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Selling science to the public

by Nov. 8, 2012, 3:25 PM

Jessica Mazerik
Jessica Mazerik is a graduate student in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology.

As scientists, our ability to obtain funding, publish papers, and generate interest in our research is dependent upon our ability to successfully “sell” our scientific data and ideas – that is, to convince our peers and colleagues of their validity and importance.
However, we are used to making our pitch to other scientists: grant reviewers, peer reviewers, and colleagues who work on related research. They are all experts who will critically analyze our data and how we interpret it, and place the results in context within other studies in the field.

So what happens when our scientific stories are presented to the population outside our scientific fields? Unfortunately, a pitch made by a scientist is often translated by the news media into something the lay public will “buy” without fully appreciating the implications. This problem stems from contextual misunderstandings.

Misinterpreting science in the media

Take, for example, the ENCODE gene-mapping project. In an Ars Tecnica article, John Timmer highlights how a miscommunication about the definition of “biochemical function” between scientists and the press led to an inaccurate representation of the findings. Although the authors claim to have found “biochemical functions for 80 percent of the genome,” Timmer argues that there is still “junk DNA” in the genome and that the “ENCODE definition of ‘functional impact’…was actively misleading.”

Several years ago, John P.A. Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece and at Tufts-New England Medical Center, published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed initial studies that are “highly cited,” or referenced, by other scientists in their publications are often followed by studies that provide more data and are better controlled.

In some cases, the follow-up studies refuted or weakened the initial results, while in other cases, the original results were supported by subsequent studies. But, Ioannidis wrote, “citation count is a measure of how much a study has occupied the thinking of other scientists and has drawn attention.” If the focus falls only on the initial studies, results can be taken out of context—and sometimes assigned more value than they are actually worth.

To this point, in a recent PLOS ONE paper, University of Bordeaux neuroscientists Thomas Boraud and Francois Gonon and their colleagues conclude that the root of the communication gap between scientists and the general public is that only the most initial findings are reported.
The authors identified research papers from the 1990s on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that were covered in newspapers. Follow-up studies, which often refuted or decreased the impact of the initial studies, were rarely reported by the media.

If many initial published research findings are disproven or weakened by subsequent studies, an idea that Ioannidis examines in an essay published in PLOS Medicine, the importance of framing news stories in the context of related ‘big picture’ studies in the field becomes apparent.

The root of the problem

Is it possible to close the gap between primary science literature and the news? This seems especially challenging, if we consider that the way news stories are told and the way science stories are shaped over time are fundamentally different processes. Kelly Crowe, a columnist for Canada’s CBC News, points out that “science ‘evolves’, but news ‘happens.’”

Many years pass in scientists’ training before their findings take shape among other studies in the field. As we progress through experiments and are enveloped in related literature, we learn how our particular piece of the puzzle slots into the big picture.

When the media report on a particular publication, the reporter and the audience—people outside the scientific world—lack the years of supporting contextual knowledge and information that scientists have. As a result, scientists’ findings are often taken out of context and the implications of the studies are misinterpreted or exaggerated.

Bridging the gap

Perhaps to narrow the gap, scientists themselves must take on some responsibility for facilitating the accurate and contextually appropriate transfer of information. As science writer Seth Mnookin asked in a recent PLOS One blog post, who is better suited to translate research than working scientists who are experts in the fields in question?

The simplest place for scientists to start educating is at their home institutions. Most universities have research news outlets similar to Vanderbilt’s Reporter and Research News @ Vanderbilt. Scientists whose studies will be featured can meet with writers before a story is run to help put the findings into context.

If scientists come across an inaccurate science-related news report on research in their area of expertise, we should relate that to the editor or producer. Most news outlets run corrections that address such issues.

Participation in science cafés—informal, local public science meetings—and writing editorials for local or national news sources provide other opportunities for researchers to accurately communicate scientific results.

While these actions alone are unlikely to completely bridge the gap in science communication, they provide a starting point for scientists to reach out to audiences who are attentive and ready to learn. By starting small and becoming more engaged with the media, scientists can help to shift the way science news is related to the public.

Jessica Mazerik is a graduate student in Matt Tyska’s lab in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology. She studies the biophysics and biochemical properties that underlie myosin motor protein function in enterocytes, the cells that line the lumen of the small intestine.

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