Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Scientific Babbel Fish

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,, 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.

Bookmark and Share


  1. The publishing world is moving towards making this change. The hold up is that academia is hesitant to abandon the tradition of writing a complex scientific paper. Science magazine experimented with one page summaries of research articles when they released the 11 papers describing an early hominid species, Ardipithecus ramidus, and its environment. Check it out, see what you think, and convince your neighborhood academic to be the first one to sign on!

    -- an editor from Science magazine

  2. Sounds great. I support the approach. Send all caution to the wind, ignore the facts and become an advocate of your own little foible. Brush over the complicated stuff, sugar coat it and make it palatable. In half a a page or less. Here's the catch, you are not doing science anymore, you are moving product. Say goodbye to objectivity and nuance, go ahead and sell your wares. Anyone selling their stuff that way are shills, you should be always on the lookout for this kind of self-aggrandizing behavior. And shun it.

    The Mad Spaniard

  3. I'd have thought winning the World Cup would have mellowed you out a little. Why can't you do solid experiments and good science, but explain it in a way that non scientists can understand?

  4. The Spaniard is not so mad. We've seen direct scientist-to-public "communication" go horribly awry. Remember cold fusion? In order to maintain scientific integrity, we must insist that peer review processes are followed, before statements are made to the public.

    After reviews are complete, it would be awesome if we scientists could explain our findings to schoolkids, grandmothers, and yes, even politicians in a way that they can understand.

    I think in general, there has been a movement latley to make scientific writing less cumbersome. We're seeing more active tense, for instance, and not so much passive.


  5. The Science Magazine one page summaries still includes the traditional science report online. The science is not being watered down at all.

  6. Much of this also depends on the relevance and impact the work has on the general public. At certain institutions, when advances are made in a field that can directly influence policy, press releases are conducted to inform the media. Unfortunately, the media have a tendency to embellish what they have been told, either because they do not understand or because they choose to twist the information to their perspective. It seems Stephen Hawking has found a rather lucrative way of explaining his science, though not all science is as interesting as the origin of the universe. Regardless, the publishing of scientific journals is critical to those in the field and should remain, but a better voice to the public is needed.