Last Friday, Rice University’s Baker’s Institute of Public Policy hosted its Civic Science Lecture Series presentation, Influenza, SARS, Ebola and the Next Pandemic: Perceptions in the Media and Public. The event featured two prominent speakers in the field of science policy and advocacy: Dr. Peter J Hotez, MD., PhD, Fellow in Diseases and Poverty, Baker Institute, Dean, National School of Tropical Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine; Endowed Chair in Tropical Pediatrics, Texas Children’s Hospital; and President, Sabin Vaccine Institute; and Dr. Robert Bazell, Nonresident Fellow in Science and Technology Policy, Baker Institute; and adjunct professor, Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University.
The subject of the presentation was science communication and the integral role of science in the media.
The event was moderated by Dr. Kirstin Matthews, PhD, Fellow in Science and Technology at the Baker Institute, who used humor as a way of setting the tone of the presentation by opening with The Daily Show clip, featuring Dr. Hotez. This was a perfect example of the public’s perception of scientists and how that impacts the level of trust they have in scientific findings presented in the news.
Dr. Hotez started his presentation with the following statistics: 70% of Americans can’t name a living scientist; 60% of Americans can’t name a biological science institute; and 9% of Americans have never heard of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Realizing that Congress reflects the American population, and that these dismal numbers are, in his opinion, scientists’ fault, prompted him to start writing for the Huffington Post, with the aim of communicating science to the next generation.
- Why scientists should care about their “Kardashian index:” a reflection of a scientist’s social media presence in comparison to their citation numbers.
- Diseases (real or not) getting TV airtime are those that scare affluent people, in stark contrast with diseases of poverty that should be getting the attention of the media as well.
- The dual face of Ebola in the US: the scientific and the political.
- To give a successful interview you must tell a story that will interest the public, not just other scientists, and don’t feel compelled to always answer the questions asked.
- Pervasive scientific illiteracy results in awful decisions at all policy levels, and these decisions have an effect on us all.
Mr. Bazell, who has an almost 4-decade media career and is considered to be one of the inventors of scientific journalism for TV viewers, gave the audience insight into what were the most important components for accurate scientific reporting. With an artful speaking style, he gave vivid descriptions of what the networks perceive as the audience they need to appeal to, which is mostly women in their 60s. This means that issues with little to no importance for this particular sample of the population will most likely not get the airtime needed; this unfortunately includes diseases affecting those in poverty.
He ended his presentation with a very important statement: “scientists do not do a good job at explaining risk to the public, resulting in numerous misconceptions of what are important public health issues.”
The event concluded with a very interactive question and answer session. Many of the issues brought up were those related to the current measles outbreak and the role that the anti-vaccine message has had in perpetuating a disease once considered controlled. This is another important example of how scientists need to do a better job at crafting a message that all socio-demographic populations in the US will listen to.
The importance of an event like this, not only for scientists and their advocates, but also for the public, can be understood when looking at recently released study findings that show there is a dramatic difference between the views that scientists and the public have on science-related issues. If the scientific and public health community wants to alleviate this divergence in perception, then heeding the messages presented by both Dr. Hotez and Mr. Bazell, would be a great place to start.
In a post-event interview with BioNews Texas correspondent Kara Elam, Dr. Hotez expounds on the event’s important message and gives advice to those interested in doing science policy and advocacy work:
- How do you craft the message? Hotez: Make sure you understand the science yourself so that you are comfortable with discussing it and that you are prepared to discuss the parts that you think are relevant to a given situation. Be able to put it all together and frame it in a way audiences can understand. So most importantly, know the details and fundamentals about what you are asked to talk about.
- How do you factor the element of time when deciding what needs to be said? Hotez: It depends because air-time is expensive — you must recognize that some media outlets may be more generous with their time than others. Sometimes you may know ahead of the segment exactly how much airtime you will be given: for instance I was on Bloomberg TV yesterday morning and they gave me 5 full minutes of airtime which is huge and I wasn’t expecting that. It was terrific and you can really do a deep diatribe with that much air-time. One of the things I notice when you are on the air, is time flies by really quickly and you may have thought what you said took only 30 seconds when it really took a whole minute and a half. So what I sometimes try to do is ask the producer about how long the segment is going to be. So if you know about how long you have and if there is a point you want to get in, then you know about how quickly you have to make it. So be prepared to talk to your producers.
- Mr. Brazell stated that “Scientists are not good at explaining risk.” What do you think about that? Hotez: It takes training. You can be very good at explaining risk provided you take the time to understand it yourself and be able to convey it. Learning how to talk to audiences on TV is a learned behavior; it is not something that often comes intuitively. You have to take the time to practice and one of the ways I have been practicing for years is by going on local TV. It is a great opportunity! I never turn down opportunities to be on Local TV because the more airtime you get the more comfortable you feel doing it.
- What other advice do you have for scientists who want to be more collaborative with the media? Hotez: Always be as respectful as you can to the audience, and try to point out when necessary that there is a bigger picture out there. If you are interested in doing science policy and advocacy there is no better way than to just get your feet wet and start writing for the public; go to some of the blog sites that are venues for scientists like Public Library of Science (PLOS) and just start writing and submitting and getting used to it.
About the Civic Science Lecture Series
These lectures are a series of discussions by leading scientists from around the country who have impacted public policy. The goal of the series is to expose scientists and future scientists to the notion that their roles expand outside of the laboratory. It also gives the Houston community an opportunity to hear leading scientists discuss their fields and careers, hopefully promoting science and technology as a public good worthy of federal, state and local funding.
About Rice University’s Baker Institute
Founded in 1993, the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy has established itself as one of the premier nonpartisan public policy think tanks in the country. The institute ranks 9th among university-affiliated think tanks worldwide, 18th among US think tanks, and 4th among energy resource think tanks.
Key research programs include energy, health, conflict resolution, science and technology. The institute collaborates with experts from academia, government, the media, business, and nongovernmental and private organizations. In conjunction with its more than 20 programs, the institute attracts many domestic and foreign leaders who provide their views and insights on major issues.