Panel Discussion (2015) - Communication Overkill? (Panelists Schmidt, Varmus, Ladd, McNutt, Rehman; Moderator: Adam Smith)

to welcome you all to this panel discussion to discuss the topic of science communication. It's become something of a tradition that on the Thursday of the Lindau week we devote this time to discussing science communication, and this year the organisers have asked us to focus on the topic of communication overkill. Question mark? Are we in a state of communication overkill or not? So that will be a starting point for our discussions. It's an enormous topic which could encompass many things. It could certainly encompass communication between scientists but we can't talk about everything and so for this session I think we're going to concentrate mainly on communications between scientists and the public, whatever the public means. To discuss this, we have a really marvellous panel that I'd just like to briefly introduce. We have Jalees Rehman who is from the University of Illinois at Chicago, is an associate professor there and he's also a blogger and on the blog team here at Lindau. We have Marcia McNutt who's a geophysicist and is editor-in-chief of Science and the Science family of journals. We have Harold Varmus who was awarded the Nobel Prize of Physiology and Medicine in 1989, as I'm sure you all know. In the 1990s, he was director of the National Institutes of Health and until very recently he was director of the National Cancer Institute. And now he's free. from the University of Tennessee, working on carbon and nitrogen in the soil. And she's here as a representative of the young scientists here at this meeting. And we also have Brian Schmidt who was awarded his Nobel Prize in physics in 2011. And at the end of last week it was announced that he's taking over as the next Vice Chancellor of the Australian National University. So, little time for research or wine making, I imagine. but we'll devote the majority of the next hour and a half to conversations between the panel and the audience. We have some roving microphones, so I'll come out to the audience for questions and comments soon. But just to get going, I'd like to ask you, Marcia, whether you think it's true to say that we are in a state of communication overkill with the public? I don't think we have an overkill of communication, though perhaps an overkill of bad communication. My fantasy would be that every scientist, perhaps starting with the young scientist here would get training in the artform of excellent communication skills, because it truly takes effort to be a good communicator. And that they would put the effort into becoming good communicators, commensurate with the importance of it, to the success to their careers, the success to the scientific enterprise, and the success that it means to public acceptance and support for science. in the same way that some people decide "I'm really not very good at golf", and I'm just not going to play. Having served in government agencies that support science, I know that public respect for science and especially political support for science in Congress and the Administration is incredibly important. And you want the respect to be based on an accurate assessment of what science does, how it works, what its fruits are, what its liabilities are. And that's hard to achieve. And one way to achieve it of course is going directly to people but we do have to depend on journalism. And journalism has its own set of problems. In the US, the printed press is disappearing, communication's occurring in totally new ways. There are lots of stories in the paper that have scientific content of some sort, and my big disappointment is that the opportunities that journalists might have to explain the science that lies behind the stories in the papers often is not there. For example, because I'm in the health sciences, we had an Ebola outbreak, we had a patient with tuberculosis with multiple drug resistance, we have still unconquered problem with HIV/AIDS and there are a lot of opportunities to display science behind those diseases in a way that allows people to have a better understanding of what the remaining problems are. Another problem that people are often unconscious of is that the business pages are full of science, really. They're about deals between companies that are using science to make new cancer drugs, or new kinds of vaccines, and it's very unusual, in my experience, to see a drug represented by anything other than its commercial name. When in fact there's an opportunity to say this drug was developed in the following way, and even in a paragraph sketching out what the interesting, underlying science is. I have more to say about this, let's open things up. There's how scientists talk to journalists, if you like, and what then journalists do with what they hear. But in your experience, you've been very much in public science for the last couple of decades, do you think there is an overkill in communication now? Do you think there's just too much, or not? Science is so important to our lives that science should be very heavily represented in the paper and yet science doesn't sell papers in general, and in fact using the word "paper" is already making me sound antediluvian, because that's not what people talk about. They talk about what they can read in rapid media. One of my problems is the problem that journalists frequently think that they have to present two sides of the issue, and instead of trying to explain the science underlying the public dilemma, they tend to try to find a traditional naysayer. Marcia will remember that when we were deeper into the AIDS crisis, everybody always called up Peter Duesberg, someone who had been my scientific colleague and a respected colleague at one time, who became a denier about HIV's role in AIDS. And they always wanted to have the denial side of the story, that's absurd. There are lots of things that you can do to make a storey about science interesting without having this simple duality between people who believe it and don't believe it. and that's another thing perhaps to tease out, that scientists all know that science is very complex and that you can't just give simple answers most of the time. I suppose often that isn't translated to the public, and maybe journalists are in some ways seeking to find the truth of scientific argument in there, just because it's not coming from the scientists they may have to find it themselves. And that's not hard to do and you need to have some sense of validation. Marcia made one important comment about the way in which we train people to speak to the press. I think that is an issue we might want to talk about, especially with all these young folks here. But the other issue has to do with the way that we want science to be portrayed, and dealing with the question of what's interesting, and how reporters go about doing their job. I won't call it an overkill, but it's for many respects, it is the best of times, but it's also the worst of times. The best of times is that several people in this audience, probably dozens or even more, are out blogging and providing a great deal of detailed information about what they're working on at a level which is indexed, that's never been there. Wikipedia's immediately updated with information that's cutting edge. There is a wealth of information all indexed by Google. The problem, and this is why it's the worst of times, is the media's become completely fragmented. And so that we don't have strong voices that are going through and doing that editorial work of saying "this is interesting, this is not", because the mainstream media is removed many of their science journalism which leads to some of the problems of it not being very high quality. So from my perspective it's an interesting time, because people, as near as I can tell, often go out and look up what they think to be true rather than looking for an independent voice of what's going on. And the Google blogging sphere allows you to sort of pick out what you want. It's tailored to your own views already. And how we overcome that? Well, you need to have really strong mainstream media, whatever form that takes, that has editorial content and really is journalism. And that's what I see has faded away. And this was a situation that had to do with my former position as director of the U.S Geological Survey. And the USGS became concerned about reports that were going around on the Internet about earthquake information, calling that a pseudo-science. And we contacted Google and they said that they considered the USGS to be the trusted source of earthquake information. And therefore ensured that on every Google search for earthquake information, that the USGS information would pop up first on the search. And therefore, they could sort of filter for unsuspecting people out there that trusted information would come up first. So I'm thinking that for other areas this might be a way in which there are trusted sources of information for the public that we could go to places like the search engines and make sure that the trusted information does come first. a very important general point that I hope we'll have a chance to address, maybe get some feedback from the audience on, that is how does anybody who's writing for the public, and this could be a blogger or could be the press, achieve validations of the ideas? Who is the trusted partner in trying to put these stories together? There have in history been groups of usually scientifically-trained journalists who have good contacts with people who would be considered the gold standard, members of the National Academy, possibly Nobel laureates, people of that sort who do represent consensus views of a scientific society that often has divergent views. The problem is that when you try to put together groups like that they sometimes become inherently conservative, they don't want to be wrong. The National Academy for example, seems like the natural place for any journalist to go. Here's a new story, call up the National Academy. Is this right? Well the National Academy says "well, we'll put together a committee and find out whether that's right." And of course journalists don't have time for that. They want to know now, but getting turn around from an organisation that feels that its impeccable credentials should not be damaged by saying something that is wrong is actually right, creates a sense of time-dependent conservativism that doesn't feed the journalistic incentive to get it right. And I think you're right that trust cannot just lie in large organisations, they aren't flexible enough to respond quickly to new discoveries. So in my field, which is stem cell biology, we often have new discoveries. And it would take months to get different stem cell biologists to agree on anything. But I think if we integrated into training, like you suggested, Marcia, if we have every PhD student at least go through some basic training, in how do you become a trusted member of the scientific community who can communicate science. That doesn't mean that that individual will be a great science communicator, but at least they'll learn some basic rules. I think we have a lot of people in our community who are actually pretty good explicators. It's good to have more, that's fine. But I think the root problem is having folks who actually are often very good communicators, who simply have a case to make for something that may not be right, may be irresponsible. How do you reign that in? That's difficult, that's not solved by these otherwise very sensible suggestions. We know there are plenty of examples of people in your field, I'm not accusing you of course, but there are people in the stem cell field who've been in a lot of trouble over the last several years for claims that you could argue are just inherent in the nature of the way science is done. Marcia's very familiar with the current debate about reproducibility. I'm all for trying to make science reproducible, but there is a danger. All of you know what science is like, it's hard. And mistakes are often useful, and mistakes are often honest, and mistakes are often productive. And we heard from Oliver today about the utility of being confused by something that actually is misleading and then taking it to the next step. Right now, the delay in publishing our work is hampered by the need for reviewers to be totally satisfied that everything is absolutely correct and subjected to a whole series of extra experiments. And many of us feel that the process of communicating with each other, I know that's not the topic we want to talk about, but that is slowed down by this need to have 75 supplementary experiments to validate a point. We need to be able to talk quickly. It's hard to separate scientists talking from each other, scientists talking to the public because so much of what the press does is based on what actually gets published. It might not solve all the problems, but if we start communicating earlier in an informal way, through a blog or through discussions at our universities, we start practising communicating our science at the time when we're first learning what it is. So, we talk about it in simple terms, and we take it with us as we start to learn more and get more complicated. I don't think it has to always be the experts that are communicating, I think that we should start earlier and younger. I just started a couple years ago. It's called Think Like a Postdoc. So the few postdocs that are here, it sounds weird, but I envy them. They're so motivated, they have to do so much hard work, and they don't get as much credit for it. I think PhD students get support, postdocs are thrown into the deep end and you have to publish a bunch, and so that's where it kind of came from. I was like okay, I'm just going to think like a postdoc, get through graduate school. But I blog from everything, what grad school is, how to do science, about my science in the Arctic, about literature that I've read recently. In March I talked about "women in STEM" issues, so it's all over. do you worry about validation of what you're saying? Do you worry about the fact that you're commenting on the scientific world to a public audience? And those are the most stressful blogs to post, I really worry about if I say something wrong. But you know why I do it is that I'd hope that they'd engage with me and they'd have a conversation. And that's what I've loved about Lindau is I've gotten into a lot of discussions with all of you, and it's been very intellectual. Emotions haven't come into it, and if someone says something that they don't agree with, a lot of us are like, "You know, I don't really see that. This is what my experience tells me." And I think we can do that online, too. I don't think that we should hold back from that. with that index of credibility, which I think we're sort of a common theme here, is if I read your blog and I like it I'm going to tweet about it, I'm going to put a little link and say "I think this is interesting." So I try to link to things that I do think are interesting and I have credibility at least in some places, not all. But people who find me as a credible source at least can link in to the things I'm thinking about. And that's some of the ways that I guess the new media can help. But ultimately it has to be people who really are out there looking for independence, it doesn't get handed to them. They really have to want to have that independent view and find it in that way. It's very difficult for such people to take time, and to keep their jobs. It's 140 characters, you do it very quickly, and you can read it, you don't have to read it, it's fine. The fact that it may not be making any money makes it mean it's probably going to go away but as is it's quite a convenient form. You can get addicted to it and you spend too much time on it, that's bad, and I see people do that. But for me, I'm a busy guy and I find time to tweet. So it can't be that bad. And when you tweet, you're probably being followed by a lot of people who are interested in your science, maybe people at your university. If you're trying to attract the interest of legislators and members of the administration, sometimes the only outlets that really count for them, The New York Times, The Economist. The Prime Minister follows me, all the Cabinet follows me, it's a very powerful thing. I will get a call in five minutes from the major media and they say So it's been very effective for me. But I think it's time to go out to the audience for some comments on that. We'll come back to more things. But first of all, just before we do that, how many of you blog? Hands up. Yeah, I guess your estimate was about right, Brian. It's slightly lower than I thought. Anyway, comments. I think you want to ask how many people tweet. Still you're in the slight minority. Okay, questions and comments on what's come so far. Lots of hands, here first, could we have a microphone here? I am a PhD student in particle physics at the University of Basel. And so far you've talked about online science communication, but I think there is also very nice science communication in front of an audience, like you're doing for example. And I've participated in FameLab, which is a science communication competition where you have to present research on only three minutes without slides, it's really great and fun. And in Science slams. And now I started to help in organising such events. And from my perspective, the public wants to see us talk about research and it's much harder to find young scientists to go out on stage and present their work. So actually we have sold out theatre halls like this, but then we have trouble to find 10 speakers for a 10 minute talk. the number of people who want to go on stage, because they can just do it- Maybe it's easier to write a blog, but I also don't think that. No I just wanted to make also the point that you can also if you don't like typing, because some people maybe are also afraid that if I write something, it's online and stays there forever. If I go on a stage, then- to turn science into something that's more social, and involves people actually confronting each other. In New York we now have something, because it's New York, it's called the World Science Festival. And there are many, many talks, mostly I'd say by senior people but not entirely, very popular, things sold out for a week. There's also in New York something called the Secret Science Club, which has hundreds of young people coming to here, generally young faculty members give talks, not very short talks, but there's beer being consumed and social life afterwards. I do think those are important issues. They may not address some of the more difficult political issues in the scientific community but I think for raising the visibility of science, something that involves people being in the same room with other people is something that always goes well beyond, from my point of view, what happens in a Twitter experience. Two years ago I probably would have hated this. But when you write something down online, even though it's out there forever, you can talk about it, retract it, whatever. But it helps you get your thoughts down on paper. You have to think about them before you put there. So you gain confidence in what you think and then you're able to communicate it later on. I've participated several times in the Falling Walls Conference where they have young people from all over the world who have three minutes to sell an idea to a jury. And the young people who do this are fabulous. I once spent a couple of months at an institution interviewing their young researchers who were all under the age of 30. And I asked every single one of them at the end of my interviews with them, and "you've just run into me at a meeting, we're in an elevator together, we've just run into each other, and you've got an elevator ride to the 12th floor to convince me that the research you're doing is ground-breaking. And go." And there wasn't a single one of those young researchers that was able to articulate to me why it was that their research was ground breaking in general terms to someone who wasn't a specialist in their field before that elevator was through the roof of the building. Much less to someone who is a non-scientist such as a congressman or a member of the public. And I think this is a skill that every young person needs because you never know when you have an opportunity to make a first impression that could make the life or death decision on the future of your career. of them realise that their research wasn't ground-breaking, poor people. Another comment from the back. Lady with the microphone, please. So I am a PhD student from India, and I would like to pose a comment or a question depending on my experience with science communication. So I agree completely that as graduate students or as scientists we need training in science communication but I think it's shifting the burden totally on the scientists. I think, without offence to the journalists in the audience, I think there should be some training on the part of journalists in science communication as well. Because they are sort of the mediators between the scientists and the non-scientists so far. And I don't know about other countries, but I'd just like to give an example from my experience. So some of my PhD work was covered by the local newspapers in India, and in India newspapers are still a big deal. There are online versions, but people like my parents or my relatives, they still go to the hard-copy newspapers. And Professor Schmidt might understand this, so I work with white dwarfs which are related to type 1A supernovae and a journalist ended up printing type one 1B supernovae which is... It doesn't matter to the to the public maybe because they get the whole idea, but it's wrong. And so the thing is that I'm very happy about the fact that the journalists are interested to talk to us and cover our work, and they show a lot of enthusiasm but I find one problem, that even when we try to sit down with them, talk to them, explain to them the work. And in fact I even ended up writing a piece. I obviously do not have official training in science communication but so that they do not make mistakes. I told them you can just copy/paste if you have problems with understanding the scientific part. But they still end up making mistakes, and more importantly they try to fantasise it. They try to make something more, I mean try to give a bigger edge than it is. Like "Does this prove Einstein wrong?" Stuff like that, you get it. So I think the burden should not be totally on the scientist it should be on the journalist as well. So I would like your comments, thank you. In the US we have a lot of very skilled science journalists. There are programmes at Stanford, MIT- There are special courses given for several weeks to bring people up to date on recent stuff. We have to think also about how journalists work, that is they get directives from editors. Editors constrict their space. The business plan of a newspaper says, I don't know how true this is in India, but certainly true in the US, "you've got to sell papers to bring in advertising" and science in general doesn't do that. The only real vital science page I know in a major US newspaper is the Science Times every Tuesday which is becoming increasingly health, I'm sorry to say, and less science. So I think we have to recognise that the newspaper industry plays a much bigger role, I think, than the quality of science journalism. but just to pick up on something as an aside. You just said science doesn't sell papers. How can that possibly be? Because you and everybody else in this room knows how exciting science is. But why is the public not excited by science? Which is true. at a high-brow newspaper does sell, I think the New York Times does put effort, and has not fired all their science writers. The Economist has a really good science section in there. It helps sell that, but it's two, what I would describe as the very highest brow publications of which as I said, those are going away and so... The influenza epidemic attract a lot of readers. Very few places, I was following this quite closely, I saw very few places where an effort was made to explain what was actually happening, how epidemics arise, how they're controlled, how the vaccines work. The Times did a good job but frequently it's not a very good job. The Ebola outbreak had big opportunities for trying to explain much more than did get explained. Much more attention given to the one person who was in New York carrying the virus who was probably not going to infect anybody, and I had friends who I think of as reasonably intelligent, who wouldn't go on the subway because he had been in the subway, I mean this is craziness. But here's an opportunity to try to explain how infectivity works. Part of the problem is that a lot of what happens in my own field, in bio-medical research, involves an understanding of risk. And we have a problem with fundamental education in the US that people don't understand, they want to know "yes or no", they don't want to know odds. that people have also come to view bio-medical research as delivering. And so they expect the stories to say "what is this going to deliver?" The interest in the question has become secondary. Sorry, we're going down a whole different track here. Marcia, do you want to... While the formal press outlets seem to have cut down on their science journalism, there is a very strong and robust cadre of people writing within universities. The information officers that are at universities, at least all over the US, I'm not sure overseas, tend to want to work very closely with the scientists to help write press releases which go to the newspapers and can help get your science picked up. And to the extent that scientists can work closely with these press information officers to make sure that they're accurate, that they don't hype the results, that they are an honest rendition, and that they make you available to any journalists who wants to pick this up. That can be one of your best assets in terms of communicating your results. I know I've been affiliated with a number of institutions. The press officers in those places do not have, in my humble view, as a primary motive, the education of the public about science. They have, as their primary motive, strong publicity for their own institution, fundraising, they want stories to be right, but they do not want to hide any light under the bushel. And I think that's a serious problem which is one of the reasons I'd like to have non-sectarian validators for those stories. and that's why I say I think it's the responsibility of the scientist to hold their feet to the fire to make sure that they don't hype. an awful lot of those stories get brought to the news office by investigators who want to be more famous. Because we're living in a hyper-competitive time. And many people feel that if their work appears in the paper they're more likely to get supported by the institution and by funding agencies. And that's just a sad fact of the way science is working these days. But not always and people don't know that. that any kind of communication is a form of education. So I think once that value is ingrained, that when you're talking to the public, to the press, to your politician, yes we all have the need for some degree of fame and significance. But accurate balanced information is an ethical duty that we have, and I think if we ingrain that... I think a lot of them have never even thought about science communication being an important factor in their career. but I can just tell you that the people want get themselves up-front... And anything you do that compromises your reputation is never worth it in the end, never. which is a non-profit, that really is there to provide that facility that you want. That sort of sense of "this is the interesting bit, here's some background, you can expand on this". It's used a bit, but it's not what drives the science media. Again, you'll have a tabloid pick up something extraneous and that'll get much more press because most of Australia and I'm guess most of the United States, doesn't read the New York Times or the equivalent in Australia. It reads other things that, quite frankly, probably don't even have a science journalist on staff. I still think that is a big issue. is starting to become more of a thing though, where someone goes through a science education, they get a science PhD, they do science for a while, and they're communicating at the same time, even taking classes about communication and are kind of both. And I don't think that it's a separate thing. I think you can do both, and I think it's becoming a new way for people, a new career for people to go into. without having one on stage. Anyone? There is one! Aha, brave. I was actually a former PhD student, and my work was actually in nuclear waste management, which is a rather contentious area at the moment in Europe, and I feel that actually it's a bit of a misnomer. I think that a lot of students are getting more passionate about communication. But my interest in this is, you've mentioned a curator of knowledge a few times, and not really gone into it. But I was wondering what your opinion was on Google, and their responsibility in this. You mentioned that with Google, for instance, that they gave you the leverage to put your topic at the top of the list, and make that more important. And that's an essential part of that ensuring good information gets out. But do you think, with back to the topic on communication overkill, what responsibility do Google and other curators of knowledge on the internet have? One is in response to news, but the other is in response to a need to know. And my course, in my own bio-medical field, there are a lot of people in the latter category. Some, their mother's just been diagnosed with cancer, they want to know the latest information. They're not looking for news, they're looking for reliable information. And the NCI happens to maintain a website that has, we think, highly reliable information. It comes out at or near the top in a Google search. That's actually very important to us because people to go to the things that are listed most highly. But I think what you're raising is the more general question and we perhaps ought to spend a little time talking about it. We've talked almost entirely about news, and the fact is that providing information to people who seek it is often very, very important. I'd like to hear more comments about that. because it has just enough power to be useful, but not so much power it's determining our lives. Except it is probably determining our lives, we just don't realise it. So am I prepared to hand over to Google that responsibility that you are to ensure that we get the right information? I don't think that's where we want to go. I think they have an algorithm that tries to look at things that we would all agree make things important. But as soon as you say they have a responsibility to say what is right and wrong, I think you're going into really, really dangerous territory. We're trustworthy, and when I go and look for medical stuff, I don't go to some random blog, I do go to the National Cancer Institute, or something that I think is trustworthy because it has a brand. As a university, as a press officer, it's one thing to try to raise money, but you got to protect your brand I'm thinking about this taking over a university. I want that to be really good information that doesn't have much spin on it, because that's my brand. And if I screw that up, I've screwed it up. And one thing we may want to talk about is what happens when you screw things up. In my field we had the BICEP2 result last year, which created a huge furore. From my perspective it was science at work, and everyone had the right intentions, but it went wrong. But that's what happens when things go wrong, there's a big price. And Google's really not too different. What comes out at the top are what people go to most. The reason why NCI is at the top is that people trust NCI, and so they search most on NCI when grandma has cancer. And so NCI naturally is going to bubble to the top in any kind of search. And so Google doesn't have to play with the ordering very much, the public helps with that by saying, but the fact is that most people will go to Google and they'll type in breast cancer as opposed to the NCI. Unfortunately the vast majority of Americans don't know what NIH stands for. are looking for information all the time, and some people are coming to look for information in a rather directed way. How do you cope with the idea that you're providing information, and do you think of yourself as an information resource to the public? So in response to what you were saying, that the good stuff would come to the top, my first thought was I think the political stuff would come to the top. A lot of the time when people come and talk to me about climate change, once we get to the root of what they're talking about, it's actually a policy issue that they're talking about. But I think it's important to communicate the science, because I think a lot of the time what gets lost is that scientists look at both sides of things, and everything in between. It's very grey. I've had a lot of people in offhanded comments say, "Oh, you scientists, you see things black and white." And we really don't, we study all sides of things, and we look at it, and so that's what I usually try to communicate is that this is what I'm looking at scientifically. If you want to talk to me about politics I'd be happy to do that too, but it's a different thing. One of the reasons that people are so interested in politics is presumably is because politics isn't black and white, there's all different shades, and people enjoy that. Again, back to this same point. Science is full of shades, but somehow that doesn't translate. Something's wrong, I don't know what. Because if you do make it shades of grey, then the next thing you know is they don't understand. I don't think, we don't talk about the process, and what we do day in and day out. And that's harder, you don't want to start writing articles about what we do from day to day, but I think we need to change the culture of how we communicate. Sorry, and we'll go to that side, too. particularly the ones who are writing directly about science for the public. And the question is when you have a story idea, where do you get it from? Is it something that you've gotten by reading a journal yourself, or is it something you've heard about from another source? And when you do write, do you go back to the primary source? And if so how do you do that in a timely fashion? It takes time to read a journal article in your own field, and if you're blogging about a topic from another field because you want to share it with other people, that takes even more time and effort, and the news cycle doesn't typically allow that. People need to put out lots of blog posts, there needs to be a high throughput. So as a reader I often see the same Nature article covered in a little snippet everywhere. And lots of other science that came out at the same day or the same week doesn't get covered at all, because people don't have time to go through and find their stories, and put the time in to figure them out for themselves. those of us who are scientists, we read the original article. It would feel very, very odd to talk about something you haven't read, and often we also have to read the supplements, and there's so much data in the supplements, sometimes even more interesting data in the supplements, it takes many hours. And then you have to decide, is this something I can convey in 1200 words or not. And often I end up not writing about it because it is so complex, it takes up so much time. But I pick topics which I think are of interest to me anyway. I would have read them, I'm a cell biologist, and if I end up not writing about it I was still enriched by that process of studying it. I would have a very hard time writing about something I know nothing about, because I have to go and read review articles, read editorials, it would be very, very difficult. So my recommendation is to write about something that you're excited about, and what you have some background knowledge that you can provide context to the reader. How much of this is novel, how significant is it, has it been replicated? Those are the things that I think I like to convey in whatever I write. I think there's also a forum for us to communicate an initial reaction to something, especially early on in science, this is kind of that culture I'm talking about. I think it's important for us to say, "Hey, this is a really cool article I read, and I want to go and tell somebody why I think it's cool, and what I maybe don't agree with", and that initial impression and kind of an informal way to start talking about science without having to get all the background and be an expert on it. I think we can still talk about science even without being an expert. without having read it is on an incredibly slippery slope and shaky ground. This is one reason, for example, why a journal like Science has an embargo that we place on all of the articles that we're going to publish, and that embargo period has a time between when we put out the articles and the press releases to qualify journalists, which is ahead of when they're actually published, and that gives those people a chance to read the press releases, talk to the authors, get quotations, follow up, and find out what they believe, what they don't believe, get the back story, and write a responsible article on it so that they've actually been able to delve into the meat of it. Because otherwise if you don't have an embargo period, journalists are stuck because of their short time scale of just having to write something based on a press release, which I think is very dangerous. Yes, you do. is it easy to maintain the embargo given that everybody's rushing to get their stuff out as quickly as possible? and we talk to our authors about the importance of having an embargo, and they so far have understood why we have it, and they see the advantage. And certainly our journalists see it. There was an article in Nature last week about that they're disappearing, and I think that's a shame because I agree with Marcia. One way to get responsible journalism about articles is to give people a little bit of time to work on it. if people are publishing first reactions, that's what people are going to see as well. You definitely need an in in-depth conversation about the science, but an informal way of talking about it. Well, it sometimes does, it depends what it's about. I think it's going to sort of show itself. The BICEP2 thing came out. I didn't write something but I did talk about it on social media and say, "What do you think of this and this," and it was a very clearly informal communication that we were having. that address public health issues, and there is a sense of time-sensitivity. It doesn't happen too often, but it can happen. Or a new drug is being described. I think most of what we've talked about right now is scientists talking to the public. It's a little bit harder to field questions from the public because we don't always have a forum for that. And somebody just mentioned Reddit, that's something which I would encourage young scientists, senior scientists to get involved in, because Reddit offers something called Ask Me Anything, AMA Reddit, where a scientist makes himself or herself available for a few hours to field any questions relating to their field. I've done this once, and I got 100 or 200 questions about stem cells. It took me a while to answer them, but we actually had some meaningful contributions, even during the dialogue questions were arising, and it was a back and forth. So I think that we shouldn't neglect the two-way nature of that dialogue. I wanted to go back to a point that was raised maybe several times about exaggeration of results, and validation, and hype. And I think that one may say: press, to a certain extent, will always exaggerate things. But I think that this also stems from communication overkill, which is in the scientific literature between scientists. And I think we all know if we read papers, at some point in the abstract, in the conclusion, particularly in high impact journals, there is a sentence like, And often this sentence in the press, the "may" becomes a "will". And I think this raises a big problem because first, if you don't talk to the authors as a scientist or as a colleague, you might get a wrong idea. For me it's very hard as a physicist to read a paper in biology and see this statement, I don't believe it anymore, but maybe it's true. And this makes it also hard for journalists who filter the signal from the noise, because if every paper in Science and Nature contains these statements, then maybe every paper is worth a press release and an article in New York Times. And also in the end, words remain, so people in 10, 20 years will still read the paper, but will not talk anymore with their colleagues to get an actual idea. So I was wondering, is this my own perception, maybe I'm wrong, and have you ever considered this? And while every exaggerated statement is the responsibility of the authors, I think there is a selective pressure for the editing system, the job market, to make these statements, and I think it would be great to try to reverse this selective pressure. And maybe this would help also the journalist and the whole communication process. one thing our editors spend as much time doing on the accepted papers as anything else is trying to back the authors away from the ledge, in terms of claims that they do not believe are supported unequivocally by the data. In terms of talking them out of saying something in the abstract or something in the conclusion, that in the discussion section they give all the caveats of why that might not be right. And so the editors are saying, those statements remain at the end of the discussion. because of exactly the problems you stated. One is your very good statement illustrates the problem of trying to separate communication among scientists and communication between science and the public, because much of what gets transmitted to the public is what gets transmitted from scientist to scientist. Number two, as long as authors have the right to say why their work is important, and as long as we're living in an environment in which publication in certain journals is so damn important to careers, people are going to try to inflate the significance of their work in the statements they make. Perhaps caveats will be there, but they're going to make an effort to say, The third point is that I think it would be very useful if we had on the panel a working science journalist who could try to explain to us what process he or she goes through in trying to decide which of the many papers that are published each week they're going to choose to publicise. struck me in that comment which is to say that there are career pressures to overstate things. I would say that if you think that, beware, because if you want to not get a job from me is overstate something. Because that's a real bad sign for someone for me to hire, and I don't think I'm unique in that way. The other thing is that the journals, they have their own brand to protect. If they want to get storeys that are high profile, they can't just throw junk out. They actually have to help in the process. So I think there are some market forces here that help to, I guess, moderate things from being just crazy. I do see young people who overstate things, and they often pay a very high price, it's not forgiven easily. what you just said has been studied, and that there are peer-reviewed papers about hype in the press release correlates well with the hype already in the abstract. So apparently this is not always causally proven, but there is a strong correlation with how press releases, abstracts, and the news articles based on those are formulated. But I think that one thing we have to realise is in that whole language that we use, the communication between scientists uses a slightly different language, or the words have different meanings than communications between scientists and the public. If I read in a major journal, "tantalising new pathway that will cure kidney cancer", I know it's just probably pathway number 57 out of many other pathways, because that's just what we expect. If you say that to the public, which isn't aware of that, that we tend to often over-exaggerate, they might take it as a given. And I think we need to be aware of the fact that language is used differently in different forms of communication. If I use the word tantalising in a paper, this is something that someone in the journal that proofreads can tell me, This is a very simple example of things that can be solved very quickly, but perhaps they don't because of lack of time and things like that, but I think this is a problem. and have a journalist tell us how they choose between over-flated claims. Could you take a microphone? Sorry. And quite often we have to deal with scientific topics. And quite often I'm looking for someone who can explain things to me in a way I do understand, in a way I will be able to convey the content. And I very often have the impression that scientists pull back. It's like, "Oh, not me, it's not sure." What I would like would be clear words, a clearer explanation, and also I have to admit, a little time. We need time, we need scientists who have the time to explain it to us in a good way, and I think it's very important to communicate beyond science journals. You have so much to say, and very often I have the feeling you just don't tell us. and often seem to have a fear of the public, it's not proven yet, or whatever. You just have to say, You work on it all the day, you can explain that, You have the knowledge, we don't have it, and I don't have the time. which I think in fairness we should bring out, and I know about this with my wife who's been a journalist for a long time, over the last 10 years has become a science journalist. She sometimes goes to institutions to talk to some specialist, and she's told that she can't have access to that person, or the interview can only occur if an official from the organisation, or the organization's press officer is sitting in the room with the scientist. The scientist is often passionate about the work. It's not that person's work that she's trying to understand, it's the field in general. She likes to write about repulsive creatures, animals that the public doesn't love, hyenas, slugs, snakes. And she finds these wonderfully passionate people who are just living for a day with a Gila monster. But sometimes it's the institutional authorities that are apprehensive about what might get said in that conversation. I think we can't have a complete conversation about this without recognising that. Because institutional issues are at stake, that there are curtailments in the process. Very often you have some press official say, "No, we can't do this." And it's probably a task of the institutions, they have to solve it. Okay, more comments. So many to go over. This person here, please. this might not be a super clear distinction but I feel like a lot of the time we've been talking about proactive communication. I just wanted to see what the panel's thoughts are on reactive communication. So not necessarily something that you might find with professional journalism, but with the online forums and social media, hearing false information, or potentially intentionally inflammatory false statements about science. Is it scientists' job or responsibility to try and respond to those, especially on a public forum like Reddit, or Twitter, or something? And if so, what's the best way to go about doing that? I think that are all sorts of categories of science communication that might fall under, for example, a scientist's maybe ethical responsibility to step in and communicate in cases of either false information or important times when the public has a need to know. And you give one example where there's bad information going around. And another example that both Harold and I get involved in all the time, is crisis communication. Where there might be a pandemic, or in my case, a natural disaster like an earthquake or a tsunami where it's very important that credible information get out to the public on a very short time scale. This is not necessarily information that is going to advance any individual's career, but I think it's very important to get the right information to the public, usually on a very short time scale. If there's misinformation going around, then if you put yourself into the line of fire it's a very different public environment you're stepping into. And I think it's difficult for any scientist sitting out there, seeing something erroneous in some newspaper to take it upon themselves to go and try to correct that. It's different if you're sitting at the NIH and a major newspaper runs a story that's misleading about the nature of... Then I think there is a chain of command here, and someone in the department says something to somebody, and there's a lot of sensitivity to trying to correct the facts. What's the forum, where it's come out? How much is it being propagated? If it's kind of going out of control then I will intervene typically on that forum. If it's on the newspaper I'll intervene on that forum if I think it's significant. But I'm not going to nitpick on little things, because what's the point? But if it's done on Reddit I'll intervene. My son will come and say, "Oh, you should see what's going on on Reddit right now." I'm like, "Okay, let's ping on that, whatever." So you respond in the forum where it's going wrong, and it's a judgement of whether or not it needs to be done. There's going to be a range of people who want to communicate science, and who are good at communicating science, and we're everywhere in between. And I think if you want to be a good communicator, those informal ways of starting to talk about science, even going to your mom and trying to get her eyes not to glaze over when you're talking about your science is a good way to practise. And those forums are good too. that you have to take into account is, if you are a very high profile person and this comment has come up in a very low profile place, sometimes you responding to it can almost bring more attention to the misinformation than it otherwise would have received. So I would say if Brian saw some misinformation, him responding to it on Twitter would almost bring more attention to the misinformation than if he ignored it. My choices when I see the person doing it, I don't respond to them. I respond to what I would call reasonable, like if ABC News suddenly responds to it I'll say, or something, that's how I deal with it. But it is a dangerous world, you don't know if you're going to be misquoted or whatever. So back to the overkill question. If you're spending time responding to misinformation, explaining your own science, trying to talk about other people's science, telling your mum about what you're doing... That doesn't leave very long for just getting on with the day job, does it? Back to the question of who should be doing this. you're expected as a faculty member to be engaged, and of course some degree of research, some degree of teaching education, and some degree of service. And I think traditionally it's been defined how you teach or what is considered service. I think responding to the public could serve as both a form of education, that you're not just educating undergrads or grad students, it could also be a service, a service to the public. Right now service is often defined as serving on a committee in your department. But I think serving in some form as an educator to the public, if that were taken into account also in career decisions, and if it was valued by universities, I think that would help improve the quality of communication, and I think you would have more time. Because when you were told that there's no time to do this, it's because it's also not always valued by the institutions. the National Academy of Sciences gave its highest honour, the Public Welfare Medal, this last year to Neil deGrasse Tyson in recognition of his communication of science to the public. And my home society, which is the American Geophysical Union, has instituted a new award called the Ambassador Award, and one of the criteria for the Ambassador Award, one of the ways that you can get it is for public communication of geoscience. about getting tenure in institutions for things other than just doing research and publishing science, and that's a big problem, and it's not going to be cured by giving a couple of awards to prestigious people. are now making things like Professors of the Public Understanding of Science. who've gone out there and, to use a phrase you used earlier, Marcia, when you were talking before, gone Hollywood, and they become very dominant, those people. Are they the best communicators for science? Because they do become the public face of science very strongly. I wrote a paper with Neil deGrasse Tyson when he was Neil deGrasse Tyson, I was a graduate student. Neil's got a pretty big impact, a lot bigger than me. I've got 10,000 Twitter followers, he's got 5 million or something. He has huge impact, he's good at it. my friend Alan Alda, who's a TV and movie actor, who is passionate about science. He's a major contributor to the World Science Festival. He's set up a programme for science communication at the State University of New York in Stony Brook where scientists learn to give public talks, and I think all that is good. in a previous generation Jacques Cousteau, who has now been replaced by Bob Ballard as two people who have been very visible and vocal advocates for the oceans and ocean exploration. When someone who's a movie star comes to Congress to have a hearing, suddenly it's not just the chairman of the committee, it's every member of the committee turns up for a photo op. That what makes this so refreshing here, photo ops with Nobel Laureates. That doesn't matter in Congress, but having people who are reasonably well-educated... become familiar enough to make public statements is an incredibly important way for us to communicate. Angelina Jolie talking about BRCA1 mutations, and the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, had a huge impact on cancer genomics that we're still riding that wave. Well, you should do it because you enjoy it. I wouldn't recommend going out and doing public communication of science if you don't enjoy it. There are limits to how many hours you can work productively, and so this is one of the things I do to, how do I say, fill in the time to get my mind to relax a little bit. And if you enjoy it, other people will enjoy it, and it will help you get tenure because people will say, it's not a negative. But you do need balance it, I think people get into trouble by suddenly spending 20 hours a week doing it when they have a research position. And when you're doing that, then you're really probably not doing your research. But if you spend an hour or two a week, which I've done my entire career, that's fine, it's not going to make or break whether or not you win a Nobel Prize. That's caused by much bigger things outside of your control. but I think there's, at least in the States, that's my only experience, but there's this culture of: I hear this all time. You ask someone how they are and they say, "I'm busy." Well, yeah, we're all busy, but there's a time in your life where you could have looked back and you're like, So I think you want to do it you can make the time. Brian, you've gotten used to doing it, you're highly skilled. I've done it my entire career. I started a research position and I started teaching because that was the only outlet I had for public outreach. I enjoyed it, and the difference between your skill sets, that's a factor of 1000 of what people have in skill sets. Your time is only a factor of a 20% perturbation. to say that the time you spend thinking with great clarity about how you convey your science to non-scientists actually helps you see the bigger picture. I'm just trying to explain why I think a lot of your colleagues are not willing to take it on, because they're nervous about how much they need to know before they make... I just think that there's a culture that's artificially saying I think we do have some time to do it. I have one question. How can you talk about the science communication if the fundamental social problems of scientists are not solved because the governments can't provide us with the required number of positions? We're just surviving. I think that the governments must set priorities and say that science is essential and we support it, and make, if you wish, propaganda for science. The government must be responsible, and the ethics is actually crucial, as you said. So he's a normal person, he's not a highly demanding person. So the ethics is crucial, if you understand what I mean. Okay, Harold and Brian, you both have the ear of government, tell us. And I think it's pretty easy to draw some boundaries here about the nature of our conversation which is about how to transmit what science does. Now you could argue that, something I care a lot about, and that is trying to describe to the public the situation that at least my field of science is in at the moment, where there's tremendous pressure for grants. The NIH's budget's been falling for years. We train a large number of scientists who want to be academic scientists, and not enough jobs. There are many problems that I and my colleagues have written about that are very difficult for us to solve, and the public is largely unaware. The public is aware sometimes that the NIH budget's falling, we need more money, but I think they're less aware of the Malthusian problem that's been created by a large number of people being trained. And that's a topic that I think we might think about how to present the public in a way that's constructive, and that's the best way I can try to answer your question. You have science policy issues, but if you want to get traction, the good, positive science communication we do sort of acts as a background that makes people think good about science. But then you really do need to write about the science policy issues. And quite frankly you can write in the New York Times, but that's only to get your foot in the door so you can go and get them out of the public and try to convince them of a sensible way forward. They don't like to be shouted at in the media. that while we have our own economic problems we don't want to be viewed as just another union trying to find more jobs, and higher salaries, and more money. That one of the things that's an incentive for all governments to invest in science is the cultural long term value of science, cultural and economic. There's a microphone here. that's slightly different from the ones you have taken, and that has to do with the responsibility we have as scientists to sort of protect our own community. If recently, as many of you know, a Nobel Laureate has been accused in the press, and been handled both by the universities and in the press, perhaps not quite the way that, at least I personally, would have liked to see. And so I wanted to ask the panel: Do we have a responsibility to stand up and say this is a person highly regarded by the community, and he has not been fairly treated? So it's very important for us to sort of state our values, and see too that people who have opinions... First of all we have a freedom of press, people should be able to say... And even if they say something dumb and say, "I was an idiot to say this," that person shouldn't be shot. and there has been a communication storm, perhaps communication overkill around this issue, so it seems fair game for the panel. So thank you, Torsten. Marcia, why do you... Torsten was due to be here... Not Torsten, sorry, Tim, on a panel of yours. From what I've seen on this, there have been a number of his colleagues who have spoken up in his defence. So it seems like there has been what I see as perhaps a growing communication outpouring... Well, I'm not sure it's an outpouring yet, but raising of support on his behalf. I think it's very hard to say where people should land on this issue. Because I think, number one, there were very few of probably anyone in this audience who were actually there at the event. Who can say firsthand what was said, what happened, what the intent was, etc. Everyone's going on secondhand information. There are also probably very few of us who have communicated with Sir Tim personally to know where he stands on the issue. I did have some communication with him immediately after the event, and we decided that it would be best for him not to be on the panel on Monday, because it would distract everyone from the topic of the panel because he felt that the storm would still probably be brewing, and decided that he didn't want it to be all about him. And so he decided to withdraw from the panel, which I think was probably at the time the right decision. should the community of scientific leaders not have sort of come to his defence at that point and said, "Sure, there may be a storm, but come anyway and we will ride that storm," and correct the imbalance that Torsten's referring to in communication. it's hard for me to say what the proper stance is not having been at the event, not knowing what was said, not knowing what happened, and not being able to sit down with Sir Tim and say, I think that should be for his colleagues, his close colleagues to do, and that's what I see them doing. you can make comments, but you are in an excellent position to, on behalf of the community, to make a statement. because Tim said himself that, "I was stupid, that was an idiotic thing to say." It happened to me once, I made a mistake, and had, of course, an upheaval, and I apologised and said, "That was silly of me to say." And he has said so, and it seems to me that that should be the end of the story. personal interview with Sir Tim in light of all the publicity that's come of this, in which he told his side of the story, because I don't know that he's actually talked to anyone with his side of the story. And if he wanted to do that, that might be something that they'd be very interested in. Oh, he has? All right. Well, then that's already happened, I guess. He's already done that with the Guardian. Oh, the Independent? Okay. All right. As someone who's just had a brief discussion I'd hoped to be able to talk to Tim while he was here, but he made the decision not to come. The challenge in this situation is you absolutely must stick by your values. I would say that Tim made a, I think what he agrees is a mistake, and I think from my perspective, I think his followup, which he did two interviews, didn't clear it up completely in a way that would have been useful. That being said, there was a very strong back reaction by UCL, but the person who did that at UCL has now lost their job as well. So it's been an interesting experience all around, and like it or not, we live in a world where media moves at the speed of light, once it goes like this went there's not much you can do to be saved except for it to have institutions in place that have values, clearly articulated, and stick by them. It wasn't as though he had a private conversation with somebody and it was leaked to the press, He was speaking in front of an international journalism conference, in a place that's not actually known for its sense of humour, South Korea. And referenced back to the conversation earlier about being the spokesperson when there is a media storm going on about some science story. If you stand up there and say something it is possible that suddenly this happens. There's a vast reaction, and you suddenly find yourself caught up in something that you were not expecting, and therefore you can understand why people are discouraged from getting out in front of the press and saying anything at all. the process of doing science, how a laboratory is run, how a laboratory is constituted, and it was on those grounds the comments were made. That's sort of ironic given the earlier discussion. Another point here, please. Sorry, yes, and then I'll come back to you. I a while ago did a course on science communication, and before that I was a master student in physics, and I had absolutely no idea how the media and the press worked. But I got a bit of an insight which many people in this room might not have had, and I thought it might be interesting to share just a brief insight into what that is. And the media, probably the big press papers, and online papers, they just don't have the time or the journalists to provide the science stories that you might all be after. It's sort of like a pressure to publish for the journalists as well. Like you said it's a lot of people want to make money off the pages that they print, but the reason that science isn't involved in that half the time is because it doesn't hit the news values that people want to read. So it doesn't have the immediacy that people want, it doesn't have the crisis talks, it doesn't have the mega stars in it, but when it does, that's when it hits the headlines. And I think that's something that when you're looking at the media and going, it's because it hasn't hit those news values. I just also really quickly wanted to touch on the Google thing that we were talking about before. I think it was Marcia or someone who said that the reason things hit the top of Google is because people search for it. I think it's a little bit more complicated than that, and I don't fully understand it, but it's more that the companies and the links that are created online that help push things to the top, and there's all sorts of... Some people we were just talking about might want to do that. Okay, thank you. Jalees, you speak. I think one thing that's emerged from our panel discussion here is that how do we make science exciting, and how do we give it a news value, because some of our discoveries are very small, incremental discoveries, which are not necessarily sensational and don't have that much news value in itself. But what I've found is that people do value narratives in science. When we publish papers, we publish the end product but not the two, three, four, five, six years that went into creating that paper, and I've found that a lot of non-scientists are very interested in how did we develop the idea, how did we come up with hypotheses that were rejected, and also talking about errors and uncertainty in the scientific process. So I think it might not have news value in the traditional sense, but it has narrative value, and I think it gets people excited about sharing that process. And this is why I encourage young scientists all to share that aspect of their science. which has been promoted by Ron Vale at UCSF through the American Society of Cell Biology. It has many, many movies of graduate students, postdocs, and even Nobel laureates talking about what turns them on about science, what's exciting about science, how science is done. It addresses an audience that's already generally committed to science, but it got the flavour that you're after, and I think that is incredibly important. but I've been very fortunate to spend time both in England, North America, and Australia. And something that concerns me greatly is perspective, and how it's very hard to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and I want to make two quick points. The first is that that's relevant to this issue in two ways. Firstly, it's hard to empathise or realise that the majority of the world's people are living in developing countries. Science communication is a major issue in these places, and it leads to arguably more dangerous consequences. We've seen that with the HIV epidemic, we've seen that with ebola, we've probably seen it outside of health as well, though I'm not an authority to speak of that. So that's the one thing, just bearing in mind that science communication is a problem the world over, and we have to try to figure out how are we going to deal with this in countries which have fewer resources. And the second issue I just wanted to raise briefly was that of, again, as scientists we appreciate the importance of science but I am concerned that there's great public mistrust of science. How do we deal with that? What's the science on dealing with public mistrust on science? What are the most effective interventions we have today that people in this room can go out and use to try and deal with people who don't want to read our stories because they mistrust us in the first place. How do we solve this? Is it primary school education? I don't know, I'd be interested in your views. But I think where scientists go wrong, and where the public starts to mistrust scientists, is when scientists become advocates. I think scientists have to say, "Here's the science, here's what my experiments say," but when they start telling people, "And therefore here's what you have to do," that's when they go wrong. That's different than saying... There are many routes to dealing with climate change. are not going to try and help the public interpret the science and the policy implications, who's going to do it? You can't go and give Parliamentarians, "Here's the information," and expect them to do it all. But you don't tell them which they choose. because the clock says zero seconds and we've just chosen the panel topic for Thursday afternoon next year, which is the relationship between the communication of science and the PR for science. Brilliant. Thank you very much, all of the audience for being here and asking such great questions, and to all the panellists.

Panel Discussion (2015)

Communication Overkill? (Panelists Schmidt, Varmus, Ladd, McNutt, Rehman; Moderator: Adam Smith)

Panel Discussion (2015)

Communication Overkill? (Panelists Schmidt, Varmus, Ladd, McNutt, Rehman; Moderator: Adam Smith)

Abstract

Practically everyone agrees on the need for public engagement with science. These days, it is taken as a given that scientists need to tell the world what they are doing, and that the more energy they put into doing so the better. With more opportunities and channels for communication available than ever before, the scientific research community is probably in closer contact with the public than at any other time. Scientists are also under increasing pressure to communicate; from funding agencies, from their own universities and companies, and indeed from the media. But all this communication takes time, potentially posing the practising scientist with a dilemma; whether to focus on research, or to take time out to talk about it? What is the appropriate balance between these activities?

And what, in fact, does all this communication seek to achieve? Is the goal to demonstrate why scientific research is beneficial to society, or to demonstrate why scientific understanding is important in itself? Do scientists expect the public to engage with not only the beneficial outcomes of scientific endeavour, but the practice of science too? What, fundamentally, do we want to convey when we communicate ‘science’?

This panel, featuring a mix of Nobel Laureates, scientists and ‘professional’ science communicators (in various combinations), seeks to take stock of the current science communication scene and reflect on what all this effort is for.

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