Relationships between scientists and the news media have evolved tremendously over the past 25 years, and scientists should continue to improve communications with both the media and the lay public, according to a Wake Forest University researcher whose commentary appears this month in a major scientific journal.
David P. Friedman, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, says in the article that until the 1980s, the scientific community did a very poor job of communicating with anyone beyond their own campuses. That, he says, was and still is a mistake.
As the 2007 winner of the Science Educator Award from the 38,000-member Society of Neuroscience, Friedman was asked to contribute a commentary on the importance of neuroscience education and public outreach for this month’s edition of The Journal of Neuroscience.
“Engagement with the public is a responsibility that many, if not most of us (scientists) should accept,” Friedman writes in his commentary. “I would even argue that it is a moral imperative, to be ignored at our own risk.”
Animal activism by people who opposed the use of animals in medical research, Friedman recalls, was an impetus for some scientists to reach out to middle and high school teachers whose students “were being taught that scientists who use animals were evil and that the use of animals in research or teaching was both immoral and unnecessary.”
That spurred several scientific organizations to team up with teachers and their organizations to provide accurate information about scientific research to students in K-12. That was valuable in itself, Friedman writes, but also because, “once you begin to understand how to use lay language to explain science to kids, you become increasingly well equipped to explain it to almost anyone.
“In fact,” he says, “it sets you up to work with one of the most important audiences out there – the media.”
For years, Friedman recalls, scientists and journalists hardly mixed at all. He recounts a study that said “scientists viewed journalists as ‘imprecise, mercurial, and even dangerous.’ They, in turn, saw us as ‘narrowly focused, self-absorbed, cold-eyed, and arrogant.’”
Friedman lays much of the blame for the testy relationship on the scientists, who, he says, didn’t understand the deadline pressures journalists faced and weren’t willing to take the time to help them understand the science.
Neither did scientists know how to explain their work, and many were burned by trial and error. In the 1980s when he was working at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Friedman recalls, he did an interview with a science-challenged reporter who “needed to understand, very late in the day, why scientists didn’t think marijuana had much acute toxicity.
“I tried without success to explain this idea, reaching further and further for an appropriate image, but to no avail. I finally said, ‘The most dangerous thing about marijuana would be if a bale of it fell on you.’ This particular quote appeared the next day in The Washington Post. This was in the days of ‘Just Say No,’ and for a while I feared for my job. The upside, I guess, was that the entire scientific staff of the NIDA extramural program got media training.”
With persistent practice, Friedman says, he has been able to explain and discuss science with scores of journalists in the years since then. “It’s a learnable skill.”
Friedman is now the director of the Addiction Studies Program for Journalists at the School of Medicine. The program has taught more than 300 journalists about the neurobiology of drug addiction. A related program has begun for state officials and legislators, who make policy and funding decisions about drugs and related social issues.
In his commentary, Friedman encourages his fellow scientists who have not already done so to practice public outreach for the additional reward it can give them. “Although I love doing science,” he says, “the civic part of my scientific career has been remarkably rewarding as well.
“It’s a different kind of work, but it’s a commitment we all must be willing to undertake if we are to have the impact on society that our training, scientific expertise and knowledge make possible for us.”