Science Needs Better PR

Can science benefit from better public relations?

“Enough hippie stuff. How do we advocate change?”

Science Needs Better PR

About a month ago, I stumbled across a blog post that really got my attention: moving science communication beyond the standard argument, published by EcoPress, a website that highlights science and scientists in the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at Colorado State University. My background is in biology but I’ve also dabbled in writing and communications. A post on how to better communicate science, is, no doubt, on my radar.

In the article, the author, Shinichi Asaoposes this high level question:

How do we (scientists) REALLY advocate environmental changes within the general public?

A great question that most environmentalists should at least ponder. In a nutshell, the author answer’s the question by providing 3 solutions:

  1. Understand our Audience – If we want to be understood, we have to know who we are talking to.
  2. Organize Better at a Lower Level – Each department or lab group should have a dedicated PR person that passes on timely news to local media, participates on social media and/or maintain an active blog.
  3. Pay for Better Communication – Budget a portion of grant money to pay a PR professional.

I wholeheartedly agree with the suggestions provided by EcoPress. Maybe it’s time to think about science a little differently — Information as a Product (IAAP, if you will). What if we thought about science in terms of a marketable vessel of information that people need to know about, need to “buy” into?

My curiosity on the topic was piqued and I turned to the world-wide web for some answers. This lead me to an article published in 2010 by Erin Biba of Wired Magazine: “Why Science Needs to Step Up Its PR Game.” In this article, Biba quotes Kelly Bush, a founder and CEO of ID, the entertainment industry’s largest independently owned PR firm:

“Until scientists realize they need us, we can’t help them. They have to wake up and say: ‘I recognize it’s not working, and I’m willing to listen to you.’ It’s got to start there.”

I was shocked with the amount of backlash from the scientific community on this piece — although, I shouldn’t have been. Biba also quotes Jennifer Ouellette, who was at the time, the director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a National Academy of Sciences program that helps connect the entertainment industry with technical consultants.  Ouellette stated:

“Scientists hate the word spin. They get bent out of shape by the concept that they should frame their message… They feel that the facts should speak for themselves.”

I understand this side of the equation, too. The terms ‘spin’ and ‘PR’ don’t exactly jive with the terms ’empirical’ or ‘objective’.

Perhaps it’s my naivety, but science is public information and the role of a scientist should be to inform and disseminate findings to the general public. But not to do it in a way that has a political agenda. The team at EcoPress is on the right track. Scientists don’t need to come out with guns-a-blazing, selling their newly discovered ‘truths’. But perhaps a little blogging here, a press release there and the occasional tweet about the trials and tribulations of their research, might serve the public in a way that breaks down the walls of the ivory tower.

To all my science friends out there, I’d love to hear your opinions. Does science need better PR?


2 thoughts on “Science Needs Better PR

  1. I think that in addition to our innate issue with ‘spin’ and the idea of promotion, there are two other major deterrents to scientists taking responsibility for PR.

    1) It is time consuming. Almost every time this comes up in conversation with a research scientist, the first thing I hear is that he or she just doesn’t have time. Hiring someone to specialize in PR would take care of this issue, but then the issue becomes money. It is very difficult for most scientists to rationalize spending their hard-earned grant money on this when it isn’t guaranteed to pay off the way that a new experiment or an additional analysis might.
    2) It is daunting. We see the public as difficult to convince, often because we think they won’t understand what we are trying to communicate (this comes back to Shinichi Asao’s post where he argues that we need to reevaluate this stance), or that they don’t “believe” our science. For those of us who study climate change or evolution, the anticipation of backlash from the public can be especially paralyzing.

    It is only when PR is more highly valued (grant money!) that we will get beyond these hurdles. I see this changing, especially with the increasing emphasis by NSF on broader impacts. But I still think that we need a push from dedicated scientists who set an example, show that it can be done, and show that it can be rewarding.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jocelyn. I guess it becomes a chicken or egg scenario — should scientists set aside a portion of their funds for this? or should it be the funding bodies?

      Perhaps you can comment on why a scientist might be interested in taking Shinichi’s advice — what’s truly in it for him or her (I’m sure not all scientists feel the need to publicly disseminate their findings)? More funding?

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