Monday, July 03, 2006

How (not) to publicise your research

The value of the results of scientific research is measured in the scientific system itself: references, replication. Good research gets quoted a lot, it gets replicated a lot, in some cases it generates radical re-thinking of the premises of research on that field. In short, the value of your reseach is measured in how much it advances science itself.

Wrong-o. Or, at least that's not all there is. The value can also be measured with a more common metrics: dollars/pounds and number of words printed. Look at any media that publishes science news. A new method for etching circuits to silicon has been developed - potential value of the invention x billion dollars. A new, more lightweight material developed for packaging - annual turnover of packaging industry x billion dollars. A new drug to speed up recovery from surgery - savings in the form of quicker patient turnaround in hospitals and fewer sick-days for companies - x million dollars.

Even when the science is solid, the economics necessarily aren't. For example, a new nanotechnological method for cramming even more transistors per square inch of silicon might be far away from being implemented industrially, and the actual impact very different (smaller) in mass production than in experimental circumstances in the lab. The costs of building manufacturing capacity that uses the new method could be vast, there might be regulational hurdles to clear etc. Yet, nobody even attempts to give careful estimates about the financial impacts of their new products or methods. Based on 100% market penetration and straight-forward estimations where change in efficiency is directly translated to a similar change in consumer price, the whopping headline-catching figures are made out of thin air, heated up, and served to the public.

Now, researchers need to attract attention for several reasons. These might be elaborate and eloquent but often boil down to being money and/or fame. Money can be obtained from grant authorities, universities or book deals. Grant authorities and faculties like publicity, as for both, it brings in cash - it helps to attract fresh donations and government funding, and for the universities, it helps to bring in more students, who bring money with them. When you can provide media attention in addition to the dry scientific results, the grant authority and faculty are more likely to be symphathetic for your funding application for a new gadgetoscope and 10 new dualcore MacBook Pros.

Publishers like science writers who are not too concerned with holding on to the exact facts all the time. Popular science needs to be exaggerated, animated, and simplified. And a media bulletin with exaggerated, animated and simplified claims is a good work sample for getting to write a whole book with more of the same. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate people who write popular science and enjoy the books myself. Sometimes I even dream of writing one myself. But the point is, while you are more than welcome to imagine and write a pop science book about a world where the advances of nanotechnology have profoundly changed our way of living, I don't think it is good to refer to such a world as a more or less direct outcome of your research if you have after 5 years of work managed to finally perfectly align two carbon atoms using a new nano-tech method.

OK, there's your why. But how? Well, there is the "this will save huge amounts of money or generate heaploads of revenue" -arguments, which will guarantee that your result will be published in Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Financial Times and a few dozen trade rags for the financially inclined. Another way is to ride the tide of current worries. Anyone else noticed the increase in news on face-recognition techniques and other biometrics? National security is the keyword. Another, slightly more dubious take on this theme was epitomised in today's BBC snippet about bionic limbs. They've already changed the headline, but the reference is still there - this technique can allegedly help the victims of 7/7. I guess amputees in general are not that pop, but referring to London terrorist attacks make this research part of something bigger.

Then there is the soundbite science. Research that has been carried out for the sole reason of getting 10 to 15 minutes of questionable fame. This research is directly aimed for the "funny bits" in the end of the news, rather than ever appearing in the headlines. It will never appear in scientific journals or conferences, either. It's often funded by companies (from their marketing budget, rather than R&D funds), and usually carried out in former polytechnics or colleges recently re-branded as universities and struggling to attract good academics or passable students. It's the stuff like formulae for perfect toast, dunking bisquit in tea, finding out if ducks' quack have an echo etc. In this way, the product and the researcher get some airtime, the product gets credibility from being a subject of academic research, and the researcher gets his daily bread. Plus complimantary bisquits, toast, or ducks. This kind of science is close to the kind used in marketing excercise products on night-time TV infomercials. People take you more seriously when you're dressed up in a white lab coat and wear spectacles and the letters Dr in front of your name. Funny that.

The official reasons given for the unashamed publicity-seeking behaviour of scientists usually mention public service. It is important to make sure science is not confined only to the initiated, and that it is depicted as part of our everyday lives, not just something creepy that's living in the ivory towers of the academic institutions. If the public pays your wages, surely you are responsible to them and must explain what you do with their money. Also, attracting new students to your field is an important part of ensuring continuity. Absolutely, but a difference exists between approachable and compelling explanation and just pimping your study or making outlandish claims. I don't think it's particularly productive for the public image of science if you make bogus science you can talk about for 15 minutes and then go back doing something else for the rest of the year.

Given that while some people seem to be not too busy to do all these stunts while others struggle to find time to do proper outreach-work, I suggest the most unashamed soundbite-scientists should be given community service sentences: they should give lectures and run demos at schools in exchange for polluting the airwaves with those useless formulae.

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