Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

When Your “Review Panel” Includes the Public

Next Monday, a few lucky scientists will go to bed knowing they’ve won €1 billion for their research. Their victories will represent not only great ideas but savvy science communications.

By Rebecca Widiss

Credit: European Parliament (on Flickr)

Credit: European Parliament

In 2010, the European Commission announced an unusual competition for scientists.  Think big, it said, offering €1 billion for “ambitious large-scale, science-driven, research initiatives with visionary goals” and broad potential for economic exploitation. Across the continent, teams of scientists answered the Commission’s call for proposals. Six pilot projects won over a million euros each to flesh out their plans, ranging from robot companions to virtual patients. (Science magazine ran a nice summary of the projects here.)

Thomas Hartung, a toxicologist at Johns Hopkins University, was invited to join the team working on the virtual patient. Each team’s challenge, he told me last week, was not just to “put together a good paper with brilliant ideas” but also to generate excitement — to “create an environment in which people were asking for [the project].” And so, like it or not, the teams dove into the realm of communications, pouring enormous effort into intro videos that would help “translate something really big into lay terms,” he said.

In a sense, appealing to the public to ensure funding is becoming common throughout academia. As funding sources become more competitive, I thought it would be worth worth examining these “well-heeled” videos for a few ideas and tips. Here they are:

1. Start from square one

All of these initiatives involve unfamiliar terms. The folks at the Graphene Flagship project, a would-be network of experts working on graphene applications, faced this challenge head on. They produced two separate videos. The first introduces graphene (the thinnest/lightest object ever obtained, world’s strongest material, etc.), while the second introduces the project.

2. If you’re sexy, flaunt it

Coming from the design world, I can sympathize with the projects that mainly involve data crunching. How do you make a computer screen exciting? But kudos to the Robot Companion team for cramming their promo video with delightful footage of today’s nature-inspired robots. They hooked me at minute 4:23 with a robo-gecko.

3. Use warm-fuzzy metaphors

Several of these projects involve creating devices with enormous potential… to sound creepy. Among them is a small sensor that would constantly monitor you (heart rate, fatigue level, blood alcohol level, concentration level, stress level) from infancy to old age. Wisely, this sensor is called “Guardian Angel” instead of “Big Brother.”

A screen shot from the Guardian Angel video.

A screen shot from the Guardian Angel video.

4. Let your scientists shine

The Human Brain project produced the most polished, and perhaps the most informative, video of them all. Amazingly, it manages to convey its points primarily through clips from interviews with 10 (white, male) scientists. Impressive, if not inclusive.

5. Cater to the WIIFM crowd

From start to finish, the Human Brain script is laced with enticing promises, both highbrow and lowbrow. If you’re planning to grow old, this project will help you. It will also revolutionize computing (and electronics!), save major medical bills, and help us all understand the “most mysterious phenomenon of the universe: the human brain.”

Of course, I’m curious what people think. Which movie do you think is best and why? Is such PR work a necessary evil or an important new tool?



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This entry was posted on January 25, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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