14 April 2014

Fighting fear

I'm grumpy most mornings without this
Dr. Raychelle Burks is a chemist. She is a creative science communicator. She is a passionate advocate for diversity in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

 She works very hard to make science, and more specifically chemistry, relevant and meaningful to everyone.  After all, science plays an important role in many of the decisions people make every day.

But here's the funny thing about science: you can have it 90 percent right and still completely wrong. You can see two things happening at the same time and wrongly assume that one causes the other.  You can find things that are harmful when used one way, and not only harmless but also helpful when used another way. 

What's worse, the deck is sometimes stacked against people who just want to make smart decisions for themselves or their families. Some business people or lawyers may have a financial incentive to show consumers 90 percent of the science but not that other 10. Some journalists may feel obligated to present "both sides of the argument" even if science settled the argument years ago. And everyone knows one of the best ways to getting money, ratings, or even votes is to scare people

So that's why Dr. Burks talked with me about some of the things we've seen in the news lately.  A lot of reports and blog posts about "chemicals" or "toxins" lately either don't have all the facts or present those facts in a misleading or confusing way. They spread irrational fears and make it harder for people to make smart and informed decisions.  Some chemists call this "chemphobia." 

Dr. Burks and I talked for about 20 minutes. A bit longer than a typical radio segment, but I think it's well worth a listen. We are hoping to have more conversations with more scientists and more of life's decision makers. Stay tuned.

17 March 2014

This would make a great Nick Kristof column

canceled due to lack of funding
My wife shared an article with me that puts a fine point on the criticism of Nick Kristof's recent column imploring scientists to show up more in public and not write all that sciencey stuff in journals that only scientists read:
Carole Vance and Kim Hopper, longtime professors at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, learned that they were losing their jobs because they hadn’t brought in enough grant money. Both, ironically, are models for the sort of publicly engaged intellectual Kristof wants to see more of.
This obviously gives credence to what so many academics have said in response to the Kristof column, and yet there is even more irony to go around. Academics are increasingly forced to work by a set of rules that journalists rightfully consider a non-starter.

So much has been written about the separation of editorial and advertising you could hardly catalogue it all.  It's written directly into professional editorial guidelines and ethical codes.

Professors Vance and Hopper have done important work that has real relevance and value - it just lacks corporate sponsorship, because it primarily serves those who lack resources.  Imagine what newspapers would look like if writers had to find a sponsor - government or private - for every specific piece they wrote.

Research just doesn't work that way.  We make new observations and discoveries.  We invent new ways of doing things. But it takes time to develop and discover applications.  Corporate sponsors want products that have an impact on next quarter's result.  Politicians mock things like fruit fly research because they don't see its immediate utility.  There is no interest in subsidizing curiosity.

It all reminds me of that urban legend, attributed to so many (my personal favorite is Ben Franklin).  A very important person asks a scientist sharing his latest discoveries, "of what use are all these toys?" and the scientist responds, "of what use is a newborn babe?"

Asking scientists and researchers to ignore the requirements of their employment isn't a reasonable thing to do.  But reframing the way Americans talk about science is an important thing to do.

There are some things that are helping.  The new Cosmos miniseries is, so far, very well done and engaging, at least according to the non-scientists I've seen in my social media feeds. Groups like Compass are developing smarter ways of communicating science to policy leaders. People like Matt Shipman are sharing the relevance of science with mainstream media in their communities.

Nick Kristof could do his part by picking a science story - any science story, really - and demonstrating its relevance and importance in his column.

09 March 2014

#sciosafe thoughts

Dr. Janet Stemwedel published a lengthy post on the impromptu session she led at ScienceOnline summarizing the actions the co-signers of that post want the leadership of that organization to take. I was at that session, and I think her background and description is an accurate reflection of what was discussed there. It is presented in good faith. I don't know every co-signer, but the ones I do know are people I like and respect very much.

My background isn't in science or in science communication, it's in politics and PR. I may come at this issue from a different perspective. But since my profession is concerned with transparency in communication, let me be clear: I have no financial interests to disclose in this matter. 

Arguably I gain professional standing when I speak at conferences like ScienceOnline because it strengthens my position as a leader in my field and suggests expertise in a "niche" not commonly seen in PR. Further, it's clearly in my interest to build relationships with science writers because I may want to pitch them or collaborate at some point in the future. I also love doing it.

My advice and opinions on all this  - whether given publicly, written on this blog, or given privately by request -  has been blunt, perhaps to a fault.  (It has all been free and worth every penny.) However, as it pertains to the list on Dr. Stemwedel's post, I hope people realize the following opinions are sincere and given in the same good faith and spirit of constructive engagement spelled out there.

The first four items on the list are basically no-brainers. They include commitments to more transparency and diversity, more regular communication, and professional and technical support to better implement their policies on harassment. If the leadership of ScienceOnline isn't already working on these items, I'm fairly certain they will soon.  If they don't, I won't be back. Neither will a lot of people.

I think the fifth item, which involves a specific person, requires legal counsel and presents challenges from a PR perspective. If I were asked a question about a specific person who has no affiliation with the organization, I would say that people who follow our rules are welcome, and people who don't follow our rules aren't. I would want the rules to be the standard, and not a specific person. When we start talking about people and specific situations, it's easy to start nibbling away at our standards. It's also easy for critics to say there's now a semi-official blacklist. Don't get trapped.  Make really tough rules. Let the rules speak for themselves and enforce them.

The sixth item, reincorporating ScienceOnline to make it a "membership organization," is the hardest one for me for a few reasons. First, there already is a membership organization called the National Association of Science Writers that could fit many (though probably not all) of the needs of this group.  Many #scio attendees are also NASW members. 

Second, there are several examples of organizations that serve their communities effectively without being membership organizations. BlogHer and evo have held great conferences with outstanding speakers and content. They have been relentless about meeting the needs of their community. SXSW has a "panel picker" process to help build their annual program. All of these groups build value for participants and attract a lot of sponsors, defraying the costs for attendees. 

Third, I'd want to know what criteria for membership there are beyond a simple entry fee and the selection process for presentations. Without thinking this through, the organization and conferences could easily be hijacked by an organized and well-funded group of climate deniers or anti-vaxxers who pay their membership fees. Of course, if the standards are too strict, it's easy to exclude people who currently feel welcome at ScienceOnline. People without science backgrounds. People who don't write about science very much. People like me.

Finally, there's nothing that prevents the #sciosafe group from forming a new organization with the appropriate standards.  That would very likely take less time and effort than re-organizing ScienceOnline. The people in the #sciosafe group aren't simply "customers," though I think that's a pretty damn powerful thing - they are also entrepreneurs. To me, entrepreneurship has always been a profoundly powerful form of advocacy. 

As for the seventh item, asking for elections of board members if the organization reincorporates, it's basically an adjunct to the sixth item. I don't know how you have a membership organization without giving those members a say in who leads them. My concern still stands, however - science isn't subject to a popular vote, and neither is science communication. Vaccines are safe and effective. Climate change is a thing. The world isn't 6,000 years old. I'm not paying dues to a group that could be hijacked by those who want to "teach the controversy" or whatever, and I've seen nothing yet about safeguards for that.

ScienceOnline does a great job delivering content about science communication and they do a great job serving their customers. That's not opinion, it's analysis - last month's annual conference sold out in 28 minutes.  I can't think of a reason they won't sell out again.   A large number of very influential customers have come to them with concerns, and I share their sentiments if not their precise requests.  I have every reason to believe they will be heard. 

I don't think Dr. Stemwedel's post represents a "take it or leave it" list of demands, and I don't think anyone believes all the details are done. I don't want my hesitation to co-sign suggest I have anything other than zero-tolerance for harassment, and I also want to think this through.  I'm as interested as anyone in how this evolves.