Rock stars of science: making science cool

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about explaining science to the public, capped by GQ photo shoot featuring scientists and rock stars as part of the Rock Stars of Science campaign. I was happy to see our own Catriona Jamieson of UCSD featured with British singer-songwriter and rapper Jay Sean.

According to a story in The Scientist:

Since the campaign was launched, nearly 250,000 people have visited the Rock Stars of Science website. Videos of the Rock Stars Hill briefing on September 24, 2009 were seen by more than 4,500 people, according to Research!America. And the events have attracted media attention. For example, ABC gathered some scientists from the 2009 Rock Star campaign in a panel on Alzheimer’s on Nightline.

A few big name scientists seem impressed:

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases and 2009 Rock Star Scientist, said he’s gotten feedback that suggests the campaign helps encourage young people to contemplate careers in science. “The message was that you can get the same thrill and rush from science as you can from being a rock star,” he said, “so from my point of view it was a home run.” Collins, another rock star alum, said in an email he thinks the campaign is a “terrific” vehicle to excite kids. “The effort aims to show scientists as a very cool part of our culture,” he said. “Kids need to know that you don’t have to be a total geek to be a great scientist.”

At the same time, Nature recently ran a piece giving scientists some how-tos when it comes to talking about their work. Because it doesn’t do any good to be a rock star of science if you can’t effectively explain what your scientific progress to the public, to law-makers and to science skeptics. The Scientist describes the much-feared Sagan effect that might be preventing scientists from communicating more passionately about their work:

Some worry that media interaction can taint careers. The ‘Sagan effect’, named after the astronomer and famous science communicator Carl Sagan, suggests that frequency of media interaction might be inversely proportional to scientific ability. Sagan’s biographers, Keay Davidson and William Poundstone, both say that his popularization of science was a big reason that the National Academy of Sciences did not accept him as a member. And yet Sagan, as they document, had a prolific publication record and many protégés, including Squyres.

Finally, CIRM grantee Paul Knoepfler had this to say about why scientists should quit worrying about perception and start talking to the public. He wrote a blog entry about the need for scientists to get with the times in terms of communicating electronically. In a follow-up comment to his blog entry he wrote:

Scientists need to communicate in real time, or as close to it as possible, on the Internet. If they choose not to or are simply so unaware that they don’t even know they should be doing this, they have lost out on an opportunity to not only to educate, but also to advocate. The anti-science groups out there have learned this lesson well.

CIRM held a media training at our annual grantee meeting last year in an effort to help grantees talk about their work. With all the misinformation about stem cells – regarding their origins and their therapeutic power – we need as many scientists as possible able to talk effectively about their findings.

Those rock stars of science communication might never have the name or image recognition as Debbie Harry or Bret Michaels, but we do hope they can be part of an effort to help people understand the power of science to create new therapies or technologies that improve our world and our lives. And to explain that science is just plain cool.

Both Jamieson and Knoepfler have been very effective communicators of stem cell science. In addition to other media work, they both worked with CIRM to create explanatory videos:

Paul Knoepfler: Tumor Formation in Embryonic Stem Cells
Catriona Jamieson: Therapies Based on Cancer Stem Cells