Why is NSF so far behind NIH in social media interactions?

As most of my readers will know, my research focus leads me to spend more of my time honing my NSF-based granting experience than NIH. Whereas I have submitted to NIH and gotten decent feedback, the pool of study sections that would even read an application from my lab is exceedingly small. However, the fact that it is possible for me to send applications to NIH means that I have devoted some time to figuring that process out.

Where I have been really impressed with NIH is the agency's willingness to engage scientists outside of the traditional channels and in a dynamic manner. My first exposure to this was the NIGMS blog, in which (now former) NIGMS director, Jeremy Berg, often posted behind-the-scenes type data on the granting process, which was often fodder for posts by DM. Whereas the NIGMS blog has had fewer posts of that nature since Berg left, Sally Rockey has taken up the reigns from the Office of Extramural Research blog. Hell, the OER is even on twitter!

So the NIH is willing to get it's message out to the blogosphere and twits, providing some truly interesting data in the process. What's more, based on anecdata from this blog, NIH is engaged in reading the blogosphere as well. The "NIH.gov" designation is a regular domain in my site stats, and I rarely post on topics as central to the NIH mission as others. Bottom line, NIH is willing to listen to the unwashed masses and other n'er do wells.

So what about NSF? Well, NSF has a twitter account, but a quick perusal suggests that it simply posts the same things that go out in the email updates that everyone can sign up for (which are rarely illuminating, except when they drop a random bomb). If you want to narrow the scope of NSF tweets you receive, each program area has an account (BIO is here), but it's a battle of meh.

Blogs? It's not clear that NSF knows what they are. They are certainly not employing blogs as an information dissemination tool (that I am aware of, but please correct me if I am wrong), nor does there appear to be much interaction with the blogosphere. We are allowed this table that breaks the funding numbers down, but beyond that the well is dry. In fact, even the numbers published in that table are difficult to interpret because if the mix of "funded" grant types that end up in the various categories. In the panels I am most familiar with, the numbers posted do not remotely match the review summaries I have or the numbers from the PO.

So why is it that NSF has almost no online interaction with its constituency, while NIH appears to be taking this head-on? Time to pull back the curtain, NSF.

6 responses so far

  • Clearly they need to make a committee to address this and get you on it.

  • a few thoughts.

    first, in NSF's defense they have tried some cool stuff, like the iPad app.

    second, NIH just has more resources - their budget is what, 4 times the size of NSF? so they have more to invest in this sort of thing.

    but as a guy who worked on Capitol Hill for a few years, I can tell you this - from a communications and political perspective, NIH is pretty savvy. They've always understood the PR value of their discoveries and they gained allies on the Hill by leveraging that good PR to give "credit" to the politicians who supported their funding. Someone there has decided there's a measurable ROI to strategic public relations, and now that includes social media.

    Further, NIH has a messaging advantage over NSF. NIH can say "here's what we're doing to try to cure cancer." In my experience NSF says stuff like "we've isolated a nanoparticle" or something. The NIH message obviously resonates really well. The NSF messages are received differently - the general public basically assumes that nano-thing is nice, but often there's no immediate and direct relevance to their lives.

    Here's why this is important - if I'm in a government agency that works on a shoestring budget and is always first in line for more cuts, anything I invest in communications is going to be designed to appeal to the broadest group possible and maximize my ability to find more funding from Congress. The ROI case for building a blog that only a handful of scientists will read may be cool but doesn't merit the investment on political grounds. So they opt for consumer-friendly iPad apps.

    But the most important point is something you said - "they don't know who they are." Science communication is dominated by other areas of the administration. OSTP at the White House. The Department of Energy. The Department of Defense (Armed With Science is really good). NOAA. NASA. Even EPA. NSF's research touches on all these other fields, but they don't have the high profile or in many cases the budget of these other agencies. So from a strategic communications perspective, they're SOL.

    they could change this in a couple of ways. One way is to highlight one or two super researchers there, train them on media and communications, and just get out there. but that also takes resources, and NSF rightfully devotes as many dollars as possible to research. but the most important thing is to decide "who they are" - assert a unique position within the administration on science, developing some strategic messaging around that position, find the right spokespeople, and then leverage whatever channels the right audience uses - blogs, newspapers, telephones, smoke signals, whatever. Be where the audience is.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    David, blogs are free and NIH institute directors are the ones making the most interesting contributions to the blogosphere, not some trained blog puppet. In short, no extra resources would be required, just a desire to do it.

  • Agreed with PLS don't want to here some PR lackey making shitty posts on the official NSF blog, would rather here some real news or info about the granting process from a bigwhig, someone that has actual power and plays a role in funding decisions.

  • Blogs are by no means free, even if governments choose to use free, unsecure, open-source platforms like wordpress or other platforms like blogger and not their own, relatively secure servers and content management systems that cost money to maintain. Initial drafts of blog posts for other government agencies are typically written by "trained blog puppets." Or maybe "PR lackeys" like me. The people in those offices have specialized training and are usually quite good at what they do.

    Yes, even the ones attributed to the bigger names in agencies go through drafts and they're usually signed off by someone in the communications office. Sometimes they're reviewed by counsel. Those people get paid. They could be doing other things, like drafting testimony for Congressional hearings explaining why what they do is so important, or remarks at a new facility or event for the media. You're certainly right that the political will must exist to start something, but you can't reasonably suggest this is a cost-free endeavor.

    The people you call "trained blog puppets" and "PR lackeys" at these agencies are actually public servants dedicated to promoting and supporting science. They try to make your work accessible to the general public and convince those holding the purse strings that your work is worth the investment. They deserve better treatment than the insults you've hurled here, behind pseudonyms. It's long past time we all realized we're on the same team here and started helping each other out.

    Agencies like NSF are scared shitless right now - anything they say can be and often is used against them. I agree that blogging can be helpful if it's done right, and there's certainly some value in helping people apply for funding. But a lot of strategic work has to come ahead of simply setting up a wordpress account, and it's hard to get that work done when you're always looking over your shoulder at folks looking for ways to demonize you and cut your budget.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    David, I think you are missing what has been so helpful via the NIH blogs by the higher-ups. I'm not looking for their insights on science or what is being funded and how the money is being used - those things are sent out daily if you sign up for NSF email updates. I am more interested in the "inside baseball" data on the granting process that is being released.

    Look at the post I linked to above (https://loop.nigms.nih.gov/index.php/2010/09/30/nih-wide-correlations-between-overall-impact-scores-and-criterion-scores/). It contains four sentences (5 if you include the figure caption). That's it. But it also reveals a lot of information about the granting process. This is what has made the NIH contributions so helpful. Granted, the previous post (https://loop.nigms.nih.gov/index.php/2010/08/09/scoring-analysis-1-year-comparison/) was longer, but again, data heavy.

    Beyond that, it would appear that the NIH is make a concerted effort to engage scientists at multiple levels in a way that NSF does not appear to have even thought about. I'm simply making the comparison and asking why NSF is so far behind. I would bet that budget is not the limiting factor here, but I could be wrong.

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