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The Black Hole

Building bridges between basic science and public interest


Biomedical research at academic institutions is mostly funded by federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and National Research Council (NRC) in Canada that are themselves supported entirely by taxpayer dollars. While scientists are required to justify their research programs to a committee of peers in order to secure grants, few efforts are made to communicate this research to the lay public that funds them. The result has been an increasing disconnect between basic science and its benefit to society.

Most people have a very limited grasp of the state of the art in any given research discipline and the advancements in that field that they help support (see, for example, this editorial in Nature Chemical Biology and a similar opinion piece on science and democracy in The Scientist). Not surprisingly, this has had longlasting implications on how society approaches both short- and long-term policy decisions, and affects the state of science funding in our country.

There are good reasons to regain the respect of the public. At the end of the day it is the taxpayer who elects the government that controls the purse strings and, consequently, the direction that science takes.”

Who is Directing Science? Sarah Tilley, 2002.

One solution I propose is for publicly funded research groups, as a major stipulation of their grant, to produce two- to three-minute videos every five years that summarize their research programs. These should be published in open-access journals or academic department/university, public health organization, or grant organization websites where they can be accessed freely by the general public. Indeed, a major limitation scientists have faced communicating basic research to the lay public has been a tendency to ramble, provide too much detail, use technical jargon that is otherwise meaningless to non-specialists (and oftentimes other scientists), and lead/follow their descriptions with multiple, often unnecessary, caveats that undermine the credibility of the work and diminish the listener’s interest.

While efforts such as the American Society for Cell Biology’s (ASCB) Elevator Speech Contest at the society’s 2012 annual meeting are a step in the right direction (Communication: Two minutes to impress), more needs to be done to disseminate this understanding to the larger public. Short descriptors of publicly funded research projects are useful when fielding questions about one’s job, asking for money, talking to politicians, wooing potential collaborators, and even during casual conversations with friends. Scientists have a social responsibility to educate their communities about the importance of the work that community is helping support, and the current state of the art in the field in which this work is being done.

Part of communicating that message is making sure it bridges the divide between basic science and public interest. Animating complex biological processes contextualizes them within their underlying physiology, identifies gaps in our mechanistic understanding, affirms the importance of continued research, provides a bridge between academic scientists and the lay public, and can help promote individual research programs, departments, and institutions. Most importantly, animated videos can justify to taxpayers the considerable costs and time-to-completion inherent to basic research by explaining both the process and ultimately the value (both social and economic) resulting from their investment.

This idea is by no means novel, and was the topic of a NatureJobs column titled “Animating Science” which emphasizes that with the right execution animation promotes science in an engaging, memorable, and concise format. My foray into animating science has been through the support of a project led by Alice Chen (a professional animator) to produce a children’s book titled Lucea Lights Land and Sea that teaches children the basic concepts of bioluminescence, adaptation, and biodiversity in an engaging and entertaining manner.

While I am not proposing that we all write books (although who better suited to engage children in science than scientists themselves?), academic researchers could traverse the present disconnect between their own work and the lay public’s understanding of it by producing short videos describing their scientific projects and affirming the importance of continued biomedical research.

To prove that and how it can be done, I have produced a video series on the topic of platelet production (my personal research interest). To prove that video summaries of basic research projects are not just of value to the general public, but to scientists at large (e.g. as a teaching tool), and confirm that there are concrete academic/career benefits to the researcher in producing similar animations (e.g. self-promotion, recognition amongst peers, publication record), I have published this work in the Science and Society section of the journal Trends in Molecular Medicine. (You can follow this link to view the manuscript, and I encourage you to read it alongside this article.)

Specifically, this manuscript highlights the value of scientists interacting more closely with animators of the purpose of better communicating their research to a wider audience using platelet production as an example. In it I raise emerging concepts and ideas regarding how scientists can best communicate/translate their basic research to the lay public, other scientists and clinicians, and should be used as a guideline for generating videos of your own.

As always, I am happy to take your comments, and look forward to continuing the discussion of how scientists can take meaningful steps to address the increasing divide between basic science and public interest below.

Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is the Founder and CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon Founded Platelet BioGenesis where he served as CEO and Chief Scientific Officer. Before Platelet BioGenesis Dr. Thon was an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School.
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  1. Reuben Kaufman / October 15, 2014 at 13:22

    I agree 100% with your urging scientists to better communicate their research to the general public. I was somewhat doubtful, however, about recommending the current trend to communicate ones research in about 2 minutes. I’ve seen a few of these efforts, and they have been underwhelming in the extreme. However, when you provided a link to your platelet video, I said to myself, “don’t prejudge it, Reuben … watch it.”

    In the article you write, “… has been a tendency to ramble, provide too much detail, use technical jargon that is otherwise meaningless to non-specialists (and oftentimes other scientists) ….” So I went to the link to your platelet video. I first read the description, and my lower jaw fell at how much jargon was presented there. I’m a physiological zoologist, so I could understand it, but is that really a model of clear writing for the general public? Look at “hemostasis”, “thrombocytopenia”, “immunogenicity of PLT products” (is “PLT” an abbreviation for “platelet”?), “in-vitro”, “micro-fluidics platform” …. And there are 5 more in the rest of the passage, including the mouthful, “polydimethylsiloxane biochips”.

    OK, so let’s watch the video itself…. Maybe it’s me, but the method of having an animated hand scribble all the words and cartoons at a furious pace is so bloody irritating; can anyone really concentrate on the message with all that garbage flying about? To be fair, however, the second video on platelet formation is much better….

    One can indeed present one’s research to the general public in a brief format (5 minutes? 10?), but 2-3 minutes borders on the absurd. Nobody should have to cater to an audience whose attention span is only 2-3 minutes.

  2. Vinai Bhagirath / November 6, 2014 at 09:48

    I’m relatively junior in my scientific training, and am in the process of learning how to tailor my scientific communication to different audiences. I was presenting a poster at a conference, and had the uncomfortable experience of realising mid-way through the short speech that the poster evaluators had much less background knowledge in the subject area than I had expected. Later, a colleague suggested I take a few seconds to ask about the background of the poster evaluators before starting. What a reasonable idea!

    Different audiences need different presentations. Scientists are doing a bad job at reaching out to the audience that funds them.

    As a physician, I always have to judge the ability of a patient to understand the medical information I’m presenting to them. Some patients get details about prior studies, hazard ratios, and statistical significance. Most don’t want that level of discussion. But the key is to present the information in a way that’s understandable to that particular audience in order to gain their trust and allow them to make an informed decision. Different presentation formats and levels of detail will be appropriate for different audiences.

    I agree completely with Jonathan Thon that we should be applying the same philosophy in basic science research. Taxpayers need to make decisions about where to spend their money. This will require creating numerous presentations appropriate to different audiences – elevator talks, short videos, abstracts, posters, scientific papers, hour-long presentations, etc.

    I think Reuben Kaufman is seeing messages meant for different audiences and judging them by the same rubric. Thon’s website with the description of his project is not really aimed at the lay public. His video is. No one would expect a 2-3 minute video to satisfy a researcher, but it may be all that some people can handle. Remember that science is not a priority for everyone.

    “Nobody should have to cater to an audience whose attention span is only 2-3 minutes…” If physicians or electricians or car salespeople had that attitude, they’d be losing work rather quickly – which is exactly what’s happening to scientists and their research budgets. We need to communicate with many different audiences, including those who only have 2-3 minutes to devote to our work. To judge Thon’s video, we need to ask the audience for whom it was intended.

    I’ll now have to take a look at what research has been done about preferences of lay people regarding scientific presentations!

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