Scientists are not typically masters of communicating the importance of their work to those outside their field. Normal procedure is to quietly slip a scientific paper into a highly specialized journal, guaranteeing that it will be completely ignored by the general public. A publication in even one of the best journals like Science or Nature might, at most, garner a five second mention on National Public Radio. Sure, the physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has been on the Colbert Report 15 times, but for the most part, there is little attempt from scientists to expose mainstream America to what they do. Working in Washington has opened my eyes to the fact that other fields operate differently.
On June 14th I was invited to attend to a press release on Capitol Hill of A RESEARCH PAPER! Two economists analyzed how woefully sluggish the FDA regulatory process is and wrote a report demonstrating that huge sums of money are lost by slowly bringing new medicines to market. It is a well designed and written study, but what was most impressive was the level at which these researchers publicized their work. The paper release was loaded with reporters, photographers, staffers from Congressional offices…there was even decent food. Could that be more different from science?
The publicity worked as well as Barry Bonds after a visit to his special "muscle trainer". A Google search for “The Cost of Caution”, the title of the report, produces 205 hits. The study received major attention from multiple fields. Journalists and bloggers from investors.com, medicalprogresstoday.com, Bloomberg's Businessweek, and Forbes magazine, all wrote pieces on the report. There are even facebook posts and tea party websites that covered the paper release.
Science researchers would be smart to try and replicate this formula. Far too little effort is exerted on the public outreach side of science. Imagine a world where a paper from the Journal of Molecular Ecology is explained in normal terminology to a group of interested reporters. It is not impossible but will only start with greater outreach from the researchers themselves.