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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 8, 2010

Engaging the Public?

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Posted by Derek

I noticed this editorial in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, on getting scientific results out to the public. It's worth reading, but not in the way that they think. It starts out reasonably well:

As members of the research community, we know we can't rely on the popular media to correct the misperceptions the public might harbor about science-related issues. According to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey of Americans, carried out in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 76% of scientists feel the media do not adequately distinguish between substantial findings and those that are unfounded. Although it would be easy to say that the public “just doesn't get it,” the burden of passing along the understanding and implications of contemporary science falls squarely on the shoulders of those actively engaged in funding, publishing and carrying out research.

That's been said before, as the editorial itself notes, but it's no less true for all that. And the advice that follows is sound, if still rather boring: when you talk to non-scientists, try to gauge how much they know about the subject (without offending people), lay off the acronyms and jargon, look for helpful (and accurate) analogies, and so on. All fine.

But then the piece floats off into the mist - or, more accurately, floats off into about the year 1976.How do we get the word out to the public? Well, we need public officials on our side, it says. But take heart! "Globally, several world leaders have voiced support for increasing the promotion of science in their countries", and that should cheer anyone up on a rainy Monday morning. How anyone was able to type that line without burying their head in their hands is beyond me.

There's more. "It is important that we engage the public where they are", says the editorial, and I can't argue with that one, since trying to engage 'em where they ain't is unlikely to prove fruitful. And here comes the rain of musty pillows again: "A growing number of organizations and institutions are seeking to do this through several different approaches", says the next line. You can just hear the (unsigned) writer thinking "Dang it, what's the word count supposed to be on this thing again?" Whoever it is goes on to point out that Sloan-Kettering hosts an annual seminar for just that purpose.

It's only in the last couple of lines that anything useful gets said. Because if we agree that the public should know more about science, and if we've decided that we should go where they are to realize that, then the two places I'm sure that they might be found are online and watching TV, and maybe both at the same time. Just under the wire, the editorial manages to mention that there are these things called web sites, and even (quickly and quietly) suggests that people start their own.

I like that one, understandably. And although it's not like I get millions of readers here, I still get a lot more than I ever thought (between 350,000 and 400,000 page views a month these days). Many are people who are already in the sciences, but I continue to hear from readers with no particular science background at all, which makes me very happy indeed.

But how much science do I really get across? Well, it's not like I'm trying to teach people to do drug discovery, since it's unfortunately not well suited to trying at home. What I'd like for all science outreach activities to do, though, is get across what science really is, what research is like, and broadly how it works. There are so many things that people outside the field don't necessarily get to experience or realize: how much time we spend chasing ideas that weren't right, for one. How much time we spend making sure that we made what we thought we made, or that we did what we thought we did, and trying to nail down how much we can believe what we think that we know. How little that is, in many cases, and how we're always getting surprised even in the areas that looked well-understood.

Real scientific research is quite bizarre by the standards of many other occupations, and I don't think that people get to understand that. (I might add that the ways in which science gets compressed for dramatic effect tends to obscure all these things - TV and movie scientists are always so sure of themselves, and get their rock-solid results so quickly). So rather than start off by trying to teach everyone lots of details, I'd rather that more people understood what the whole effort is like. . .

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Press Coverage


1. Hasufin on November 8, 2010 11:24 AM writes...

I'm a technical writer.
Er, "technical communicator" according to the trade organizations.

Point is, I am a professional at translating "technical" to other languages; for myself I usually translate "tech" to "government". But there are writers whose specialty is translating from tech to layman. And it's a worthwhile skillset. It's also a very *rare* skillset. There's a surprisingly small number of people who are adept at presenting information in an effective, structured fashion. Fewer still are able to understand the original information as provided by subject matter experts.

The really problematic thing is, this ability is usually very undervalued. It's assumed that anyone in a given field is not only skilled in their specialty, but that they also possess the ability to present their knowledge. So software developers are expected to write user manuals; physicists are tapped to write magazine articles, etc. Yes, this is why your cell phone manual is incomprehensible.

I think one of the most crucial steps the science community needs to do is foster the ability to communicate as a specialty unto itself, and thus take responsibility for speaking to the public - either directly, or by using the media as a tool to spread knowledge. Historically, the media has been expected to take up that role, and it's clear they're not really able to do it.

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2. LeeH on November 8, 2010 11:25 AM writes...

Excerpt from the latest CSI Miami:

Cane: (To the lab tech) Get up to the crime scene and collect all the samples you can. We need to establish if our prime suspect was connected to this grisly crime. Text me as soon as the results are in.

Tech: Of course, I'll get right on it. And I'll make sure we get in on our next sequencing run. Shouldn't be any later than Thursday or Friday of next week. Saturday tops.

Cane: Next week! That scumbag will be in Venezuala by that time. We have SWAT teams outside their house as we speak. Can't you rush them?

Tech: That is rushing it. We're still waiting for a delivery of reagents, and the machine is due for routine servicing. Errors on the calibration standards are too high. The technician is being flown in, but we couldn't get him a discounted ticket until later this week. Southwest and Jet Blue were full up. No budget. You know what that's like.

Cane: (Peering over his sun glasses) I know it's midnight, but can we call another lab? Perhaps they have some spare capacity?

Tech: I can try, but the agreement has to go through legal, and they're still working on that big project. Something they call the Magna Carta, or something like that. Oh, and the material transfer agreements are backlogged too.

Cane: There must be something we can do! Those bastards took out an entire bus full of illegal immigrants from Cuba just as they entered the country. 150 innocent people dead, men, women and children. And they won't even honor the tread wear warranty!

Tech: Ok. Tell you what I'll do. I'll synthesize from scratch all the chemical components in all the reagents. Then, I'll use duct tape to recalibrate the machine so that all values are within manufacturer's specs. The technician can walk me through the procedure using a Skype session on one of the many monitors we have in the lab that normally just display random equations. I'll have the results to you within the hour, even if I have to turn the plotter knob manually to do it.

Cane: (Dramatically removing his gun from his holster) Time to put out the trash...

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3. ronathan richardson on November 8, 2010 11:32 AM writes...

The problem I have with these "promote science to the public" things is that if scientific findings were accurately described, virtually zero non-scientists would care to read them. Take the Trim21 paper--an accurate, jargon-free description of the (scientifically remarkable) findings of the paper would be "antibodies get inside of cells during a viral infection and they bind a receptor protein to turn on an antiviral response." What non-scientists would care about that? Who would discuss that at the dinner table? So it seems like getting the public excited about science requires incredible embellishment of what was discovered and the applications of it.

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4. Flavor on November 8, 2010 11:38 AM writes...

Unfortunately the CSI-style GCMS upgrade is always above our budget, according to the seller

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5. Curious Wavefunction on November 8, 2010 11:57 AM writes...

@3: There's naturally a fine balance between communicating the results accurately and spicing them up to make them attractive to the public. It's possible to achieve this balance but it's quite difficult and very few science writers can pull it off; people like Carl Zimmer, James Gleick and Philip Ball come to mind.

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6. hn on November 8, 2010 3:58 PM writes...

Face it - most of our research is just not that interesting to non-specialists, much less the general public. I agree with Derek that generally, it's more important we convey the process of research than the content.

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7. CMCguy on November 8, 2010 6:06 PM writes...

Derek as a reader attracted by the science content I believe you provide good balance and often offer experiential views of working as a scientist that trust non-scientist types can appreciate. I have on occasion forwarded your posts to relatives or non-science friends when you have hit on a particular topic of mutual interest.

The public knowledge or perception is a hard one. Majority of scientists spend their education and careers learning to deal with others in same or connected science disciplines. And although wish higher percentage of Pharma execs had such a background the good/great scientists that can communicate effectively with other organization areas beside technical, much less the public, appears to be a very rare combination. At the same time most science types are also not good dealing with media when it occurs and the media tend to either focus on negative aspects or over exaggerate to promise without balance and these skew the public impression. TV may reinforce these views as suggested I often wish science could do even half the things and half as fast with the confidence as portrayed. In the end forget CSI as I want Star Trek devices to scan and produce things since that is just as real isn't it.

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8. ronathan richardson on November 8, 2010 6:43 PM writes...

Along these lines, Nicholas Wade has an article in the NY Times today:

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9. S. Pelech - Kinexus on November 8, 2010 7:11 PM writes...

In an age where the heroes of society that are most commonly promoted and profiled by the various media tend to be athletes, rock musicians and actors, it is no wonder that the average person cannot relate to scientists and their concerns. Nevertheless, the general public appears to trust scientists above most other professionals in polls.

A small number of television programs like NOVA on PBS and the Nature of Things on CBC have done an excellent job in the promotion of science and scientists for decades. Increasingly, a few science and nature speciality television stations have even emerged, but these are only a tiny fraction of the thousands of TV stations that exist. The large chain book stores are also not very inspiring when it comes to science books for the lay public. Usually, science books are lumped on to one or two shelves right next to books about dogs, cats and flowers in the same book stores that have huge sections on self-help, religion and the paranormal.

To spark and cultivate an interest in science, the high school classroom is probably the best venue. Science teachers need to be better trained and empowered with more resources. In British Columbia, we have a fairly active Scientists-in-the-Schools program, in which academic and industrial scientists go to high schools to talk with students about their careers. Most students probably don't realize how many scientists are working away in the world until they actually meet one.

Unfortunately, most children will formulate their views about science and scientists from fictional movies and TV programs. While the portrayals of scientists can sometimes be sympathetic, it seems that we are generally brilliant in our special subject areas and pretty stupid about life in general. There are so many bad science fiction TV programs and films out there, really meant for the horror genera, it's no small wonder that many people think that evil spirits, aliens or clones are out there or coming soon to get us.

It is imperative that more established scientists take the time to engage the general public in the diverse venues that are available to us, including especially the Internet. This is one of the main reasons why I reply so frequently to website blogs. We need to be more available to school teachers and students, news reporters, TV and film producers, and a lot more proactive in engaging politicians and the general public. I would for one like to see more lay books about science and scientists written by scientists at my local bookstores. If the stories are compelling, I am sure that this would generate better movies and TV documentaries and inspire a lot more budding scientists.

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10. David Leahy on November 8, 2010 7:22 PM writes...

Why can't we do drug discovery at home? No management meetings. No performance reviews. No HR. No Lean Sigma initiatives ...

Sounds pretty good to me :)

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11. Bored on November 8, 2010 9:06 PM writes...

David is right. Tycho, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, the Curies all did their science at home. Beats watching the evening news for something to do.

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12. MI5 on November 8, 2010 11:02 PM writes...

I'm with Ronathan Richardson on this one. We often assume the mainstream media is doing a terrible job because they're not communicating the findings in the way a scientist would explain them. Trouble is, if they did they'd be out of business because they wouldn't have any readers! The Trim21 paper is a great example. It's a really interesting finding -- if you're a scientist or interested in science. But for most people it's kind of an obscure, esoteric thing. The only way the media managed to make it interesting was by dressing it up and calling it a potential "cure for the common cold" -- and unfortunately that's the kind of thing you have to do to get people to read that kind of article.

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13. Cartesian on November 9, 2010 5:44 AM writes...

It is true that some do not very well understand how research is, and it is easy to know by the expectation of some persons about how fast should the effects of a good idea come ; even if delays could be improved. And an effort of rigor is not a sign of madness : this is just because, some think that a researcher should be mad, what is wrong.

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14. Chris D on November 9, 2010 6:43 AM writes...

I'm a software engineer who originally signed up because of the completely awesome Things I Won't Work With series, but your thoughtful and funny writing is the draw. It's really interesting to get an honest inside opinion of drug research: pharma companies spend so much time lying that it's impossible to figure out when they're telling the truth, so your even-handed discussion of the costs and risks of the drug discovery process are invaluable.

And sometimes I disagree with you and think you're wrong, which is awesome because then I have to think about why and whether I'm actually right or just being stubborn.

Anyway: thumbs up. Good work. Carry on.

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15. Woody on November 9, 2010 8:41 AM writes...

I feel that the issue with "engaging the public" is a vicious circle of lack of communication skill and public disinterest. In the cold war era, the space race was in full swing and we were in a scientific race against the USSR, the public latched onto this and science was lauded. Kids wanted to be scientists when they grew up. Since then, things have taken a turn for the worse: the "dumbing down" of our society with reality TV and celebrity controversy has stemmed interest in anything real. The general public would rather watch brainless TV than listen to a science in any respect. This is not to say that the media really gives science its due attention either. Watch the news sometime and actually see how much time is given to "science", even when it is skewed out of context. Scientists are seen by the general public as "the smart, geeky people with no personal skills and nothing relevant to say to me." This in turn makes scientists say, "well then, the general public isn't worth my time." So we continue to focus on communicating within our peer groups and neglecting true science in the media. I think the key to solving the problem is to reintroduce science as a world changing thing (in all disciplines). Get the media involved, and most importantly focus more in the schools. Let kids see that the sciences are actually not just for the "nerds" and that it is cool. Maybe then we'll start to see a resolution and more kids will watch Nova and less of "the Hills".

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16. Bored on November 9, 2010 10:30 PM writes...

Woody you are spot on. A perfect analysis of what is wrong.

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17. cliffintokyo on November 10, 2010 3:39 AM writes...

Don't all you scientists commenting here remember your schooldays?
There are whole bunches of kids in secondary schools all over the world who are seriously interested in science, just like we were.
Why do you think there are so many kids in India who want to work in chemistry?
My school classes were the foundation for my lifelong interest and enthusiasm for everything scientific, and in particular organic-chemical.
If we want the public to be better acquainted with science and technology, we have to give them enough science knowledge and 'understanding' when young to capture their attention; I believe their interest usually endures.
Thinking further, there seems to be a huge gap between the scientific literature and the oversimplified headline items in the general media noted in several previous comments.
Science, Sci Amer, Chem World, ChemEngNews, Newton, etc (all ?) perhaps fill the gap to some extent, but they all seem to have become fixated either on specialists/industry or wow/awe factor over time.
Are there any general public oriented online magazines for science that we think are well written and we would recommend?
Science teachers might be interested.....

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18. Cartesian on November 10, 2010 4:53 AM writes...

To 15. Woody

"I think the key to solving the problem is to reintroduce science as a world changing thing (in all disciplines)."

Yes, I do really agree, it is a good way to give science what it deserves, and it is better than to be manipulated by some politicians who are not able to bring the important innovations of science.

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19. Fred the Fourth on November 10, 2010 1:36 PM writes...

It's Scientific American's fault. Back in the 60's I used to spend my spare time reading back issues in our garage. My preferred way of procrastinating from school work at the library was to read the bound back-issue volumes (in fact, I refused to visit any library without a set.) Amateur Scientist section was a perennial favorite.

Since at least 20 years ago, I can barely stand to pick up an issue.

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20. hn on November 10, 2010 1:46 PM writes...


Sure, most of us are all for more and better science teachers. But what can we do, as full time working scientists in very specialized fields? Faculty in college teaching programs could do outreach to school science teachers, but I'm sure they're overworked already.

For general science reading, I like NY Times, Scientific American, and New Scientist.

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21. cliffintokyo on November 11, 2010 1:59 AM writes...

#17 Follow-up

I did a *Google* search (what else?) and found a magazine called 'American Scientist' which, after scanning the online 'bites', seems to have its feet on the ground and to provide fairly objective articles on practical sci and tech.

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