Public engagement and a "radio project"

Jul 09 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Public engagement is always a topic that circulates through blogs and twitter, which makes sense since those using social media have a scientific face to the public. There are many who blog with the intention of bringing science to a general audience, and do it quite well. That's never really been my intention here, but I do support efforts to educate the public on what it is we do. After all, public money is being used to fund our labs and people with little scientific background are making decisions that critically affect our ability to do our jobs.

That being said, I have also never been at peace with self-promotion. I realize there are times when it is necessary, but I have an inherent distaste for such things. I think the reason scientists are not all that active with the media stems from this, in combination with a concern about how the final story will portray their work.

I've recently had opportunities to discuss one of our projects with both print and radio media. My initial reaction was to beg off, but it felt hypocritical to do so. I did both interviews and the article was fine and my best sick-kermit-the-frog impression radio spot was mercifully brief in the final cut. But I came away from the radio interview, in particular, realizing how terribly unprepared I was to make a strong public message out of the work we are doing. I probably should have read up a bit in the hour I had between interview request and getting the phone call, but the radio host did a good job of summarizing our conversation and then providing my commentary for a brief sound bite. Lucky this time.

But one thing that struck me was what the project that was the focus of this minor media attention. Of the several projects we have on-going in the lab, this one is the most straight-forward and has the least "up-side". When it was funded, the granting agency stripped out the most innovative part in favor of addressing their goals. Fair enough, but the only reason the media latched on to it is because there is a local connection to the work. It wasn't the science, it wasn't a publication in a high-profile journal, it was simply proximity.

In a way, that's a bit depressing. In another, it's understandable. But we talk about making science accessible and all I've managed to do here is poorly explain our lab's most white toast science. Clearly I need to be more proactive in getting the word out about the unique and interesting work we are doing. It may be time to ignore my dislike for self-promotion in the name of communication.

4 responses so far

  • LD says:

    I share this dislike (and for the same reasons you gave). I won't even allow my picture and a blurb about my lab's work to appear on the departmental webpage, which has a rotating set of photos/blurbs about faculty in a small compartment on the front page. Your commentary is making me re-think this, but I have a long way to go.

  • Anon says:

    Most universities have public relations people that can be very helpful. They can help you prepare talking points, and even do a mock interview with you. I worked with good people at both my current institution and my post-doc. The political process in the US is pretty messed up, but there is a reason they spend so much money on public relations types.

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    We encounter this communication issue all the time. The most "newsworthy" developments in science are usually those which have some "hook" that people can relate to. It makes sense, because who really wants to know about the latest discovery in why the enzyme that reverses linear ubiquitin modification is important? What the media want (more specifically, the writers who compete with their own colleagues to get their stories past their producers and onto air) is a story that is short, neat, makes intuitive sense and can be summarized without using awkward acronyms. They don't want lessons in molecular and cellular biological esoterica.

    Our challenge is to resist the temptation to dumb down or trivialize research for media "sells" as that is both patronizing and ultimately fruitless. The almost standard last question in an interview is, "When will this be test/technology/result make a difference/be available/impact the lives of patients". You'd think the interviewers would be suspicious by now of the standard answer, "Oh, 5 years at the most".

    So media are most interested in the human side of the story - how it relates to others. Surprisingly, most good science stories do have a natural "angle" in this respect, but it's usually not the most obvious one. If you challenge assumptions, often the interviewer will recognize there is something here worth pursuing. Why!

  • Casey says:

    How the media decides what science is newsworthy is pretty mystifying. Presumably, as more good work becomes open-access, more will be directly accessible, but journalists won't be able to rely on Science and Nature (as much) to tell them what the sexiest research is. Clearly, the process of science communication needs a bit of a re-think.

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