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.