science).


I hope these tips and strategies can help those who might find themselves in media situations going forward, and tomorrow I’ll post part 2 with more about the perspectives of journalists and tips from voices of young scientists.


2 Comments to “Standing up for Science, part 1”

  1. [...] Standing up for Science, part 1: Scientist tales [...]

  2. [...] This is the second item from the Sense about Science + Cambridge Science Festival workshop that I attended. The first piece, with stories from scientists who had been in the media whirlwind, can be found here: Standing up for Science, Part 1. [...]

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