This is the age of Science Communication.
Science communication used to conjure up images of the BBC’s Horizon programme (when it used to be good) or of Carl Sagan talking about “billions and billions of suns” or, if we go back far enough, of Jacob Bronowski talking about the Ascent of Man.
These days, though, science communication has become big business. Richard Dawkins, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, John Gribbin, Steven Pinker, Daniel Kahnemann, Ben Goldacre and numerous others have become household names not so much for their ‘pure’ academic work but for their popularising of the sciences.
TED speakers, like American Idol contestants, have become akin to academic popstars on the basis of their short ‘inspirational’ talks delivered to adoring audiences from the now famous red spot.
Meanwhile, PhD students are urged to enter competitions in which they present their research, in an ‘engaging’ way, to lay audiences. Some attend modules where they are given training in how to write press releases, to give ‘elevator pitches’ and to present their work in easily digested soundbites in talks lasting no more than a few minutes. It’s science for the era of short attention spans. Impact is in; nuance is out.
At the same time, universities are highly active on Twitter and the web generally, ready to spring into action and publicise the latest research output from their various research ‘centres of excellence’. Science communication has become science marketing.
The consequence of all of this ‘communication’ is that we, the public, are provided with a regular supply of science ‘stories’ that, ironically given the March for Science, are bordering on ‘fake news’. Or maybe it’s fairer to say that they are stories in which the writer is being economical with the truth. And the thing is, these stories don’t just emanate from badly-informed journalists concerned with maintaining readerships levels; they also come from within the science establishment itself.
While all science suffers from the problem of hype, it would appear that the biggest problems are to be found in the biomedical sciences. How many times do we hear of some new discovery or other (often in the very basic sciences especially human genetics) and the punchline is inevitably that the discovery could lead to treatments and even cures within a ridiculously short time period. Scientists and institutions are complicit in perpetuating a culture in which the expectations and hopes of patients and their families are raised, in most cases to be dashed when no new drugs materialise. Scientists need to be far more aware of the fact that their Pavlovian habit of ‘talking up’ the impact of their work affects real, vulnerable people. Journalists need to understand this too. When scientists claim that their discovery could lead to new treatments, many patients don’t hear the ‘could’ and even if they do, they don’t appreciate the long road from laboratory to approved drug.
Some time ago, there was a report in the media to the effect that scientists in Galway had managed to grow beating heart cells in the laboratory. The report then stated that it was hoped that the development could, in time, contribute to the development of treatments for cardiac conditions like heart failure, arrhythmia and the risk of sudden cardiac death in children. So from growing cells in a lab, a huge leap is made to the highly emotive subject of children dying from heart disease. There is nothing technically wrong with the story but it is economical with the truth in the same way as saying that if you buy a lottery ticket “it could be you”. And it all started with a press release from NUIG.
Science, especially biomedical science has a problem in that in the rush for personal and institutional prestige, the hopes, needs and fears of the patient become lost. The reputation of the researchers and the reputation of the institution are prioritised and there is a growing trend for the peer-reviewed publication of research articles to be preceded by media campaigns. And many academics are seriously discussing the use of alternative metrics to measure the quality and impact of scientific research.
All of this is tolerable if you have developed a new sensor to be used in a manufacturing process but it’s not acceptable when you are dealing with findings that raise the hopes and expectations of the vulnerable.
So instead of marching and adopting a slightly superior attitude, scientists should be asking hard questions of themselves. How many scientists have actually made an effort to get involved with national debates other than when it concerns them directly, as it does when research budgets are cut? And how many scientists who have written letters to papers urging the government to fund more basic research have actually ever gone to the trouble of making a genuinely evidence-based case for the taxpayer to fund their academic research. Very few I suspect, as most submissions I have read rely strongly on anecdote.
I didn’t march for science because I think the whole thing came across as a bit smug at a time when science has lots of internal problems of its own, including its very own problem with fake news.
And, anyway, the Munster match was on.