Newsforce Network: a New Force in News

19 03 2010

As readers get more and more of their news online, and as the number of journalists continues to shrink, communicators are developing new Newsforce Network logostrategies to get their online news noticed, such as search engine optimization and the use of social media. The traditional advertorial is evolving online, too, and one of the most interesting new advertorial services is Newsforce Network. Basically, it enables clients to develop editorial content that readers can access from headline links in a special box on the Web pages of major national media. Here’s an example from the Newsforce Network site.

To learn more about Newsforce, I asked Chief Marketing Officer Dana Todd to explain how it works and what it means to research communicators:

How do the advertorials created by Newsforce differ from traditional banner ads?

Our Newsforce “headline units” rotate in the same spot as IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) standard banner ads, so there’s no need to carve out a new box on a publisher template. The difference is primarily in two areas: visual experience and marketer strategy. Visually, we offer a two-part creative: a headline/teaser which looks similar to editorial headlines (but is marked as Sponsored Content)—which then clicks to a micro-site that tells the full story in text, pictures and (optionally) video. In terms of marketer strategy, we find a unique niche with brands that need a longer-format creative to persuade, inform and arouse interest from the public. This might also include communication goals that are typically reserved for PR, such as research publishing, issues platforms, or corporate social responsibility messages. Newsforce advertorials fit that bill perfectly—we combine the sophisticated targeting capabilities of ad serving systems with a unique branded storytelling experience.

What news sites can Newsforce content appear on?

First, let me clarify: we’re not a network per se—we license our technology to news publishers and other networks. That being said, we’ve found a lot of demand for high-quality advertorial like ours. Over 500 websites in the US are now “Newsforce-enabled,” including most major regional newspapers and 100+ broadcast news sites. Some of our sites include Politico, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Investors Business Daily, and New York Daily News. We are actively adding new publisher partners and resellers, and are developing partnerships with key vertical news publishers in Health and Politics.

What are the advantages to the media sites of having such advertorial content?

The main advantages are revenue and inventory differentiation. News is a special type of media, with the highest level of trust among readers—and properly labeled advertorial and sponsored content has long been a successful offering in print, without causing any damage to the news brand. We’re simply helping news publishers automate the process and create more online revenue streams. Banner ads as a rule tend to be commoditized in terms of pricing, with the average banner CPM (cost per thousand impressions) bringing in $1CPM or less. Rich media (animated Flash banners) brings in higher dollars (avg. $18CPM) but is not really an accessible creative type for many advertisers—it’s costly to produce. Newsforce is exclusive to news publishers at this time, is easy for advertisers to produce (they’re already writing content for Web and PR) and lets publishers set their own rates. Most of our publishers are charging $5CPM-$20CPM per headline.

Could a university, government or corporate laboratory target placements to specific media sites or to topic-relevant pages within a site?

Absolutely. That’s one of the exciting product differentiators between us and a syndication company. With a digital advertorial service, you’re paying for extended and higher visibility and you can target not only the content on the page, but also the person reading it! We can target against profiles such as demographics (region, gender, age), political party, lifestyle, job seekers, alternative health, you name it.

What can content consist of?

We typically like to see a well-written and interesting story, 400-1000 words, with plenty of hyperlinks throughout the story for people to click on. We also allow a logo, up to two pictures w/captions, and can embed YouTube videos or other multimedia links. You can see a sample page here of a thought leadership article by a tech company. We’ll be expanding our story templates in the future to try different layouts and branded content styles.

Is there evidence that viewers perceive Newsforce content differently from banner ads?

Absolutely. they’re more likely to “skim” our headlines because they’re in reading mode, gathering the news quickly at a scan and filtering what they want to explore further. We see a significantly higher visual interest in long-form sponsored text links than other types of ads, both banner and text-link ads such as Google Adwords and Yahoo links. We did an extensive eye tracking study early on to determine whether or not people were interested in our headlines. Newsforce headlines, which are of high editorial quality, got an 8x attention from readers over banners, and a 3x attention over traditional contextual text link ads.

How would a client go about creating content for Newsforce placement?

Tell a great story—or even better, a series of stories so you can test reader interest on each. We all make assumptions in our storytelling about what’s interesting, but we’re not always right. There’s higher click activity on personal interest stories, health, lifestyle, and anything with numbers (research) or a local interest. People are most interested in the things they think could affect them or their community (geographic and business community).

How expensive are Newsforce advertorials?

We have regional partners who will sell small packages of $500, and our national buys start at $10,000 per month for an order—it’s very similar to planning and buying premium banner space. Most campaigns run at least 90 days so that you can test properly and get a decent share of voice. If your audience is familiar with CPM pricing, the range is $5-$20 CPM, depending on the targeting options and sites.

Under what circumstances would research institutions consider syndicating content via Newsforce?

Well of course we’d like it to be all circumstances! But we understand that not every storyline merits a promotional budget underneath it. By the way, we don’t call our service a syndication service. Syndication is low-cost and a great option for many PR activities, but it’s relatively passive in terms of providing controls. When companies want to “supersize” their exposure and guarantee its visibility to a particular audience, that’s where Newsforce is a valuable service. You’re not dependent on pickups from journalists—you’re speaking directly to readers.

How do you measure the impact of posted content?

We track everything, and we support third-party tracking tags on our links so that advanced analytics can be employed for follow-on conversion tracking and visitor behavior modeling. It’s certainly the most granular feedback anyone has ever gotten before, compared to traditional PR methods.

How would you say Newsforce represents a trend in online media relations?

There’s a significant and continuing fragmentation of what we consider to be “media.” With over 40,000 journalists laid off just last year, and the emergence of thousands of competing news sources and blogs for people to read, it’s not as simple as just picking up the phone and getting someone from mass media to help you get the word out. Those days are over. Most PR firms are gravitating towards social media as their next tool, since it feels more comfortable and similar to activities they did in traditional media relations (find influencers, pitch them stories). More aggressive and experimental folks in the digital marketing space are taking over a lot of the digital PR activities, and are trying out things like optimizing press releases and other content for search engines, building co-branded content with publishers, and building their own syndication channels. We feel that Newsforce gives companies a “big stick” to wield that helps replace the mass media voice they used to have, and allows companies that aren’t Apple or IBM to have the same chance at getting national attention for their stories.





NSF’s “Science360” Offers a Panorama of Science

17 03 2010

The National Science Foundation’s Science360 News Service Web site and daily e-mail news feed offers an engaging selection of interesting science and also a great opportunity for scientists and communicators to highlight their work. Anybody can subscribe to the news feed by just entering their email address in a box on the site. To learn more about Science360, I interviewed Dana Topousis—acting division director for public affairs in NSF”s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs:

How did the idea for Science360 originate?

NSF decided to create the Science360 News Service in 2008, when we realized that science coverage in the national mainstream media had dwindled.  Most of the remaining science reporters were covering space and health, and NSF funds basic science and engineering across the board. We also began discussions with public information officers (PIOs) at universities and institutions around the country whose researchers receive NSF funding. We wanted to find ways to collaborate with those PIOs to help promote research results across all aspects of science and engineering.  We wanted to create a service to draw reporters’ attention to the amazing discoveries being made every day that they may not have time to track themselves.

What is the editorial mix for the service?

We seek breaking news, fresh video and audio content, engaging images with a brief caption, science blogs, and current highlights from science journals and publications.  Most of our submissions come from public information officers and other federal agencies.  We seek any science-related content, and we don’t limit the News Service to only NSF-funded research news.

What kind of distribution does it have now?

Our distribution list includes mostly journalists, freelance writers, and public information officers, all of whom are welcome to use the Science360 News Service content for ideas or for use on their respective websites and publications.

What kind of impact on science communication do you believe the service has had?

We’ve seen an increase in both subscribers and contributors, and we’ve seen content from Science360 News Service carried on websites such as Popular Mechanics, U.S. News & World Report and LiveScience.com. Each item in the News Service has an RSS feed attached, and we’ve seen items picked up on Yahoo News, Twitter, and other outlets.  We also post some of our News Service content on NSF’s Facebook page.

How are the articles, releases, videos, podcasts and blog posts chosen?

Every day, we receive submissions from public information officers and federal agencies. We also look through EurekAlert! for fresh content. Our editor reviews science coverage and news items to see what topics are popular or what gaps we might fill. We choose our blog posts from Discover, Scientific American, scienceblogs.com, public information officers and researchers.  We also have a multimedia editor who contacts public information officers and federal agencies on a regular basis about submitting video and audio content; some of that multimedia content is from regular-running series. Every Monday, we feature a new episode of Science Nation, a video series that NSF creates—in collaboration with the former CNN science and technology team—that highlights innovations in science and engineering.

Do you do some of your own production?

Yes. We produce video and audio slideshows, videos, and podcasts. We also write our own press releases and feature stories.

How do you choose those stories?

We select our stories based on current news items.

What advice would you  give communicators about developing the best content for Science360?

We look for fresh content and content that showcases the vast array of science and engineering research. We also ask communicators to provide us as much advance notice of their upcoming stories as possible. And we welcome communicators to write to editor@science360.gov if they have any questions. That email address is also how communicators can submit their stories for consideration.





Researchers, Do You Need Communication Training? Some Answers:

16 03 2010

In Explaining Research, I strongly recommend that scientists and engineers consider communication training. To give a better idea of the nature and benefits of such training, I asked an expert—Carol Schadelbauer, Vice President, Health & Science Advocacy at Burness Communications—to address questions researchers typically ask about the process. Carol is director of the Burness Health & Science Advocacy Institute, which has successfully enhanced the communication skills of  many hundreds of scientists and health professionals. I think you’ll find her answers a terrific guide:

I give seminars all the time, and I teach undergraduate classes. Why would I need communication training?

Experience teaching or giving seminars is both a blessing and a curse. It means you’re probably comfortable speaking to others (including large groups), which is a hurdle that many have to overcome.  The curse comes from the fact that you are used to a “captive” audience that is already interested in your work—in great detail!  The structure of classroom teaching lends itself to “lectures” not to “the bottom line.”  Opportunities to speak with media or decision makers almost never last as long as you’d like and rarely follow the path you expect.

Excellent communications training should refine the all-too-rare skill of describing your work and its importance in a concise, effective and memorable way. You’ll learn that audience matters and must be identified before you prepare messages. But how do your messages stand out above the noise of the barrage of news, advertising and requests? Your job is to make your work and your message rise above this cacophony and motivate people with power, resources and a platform to act. Training enables you to do this and helps you be prepared for the unexpected.

I don’t talk to the media very much. Would training still help me?

Whether you’re talking with reporters, policymakers, funders, stakeholders, the public or your grandmother or brother, this type of experience is not to be missed. Learning to be memorable with impact is a valuable life lesson that can have a powerful effect on so many people. Adding clarity and a sense of urgency to your work will engage a whole new cadre of supporters, allies and even champions.  Perhaps more importantly, communications skills can also teach you how to proactively engage with media. After all, if you aren’t out there communicating the importance of your work, who will be? And more importantly, will they be doing so accurately?

What do training sessions typically consist of?

Trainings teach what to say and how to say it. They teach how to stay in control and not let the interviewer or questioner take over. Most importantly, they teach you how to be impactful, and if necessary, persuasive in any important situation.

Trainings through the Burness Health & Science Advocacy Institute range from a few hours to four days to a several-week course and are designed for health professionals, researchers, scientists, students and a host of other types of advocates.  They are designed to be as engaging and practical as possible. Our whole goal is to equip you to be as memorable as possible. We work with large and small groups and individuals. We often use cameras to focus on delivery skills and hone in on messages. We role play with one-on-one interviews, talk shows, remote interviews, policymaker meetings, testifying before legislative committees, and even mock cocktail parties.

What are some of the main communication problems or misconceptions you see in people you’re training?

What we love about researchers is that they have a passion for their work that is infectious. However, one of the biggest challenges is that more often than not, we see incredibly passionate and articulate researchers assume the role of a serious and often detached academic when they meet with reporters, policymakers and other stakeholders.  They are compelled to be boring because of fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing; fear that their peers will think less of them; fear that the reporter will take things out of context. The best way to avoid this is to ask these questions in preparation for an interview:  Why did I go into this field of work?  Why am I driven toward this scientific discovery? Humanizing you and your science by opening your audience up to your passions is a highly effective tool that results in immediate engagement with your audience, and instant credibility. Be yourself and have fun.

One other area stands out among researchers and health experts: They love process. But the media does not. It takes “process” to do science—from hypothesis, to methodology, to results to conclusion. Reporters, policymakers and most everyone really just want the bottom line. What happened?  What were your results?  And also, what does this mean to me? Why should I care about this right now? We tell folks to obsess about accuracy (always be honest!), but let go of precision. Forget the details in between. And please leave your jargon at the door! Use simple, vivid words!

How do I know when I’m “trained?”

The most common feedback we get at the end of a training session is this: “I wish I had this training years ago.”  Or, “Graduates students need this. Early-career professionals need this. Senior researchers need this!” Like any skill, there is no point at which you’re “done” learning. And this stuff takes practice and lots of it. But you’ll know when you’re ready for an interview or important meeting or presentation if you’ve adequately prepared messages, and drilled yourself (or asked someone to drill you) on the toughest questions you imagine you’d ever get. As one broadcast journalist has said, if an intelligent 12-year-old could understand what you’ve said, then you’re ready!

How have others found the training useful?

We’re lucky to have a chance to track some of those we’ve trained by coaching them after their trainings. We can put their training skills into practice. Some have increased confidence in their abilities to do media interviews and have done so. Others have advocated for increased funding with state and federal policymakers with success. Some have convinced a donor to provide the seed money for a new project. Some found their voice by using persuasive skills and memorable words to move their field’s leadership in a new direction—one that may impact and benefit patients and their families. One doctor told us that the training “set me on a path I couldn’t have imagined.  [He] will use these skills forever.”

What resources do you recommend to help me learn more about communications?

There are a lot of great books on message, communications skills and more, including Explaining Research by Dennis. Another that comes to mind is Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, which gives great real-life examples and tips for communicating clear ideas that are memorable!

But the most important thing to do is be a student of the media and of messages. What quotes and messages worked and didn’t work on television, in print and on radio? Why? What would you have done differently? This is a great daily exercise to develop your communications skills. Occasionally you may want to take the “bar stool test,” once described to us by one of our trainees. Sit down next to someone on a swiveling stool, and if they swivel their stool away from you after you start talking about your work, you’ll need some more practice!

Our Burness Institute blog, “Above the Noise”, attempts regularly to “be a student” of the good and bad of communications we read, hear and see every day.  Check it out.





Communicating Research in 3-D Virtual Worlds

5 03 2010

Today you write news releases and feature stories, produce videos and podcasts, and use social media to disseminate research news; but in the near future you could also add 3-D models, interactive simulations, and immersive virtual environments to your communications toolkit. Given that we humans are naturally perceptually three-dimensional, you can imagine how such media could add to the impact and information value of your communications.

The major force driving communications into an online 3-D world is that important audiences are already there. For one thing, a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that more Americans already get their news online than from newspapers or radio, although both still lag behind television. And another survey showed that more than half of all Americans play video games of some kind, undoubtedly in 3-D.

The education community is already using immersive Web environments, adapting existing 3-D interactive virtual worlds such as Second Life; and there are extensive materials on use of Second Life in education. Basically, the environment enables students to attend virtual lectures, move around in the cartoonlike world as avatars, and communicate with one another—frankly capabilities that don’t seem to add much value to the educational experience. Indeed, “the virtual world has not lived up to the hype,” writes Jeffrey Young in a critical article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He reports that

Moving around in Second Life can be so clunky that some professors and students have decided that it’s just not worth the hassle …. If all you need to do is chat with far-flung students, there are many easier ways to do it…. Plus, a lot of decidedly nonacademic activity goes on in Second Life, and it’s difficult to limit access so that only students can enter a classroom there.

And while there is a new project called OpenSimulator that aims to improve educational uses of immersive environments, it still does not offer particularly new interactive capabilities.

Writes Young, “It turns out that virtual worlds are at their best when they look nothing like a traditional campus. Professors are finding that they can stage medical simulations, guide students through the inside of cell structures, or pre­sent other imaginative teaching exercises that cannot be done in a physical classroom.”

This promise could be realized by a new flexible open-source system called OpenCobalt. Watch the video below for an introduction:

As the video shows, the OpenCobalt environment enables users not only to naturally interact and collaborate with each other and with traditional videos and Web pages; it also enables them to play with 3-D objects and simulations in an engaging and informative way.

Users of OpenCobalt will not be limited to the usual keyboard and mouse, but can also interact with the environment using multitouch screens, as this video illustrates. To me at least, the authoring system —as illustrated in this video—is intuitive enough that designers can master it well enough to work with communicators to create effective interactive environments and other products.

“Wonderful stuff can happen when you move away from the page metaphor,” asserts Duke researcher Lombardi, one of OpenCobalt’s architects, in an article on the Duke Research blog. “We’re living in a 3-D world. We need to interact with each other and with information in 3-D spaces.”

Certainly, such immersive environment platforms as OpenCobalt are still in their infancy. And, there is an element of trendiness that leads Young to comment that “Maybe 3-D online environments are just one of those technologies that sound cool but never fully materialize, like personal jetpacks.”

But there does seem to be legitimate communications value in such 3-D interactivity. And, of course its flashiness can attract eyeballs. So, it’s not too early to at least begin considering how to use virtual environments to not only communicate research more effectively, but make your communications stand out in the tidal wave of information inundating today’s Web.





The Seismic Changes in Science Communication: “Radio In Vivo” Interview

4 03 2010

I was interviewed about the extraordinary changes facing science communication and about Explaining Research, on the science radio program Radio In Vivo, WCOM-FM, on March 3, 2010.

The discussion with host Ernie Hood explored the new pitfalls and opportunities facing scientists, public information officers and journalists in communicating  research to important audiences—colleagues, potential collaborators in other disciplines, officers in funding agencies and foundations, donors, institutional leaders, corporate partners, students, legislators, family and friends, and the public.





Duke Lemur Center “Path to Tomorrow” Project: Premier Example of Effective Communications

2 03 2010

The Duke Lemur Center is a contender in the Pepsi Refresh contest, in which Pepsi awards $50,000 to the most popular projects aimed at making a positive difference. The Lemur Center’s “Path to Tomorrow” project description page on the Pepsi site represents an excellent example of how to create compelling communications on a limited budget. First of all, there’s the video, produced by the Center’s advancement officer Lari Hatley and her videographer husband Jeff:

The video combines basic techniques—simple panned-and zoomed still images, punchy text, dramatic music, and stock footage—to create a memorable, moving message. The video illustrates vividly how ingenuity is the most valuable asset in creating good communications.

Then there’s the page’s descriptive text, which is concise and compelling. For example, the title is a simple, effective statement that the project aims to “Save lemurs by growing public awareness through a new tour path.” Notice how the very first words are “Save lemurs,” which is a grabber phrase—a lesson that should be heeded by any communicator faced with writing a headline.

And the bullet points for the goals also grab readers and inspire them to action:

  • To increase the number of guests to the Center by 50 percent
  • To create an inspiring tour path easily accessible to all guests
  • To build four additional state-of-the-art outdoor animal habitats
  • To prevent the extinction of more than 70 species of lemurs
  • To use lemurs to enlighten guests about all endangered animals

Finally, the Lemur Center description introduces the center in a highly engaging way, using words that captivate readers and describe the Center’s mission in human-centered terms:

For more than 40 years, the Duke Lemur Center has been a safe place for lemurs. Today we learn from and care for more than 200 endangered animals, and we share our passion for lemurs with guests. By creating awareness, we hope to inspire a future generation that will learn from and care for lemurs.

All-in-all, an excellent, instructive communications package.

And now for a confession/commercial: I’m an avid supporter of the Lemur Center, and I urge you to go to the Center’s project page and vote for their Path to Tomorrow project. And do it every day until the end of March!





Play “Bad Presentation Bingo”: Losers are Winners!

26 02 2010

So, you’re sitting in a boring talk and suddenly somebody yells “Bingo!” QuiteBad Presentation Bingo likely audience members have been playing “Bad Presentation Bingo,” the brilliant brainchild of Monica Metzler and the Illinois Science Council. It’s the niftiest way I’ve seen to vividly impress on speakers the aggravations of bad presentation skills and the benefits of good ones. Like any Bingo game, you win by completing a straight line, but in Bad Presentation Bingo the squares contain not numbers but bad presentation practices like “Text-heavy slides,””Monotone voice,” and “Use of jargon.”

For your own self-protection, if you plan to give a presentation I highly recommend that you download the Bingo card, which Monica was kind enough to allow me to post here. Read it carefully and avoid its array of bad practices at all costs. That way, you won’t hear the embarrassing shout of “Bingo!” during your talk.

And if you’re planning a symposium, distribute the card and accompanying  presentation tips to all your speakers. Believe me, it will put them on notice that they can’t get away with the same mind-numbing speaking techniques they may have been used to.

And if you encounter Monica Metzler, thank her profusely!





AAAS Slidecast: Using Multimedia to Advance Your Research

21 02 2010

Here’s the narrated slidecast of my presentation “Using Multimedia to Advance Your Research,” given at the 2010 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Besides the slidecast itself, I offer tips I learned to producing better slidecasts from your PowerPoint presentations.

Using Multimedia to Advance Your Research

In creating the slidecast from my PowerPoint slides, I realized that I couldn’t just record the live session and use that as the audio narration. Live sessions include noise, interruptions, audience questions and other extraneous audio that reduce the effectiveness of the slidecast.

So, I had to do a special narration in a quiet room, using a standard digital recorder. Then I could upload that as an mp3 file and synch it to the slides. However, I also discovered that I coudn’t just exemporize my narration. Such an off-the-cuff narration — complete with pauses, stammers, and uhs — comes across as less than professional. So, I had to write out a formal script and recite it as the narration. Scripting actually helped my live presentation, because it crystallized my phrases and made the presentation smoother.

Also, unlike the live presentation, SlideShare presentations do not allow embedded video. So, for the slidecast I substituted still images of the videos with links to the video on YouTube or other sites. Which brings up an advantage of doing a Slideshare slidecast: that you can embed both text and image links in the slidecast, so users can explore the sites you discuss.

If you do a lot of slidecasts, you might also take advantage of Slideshare’s new branded channel feature, which enables you to produce branded channels.

I should emphasize that Slideshare is by no means the only game in town. There are also myBrainShark, Slideboom, and authorStream. In fact, according to this review of slide-sharing sites, they are superior to Slideshare. For example, myBrainshark enables uploading of narrations via telephone. And, you can add images, video, and quiz questions. So, I will likely be migrating my slidecasts to myBrainshark in the future. See the reference section of Explaining Research for a full list of such sites and resources.

Finally, here’s a whitepaper that covers the use of lecture capture technology in academe, which concludes that that

Lecture capture now falls into the “need-to-have” category. The relatively new breed of lecture capture solutions, which refers to any technology that allows instructors or presenters to record what happens in their lecture hall and make it available digitally, is changing how higher education thinks about technology while also changing the competitive landscape.

Although  the whitepaper covers much broader issues than just slidecasting your own PowerPoint presentations, it does show that you’ll likely be doing yourself a favor by learning to use slidecasting technology.





AAAS meeting: A Wrongheaded Myth Still Hinders Scientists’ Communication

20 02 2010

To my delight as a research communicator, the American Association for the Advancement of Science chose “Bridging Science and Society” as its theme for its 2010 meeting. And, I was heartened by meeting’s call “on every scientist and engineer to make their work both beneficial and understandable.”

And indeed, as I scanned the program I found that many sessions were devoted to helping scientists communicate their research to a broader audience.

Unfortunately, the meeting also revealed evidence that the scientific community still clings to the myth that it is the public’s lack of respect for scientists that hinders their communication, and not science’s own lack of a culture of explanation. Witness President Peter Agre’s statement in his opening address that

“I think we have a big challenge in science because the public often views us as nerd-like individuals in lab coats, consumed with equations, data-driven, and actually less than the humans and the passionate humans that scientists really are.”

Nothing could be further from the truth, as I demonstrated in my article “Scientists are Heroes.” While the lab coat is, indeed, a badge of scientists, and their data-driven nature is a part of their public perception, those are symbols of honor not derision. As I demonstrated in my article, public polls and Hollywood movies from Avatar to Indiana Jones overwhelmingly depict scientists as dynamic heroes. And popular televisions shows including the CSI series and Numb3rs also portray scientists as “passionate humans.”

I contend that scientists use this myth of the denigrated scientist  as one excuse to avoid confronting and correcting their own serious lack of a culture of explanation in science, as I discuss in the introduction to Explaining Research. They argue erroneously that “Since the public doesn’t respect us, why should we fight an uphill battle to explain our research?”

Besides this myth, there are other fundamental reasons for science’s cultural deficit of explanation, and since writing the book, I have come to understand them better:

For one thing, science and engineering are unlike such professions as law and medicine, in that there is no immediate need to explain their field to lay audiences in order to have a successful career. Imagine what would happen to a lawyer who couldn’t effectively explain principles of law to juries or clients. Imagine what would happen to a doctor who was inept at explaining medical problems to patients.

In contrast the career success of scientists and engineers depends almost completely on their ability to communicate to technical audiences–colleagues, deans, laboratory heads, etc. Even scientists who teach undergraduate classes are not judged heavily by their success at lay-level communication to those classes. At least, I have never heard of a researcher denied tenure because his/her teaching was not up to snuff.

So, it will take more than the fear of career failure to prompt scientists and engineers to reach out to the public. They must take a broader view that such communication does ultimately help their career, as well as their field and their society.  For example, a greater public appreciation of science and engineering helps persuade donors and legislators to support science. And it helps the voices of scientists and engineers be heard in public debates over such science-related issues as childhood vaccinations.

But an important first step toward creating a healthier culture of explanation is for scientists to abandon the corrosive myth that the public doesn’t respect and admire them.





Interview: Are Scientists Geeks or Heroes?

17 02 2010

I had a delightful interview with Maureen Cavanaugh of KPBS Radio San Diego on the topic “Are Scientists Geeks or Heroes?” Guess which side I came down on.