Science. Communication. Community.
Homecomings are always a little awkward, and my return to science was no exception. Equipped with a fresh perspective on communicating science to the general public, I immediately faced the dilemma of how to promote my own research. And I fumbled.
After 10 weeks interning at a daily newspaper as a science journalist last summer, it was time to go back into the laboratory. I turned in my spiral-bound interview notebook and picked up my heavy old lab notebook, complete with its carbon-copy, non-detachable pages. I stopped chasing down hot tips for stories and returned to chasing down statistically-significant data points. It wasn’t long before my newsprint-coated fingers were instead stained with “Coomassie blue.” My readership of thousands was trimmed to a readership of tens.
Those tradeoffs were just details, though. The real shock that my life had changed arrived when I started drafting a manuscript to submit to a scientific journal. I’d just spent the entire summer summarizing these exact sorts of publications, reporting scientific breakthroughs to the general public. I’d sifted through a lot of bad writing to highlight important discoveries. And now here I was, writing a scientific paper myself. No pressure, Ian, but it’s got to be good.
I had no doubt that my scientific findings were sound. I wouldn’t be submitting it, after all, if I didn’t think my findings were worthy of reporting. But now I was used to thinking like a journalist. I wanted to spread the news! Should I write up a press release about my work? Should I call the local newspaper? The TV station? Maybe I should tip off CNN, I thought for a moment.
I found myself facing a real existential crisis. One of the main reasons I’d applied for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship was so I could spread the news about new discoveries, to make science more accessible to the general public, to raise scientific literacy, and to help people see that federally-funded research returns important results. And now, after 5 years in grad school, here I was with my very own scientific results to report. Not letting the world know would be an act of hypocrisy.
Although almost all science research is, in my opinion, critically important, not all research is appropriate for news reporting. There’s only so much space in print and only so much time on the air. It would be overwhelming (and impossible) to report on every single scientific publication, of which there are thousands every week. It would be overwhelming even to report on every article in the so-called boutique scientific journals like Science and Nature.
By issuing a press release about my own research, would I be raising awareness about my important work, or would I just be adding to the background noise of journalism? Was I deluding myself about how much the average reader would even care?
After considering this, I decided not to write a press release. This may have been a bad choice, it turns out. Just a few weeks after my paper was published, a popular New York Times story covered a separate study with a similar conclusion. That study, published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that a popular kind of laboratory mouse is not a great tool for studying sepsis, trauma or burns. My research was evaluating the use of laboratory mice to study atherosclerotic plaque rupture, an event that causes blood clot formation and therefore heart attacks and strokes. My co-authors and I showed that three commonly-studied types of mice are very different than humans in key aspects that make them inappropriate for drawing conclusions about the human manifestation of heart disease.
While I have no delusions that, had I submitted a press release, my own research would have been one of the most popular stories in the New York Times, the PNAS article was a strong reminder that my research is still important. Even if I’m never interviewed by Ira Flatow or Bob Hirshon or Ed Yong, you and I and everyone we know need to keep talking about science and communicating its importance. That’s what being an ambassador of science is all about.