Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Sagan Effect and Public Support for Research

The media chief at the $3 billion California stem cell agency yesterday put together a first-rate piece that invoked Meryl Streep, Carl Sagan and Lindsay Lohan and said that scientists can learn something from them.  

The item by Kevin McCormack, senior director of communications for the stem cell agency, dealt with telling the story of the facts and the romance of science. Not to be too crass about it, but his item piece also dealt with generating the public enthusiasm that will lead to more cash for researchers’ labs. Maybe even do some public good.

McCormack, who has labored both in public relations and in the grimy trenches of journalism, wrote about the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference last week in San Jose on science communications. The session explored ways to get the public to both understand and care more about science and technology and to get scientists to do a better job of explaining both to them.

A number of problems have plagued science communications for decades. One is that science is sometimes difficult for the general public and reporters to understand. It is also difficult to find researchers who can “speak English” – explain what they are doing and why it is important in ways that resonate with the media and their readers and viewers.

Another problem is that sometimes scientists who are good at explaining are dismissed by their colleagues as less than professional or as not really good scientists.
One rendering of invidia at work

McCormack said there is a risk. He wrote,
“Some scientists reported facing a backlash from colleagues who felt they were trying to hog the limelight. They fell victim to what is called the ‘Carl Sagan’ effect, which holds that if someone is spending that much time and effort communicating science to the public they must not be a very good scientist to start with.” 
From what I have seen over the last decade of watching the stem cell agency, such a reaction also often seems a case of invidia at work. Seeing another researcher’s name in print can trigger a serious case of irritation.

McCormack quoted Stanford’s Noah Diffenbaugh on reasons for taking his science to the public.
“I feel it is my responsibility to answer questions from the public when asked, because my research group is publicly funded by taxpayer dollars through agencies like the NSF. And as a public citizen I feel responsible that if we are having a public dialogue about climate change that I should be part of that dialogue.” 
McCormack’s piece on the stem cell agency’s blog, The Stem Cellar, is a good reminder that the science community cannot take for granted public support for science and research funding. Most people are heavily focused on other matters that they believe are more relevant to their lives, such as their jobs and getting their children off to school.

It is up to researchers to make building support and educating the public and the media about the benefits of their efforts a regular part of their profession. Perhaps the stem cell agency could even encourage it by adding a communications component to their awards.

As for Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan, it is best to go directly to McCormack’s piece to see how their communication works. It could be inspirational.
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