“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.

Disney Can Teach Lessons in Communicating Science

3 05 2009

You might think of Disney World as merely a vacation destination, with or without the requisite kids. But I’ve found that Disney really has much to teach researchers about communicating science and technology. And I don’t just mean tricks to hold the attention of squirmy school kids during a school science talk.

Disney World offers lessons about communication research that can make your seminars, Web content, and articles more engaging and thus effective. I really didn’t come to appreciate what Disney World can teach about explaining research until my latest trip. So, I dedicated the visit to exploring science communication Disney-style and how it offers take-home lessons that researchers might find useful.

Disney communicates science so effectively because its “imagineers” understand that just providing information is not enough. In creating Disney World, they understood that audiences need more than just information; they also need motivation to take in that information. And wherever possible, the imagineers offer audiences an involving experience that makes the information memorable. Researchers attempting to explain their research usually miss out on the benefits of motivation and experience because they neglect them in their communications.

For example, you likely see your departmental seminar as purely an informational event meant to convey as clearly as possible your latest experimental results. But because your audience comprises real people, reaching them most effectively also means motivating them and giving them an engaging experience.

To show what I’m talking about, here are examples from my Disney World visit, along with ideas on how you might apply them to make your research communications more effective. First, how Disney uses motivation:

As you might expect, Disney effectively motivates by injecting whimsy and humor into its science communication, especially using its cartoon characters, For example, in EPCOT’s The Land pavilion, for example, the “Circle of Life” movie uses characters from The Lion King to engagingly convey the need for environmental preservation. And in “The Seas with Nemo and Friends” pavilion, the entry ride superimposes cartoon characters over the real-life aquarium in the facility. (By the way, Disney offers useful Web pages giving an overview of its “Environmentality”  and Education programs.

In motivating visitors, Disney also knows how to take advantage of teachable moments to explain science. For example, bathrooms in the Animal Kingdom’s Conservation Station have “Whiz Quiz” plaques posted over the urinals and on the stall doors. The Whiz Quiz over the men’s room urinals asked “How much do elephants pee?” (20 gallons), and How far can rhinos and tapirs pee? (15 feet).

Waiting for Animal Kingdom’s Dino-Land Dinosaur thrill ride, visitors hear a concise explanation of the meteorite impact believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. The ride itself is introduced by scientists including a black woman. And during the ride, the narrator calls out the species names of the animatronic dinosaurs as they menace the riders. The Dino-Institute also displays the science-friendly slogan “Exploration, Excavation, Exultation.” (Unfortunately, there was a mildly anti-science sign in the Dino-Land Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama carnival rides. The sign showed a cartoon dinosaur ejecting a white-coated scientist, with the caption “Scientific? Nope. Terrific!”)

In Downtown Disney, the T-Rex Café offers another good example Disney’s grasp of the motivating teachable moment. Diners are surrounded by a collection of animatronic dinosaurs that periodically erupt with roars and movement, giving them a feel for what real dinosaurs must have been like. The cafe also offers the educational “Paleo-Zone,” which includes an archeological dig and educational video games.

Certainly, in your communications you can’t summon animatronic dinosaurs to create teachable moments. Nor would you probably want to post your research abstracts on bathroom stalls. But you can create other teachable moments to offer audiences information about your work. You could post articles or displays in the waiting rooms, hallways, and cafeterias of your building–and not just leftover posters from meetings, but displays tailored for important visitors, from students to donors.

You could add to your Web site a category of links to interesting background articles, FAQs, Q&As, videos, and other content. This material could come from your professional association or funding agency. The Explaining Research Web site has a list of such sources.

Also, consider creating a Facebook page or blog on which you record interesting news about your work, as covered in Explaining Research.

In looking for places to create teachable moments, think like Disney. Ask yourself what venues your audiences frequent, and what kind of information might be appropriate to for those venues? Now, on to examples of how Disney uses experience to communicate:

For many visitors to EPCOT, their first experience is the Spaceship Earth ride inside the giant geodesic dome. This “dark ride” takes visitors past animated tableaus depicting the history of communication – for example an animatronic man pounding papyrus into a flat sheet and printers using the first printing press. However, the most involving experience, comes near the end of the ride. Visitors see on the computer screen in their ride pod an image of their face inserted into a scenario of life in the future. When the ride ends, they then emerge into an “interactive playground,” in which, for example, they can assemble a human body in 3D.

The Animal Kingdom also includes a multitude of science-related experiences. Besides such rides as the Kilamanjaro Safari through the park, visitors walking the pathways might encounter an explainer carrying an animal–we saw a caged spider–who can answer questions about its biology and behavior.

Visitors can also see how the park’s animals are cared for. They can peer through a window into the veterinary center in The Animal Kingdom’s Conservation Station in the Rafiki Planet Watch to watch animals get checkups and medical procedures.

Disney also makes its experiences multisensory, for example effectively using sound. “The Song of the Rainforest” comprises a set of dimly lit booths in which visitors don headphones to hear ultra-realistic rainforest sounds of animals, insects, chainsaws, and falling trees. The Planet Watch also offers information on projects visitors can do to create their own backyard animal habitats.

While you can’t bring such elaborate experiences to your audiences, you can come surprisingly close. When you give a seminar or talk, bring along an organism, mineral sample, instrument, or other object your audience can see, or even handle. If your work involves an interesting sound, include it in your presentation. Perform an engaging demonstration; or if there is some relevant, experiment your audience can do on their own, offer a handout or Web URL describing the experiment. Show a video of an experimental procedure. Even if that procedure is relatively mundane, the show-and-tell will make your talk more memorable. Direct your audience to an interesting place in the area where they can encounter an aspect of your work, for example a rock outcropping in a park or a museum exhibit. Ask for a volunteer from the audience, and use them in a demonstration, preferably a non-destructive one.

Also, think about ways to make your laboratory building experiential. You might install display cases with examples of your work. Or, if there is a public window into your laboratory, you might post information on the instruments and procedures that take place there. This assumes that your lab techs don’t mind having people peering at them.

It has always surprised and disappointed me how bereft laboratory buildings are of information and exhibits on the work going on there. This educational sterility has its consequences in making for an unfriendly atmosphere for audiences who might be interested in the work. Creating a version of a motivational, experiential “Disney World” in your laboratory has definite value in advancing your work. You never know when it might attract a passing student, colleague, administrator, or donor to become involved in your research.

In stressing Disney World’s use of motivation and experience, I don’t mean to imply that it fails to provide information. For most visitors, that information is packaged as modest nuggets embedded craftily in the fun experience. However, for those who want in-depth information, Disney does offer more extensive encounters. For example, most visitors in the Land pavilion are content with the short boat ride through the greenhouses, sliding quickly past displays of farming techniques such as aquaculture, hydroponics, and aeroponics. But visitors who want more can take the in-depth Behind the Seeds tour to learn about those techniques in more detail.

We took the Behind the Seeds tour, and besides learning more about the farming methods used, our enthusiastic, articulate agronomist guide showed us techniques of integrated pest management and tissue culture. We also tasted hydroponically grown cucumbers, and smelled samples of coffee, vanilla, pepper, and other crops grown in the giant greenhouses.

Disney certainly has far more resources than you do at their disposal to motivate visitors and give them memorable experiences. But with even a modest effort, you can make your talks, Web sites, articles, and videos more than just a Mickey Mouse production.

Welcome to The Research Explainer

29 08 2008

The Research Explainer aims to offer scientists, engineers, students, and public information officers a useful discussion of the latest developments in the technologies and techniques for explaining their work.

Dennis Meredith