“Dueling” Monkey Robot Videos Offer a Lesson in Communicating Research

8 10 2009

It’s rare that I get a chance to show vividly how  an ill-advised media policy can compromise communication of a piece of research. But two videos about development of brain-machine interfaces enable me to do just that. One video, below,  covers a story about Duke University neurobiologists using the brain activity of a monkey to control real-time walking patterns in a robot in Japan.

And a second video covers a story about University of Pittsburgh researchers using a monkey’s brain signals to control a robot arm, to enable the monkey to feed itself.

As you watch these videos, judge which one you think most effectively portrays the research and why. And guess which video received the most media play. (Although the research advances were both reported in 2008, I’ve just had a chance to do the analysis of their coverage.)

Both the Duke and the Pittsburgh research efforts are certainly important and newsworthy. But I think it’s fair to say that the Duke achievement–given the complexity of the walking behavior involved–is the greater of the two.

However, because Duke’s media policy severely limited what its video could portray, its research received far less media attention than the Pittsburgh story. Duke strictly prohibits any photos or videos depicting the use of animals in research, even if those images are central to the story. Thus, the Duke video could only feature an animation of the monkey on the treadmill, and not footage of the actual experiment. Not only was the animation primitive, but it was factually misleading. The “monkey” is anatomically inaccurate, looking more chimpanzee-like than rhesus-like. And the animation shows no evidence of electrodes attached to the monkey, leaving viewers to wonder how the signals got from the monkey’s brain to the robot.

In sharp contrast, the Pittsburgh video shows dramatic footage of the real monkey operating the robot arm to feed itself. The researchers cleverly  avoided complaints from animal rightists by obscuring the brain electrodes behind a piece of equipment. Also, it’s clear from the monkey’s behavior that it is perfectly comfortable.

Duke’s use of animation was also counterproductive in that it raised the most doubts in viewers, with one viewer commenting “This looks like BS. I’m not saying that it is, but the monkey isn’t real, the robotics footage is looped and shows feet never making solid contact with the ground, this may as well be fake as the stupid monkey.”

So, which video received the most coverage? Pittsburgh’s by far. Besides being featured on network news shows, it was posted on Web sites including BBC, PBS Online NewsHourNPR’s Science Friday, and Reuters. A subsequent video was also featured on the National Geographic Web site.  By contrast, the Duke footage showed up only on Reuters.

The New York Times did use videos in its Web coverage of both the Duke story and the Pittsburgh story, but the latter online story was made much more compelling by inclusion of its accompanying video.

But does it really matter that Pittsburgh’s research received more media attention than Duke’s? Yes, it does, given that media coverage reaches a wide range of key decision-makers, from donors to funding agency administrators, to legislators. And it matters because such media coverage also reaches prospective collaborators and other important scientific constituencies. Finally, increased media coverage influences scientific citations, as I discuss in the introduction to Explaining Research.

Duke’s refusal to depict animal research also has a broader moral and ethical dimension. In doing so, the university is evading its responsibility as a major research institution to emphasize the importance of animal research to medical advance—ironically aiding the cause of animal rights groups that oppose such research.

As an aside, an informal poll I did of major research universities found a broad spectrum of policies on depicting animals in research; but Duke was very much at the extreme end of that spectrum in its outright prohibition.

The broad lesson, I think, to be drawn from this case is that administrators need to get beyond their own expediency—perhaps even timidity—in setting communication policy. They should consider their broader responsibilities to their institution, its researchers, and science as a whole.



One response

8 10 2009
Earle Holland

Really good analysis. Dogmatic rules like Duke’s can lead to missed opportunities. While the fact that images of primates with brain implants and primates in restraints are perhaps the most undesirable pictures of animal use in primates, the Pittsburgh video did successfully evade blatant visualizations of those aspects. The fact is that such research is extremely valuable in the area of neuroscience and until a better alternative is presented, we need to continue doing such work. Like Pittsburgh, Duke could have positioned the animal such that the undesirable portions were omitted, if it wanted to. The animation is very, very lame. Research universities need to be proud of the work they do, rather than being scared to explain fully what goes on.

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