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March 2014 edition
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Communicating the Cosmos


In case you haven’t already heard, the remake of Cosmos is set to launch on Sunday with the inestimable Neil deGrasse Tyson reprising the role of the equally inestimable Carl Sagan. This 13-part series will no doubt provide a much needed shot in the arm for the sagging reputation of science and the cause of science literacy. But one take-away that we should not hasten to make from this series is the role of the science communicator.

Geniuses like Tyson and Sagan are one in a million. Our world is a better place for their presence, but we can’t train all scientists to be like them. They just are. So much of our current focus on improving science communication is centered around improving the communication skills of scientists, and while this can’t hurt, it’s also not the entire solution.

Actual communication is a vast enterprise. It requires writers, designers, technical experts, programmers, marketers, media strategists, and more. In order for effective science communication to happen on a large scale, small armies with real budgets need to be deployed. Institutions need to build their capacity for supporting better communication by embedding teams of communications experts who are dedicated to helping science succeed.

Unfortunately, science doesn’t get this yet — not most universities and research institutions, and not private donors or federal granting agencies. The needs and potential contributions of real and professional communications enterprises are chronically undervalued and underfunded. The reality is that you can’t get a Cosmos remake by simply uptraining a scientist and sticking them in front of a camera. Bill Nye doesn’t win a debate with a creationist simply by showing up with slides and without the support of his former media entourage. Effective communication through the media takes a village. It’s a broad undertaking with a very broad range of skills and knowledge that can’t possibly be imparted by including a few courses on “media training” to up and coming scientists. The sooner we appreciate this, the sooner we can right the ship of science communication and start reaping the rewards of improved science education, policy, collaboration and more.

So, as we ooh and aah over this new version of Cosmos — which we certainly will — let’s not say, “See what communications training will do!” The real lesson we should learn is, “See what a real communications budget will do!” Not billions and billions of dollars — just enough to get started down this new and more promising path.
 

News desk


The humanities of science communication

It’s a surreal feeling to be bothered by things that are completely reasonable. In recent months I’ve been part of many conversations about how to engage people with science. Every time the science of science communication comes up, and every time I feel like something is off. There’s a big push now to understand what’s known, in formal studies, about how to communicate science. The idea is that, as people who believe in science, we should use research to guide our activities. There have been fascinating findings, such as the fact that in some emotionally or culturally charged situations exposure to more information can *increase* polarization, not decrease it as one would assume. As a result, presenting facts alone won’t,… Read more


New National Academies report on integrating STEM education

Leaders in business, government, and academia assert that education in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is vital not only to U.S. innovation capacity but also as a foundation for successful employment, including (but not limited to) work in the STEM fields. K-12 STEM education, including standards and assessments, has tended to focus on the individual subjects, most often science and mathematics. The T and E of STEM have received relatively little attention. However, recent reform efforts, like the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), are stressing STEM connections – in the case of NGSS, between science and engineering. STEM Integration in K-12 Education examines current efforts to connect the STEM disciplines in K-12 education. This report identifies and… Read more


NSF Gets an Earful about Replication

I spent last Thursday and Friday (February 20 and 21) at an NSF workshop concerning the replicability of research results. It was chaired by John Cacioppo and included about 30 participants including such well-known contributors to the discussion as Brian Nosek, Hal Pashler, Eric Eich, and Tony Greenwald, to name a few.  Participants also included officials from NIH, NSF, the White House Office on Science and Technology and at least one private foundation. I was invited, I presume, in my capacity as Past-President of SPSP and chair of an SPSP task force on research practices which recently published a report on non-retracted PSPB articles by investigators who retracted articles elsewhere, and a set of recommendations for research and educational practice,… Read more


Why It’s Time to Retire the Term “Life Sciences”

I originally thought about titling this piece “Life Sciences, Biosciences, BioPharma, Biotech, and Healthcare: What’s the Difference?” but that was simply too unwieldy. Many people use these terms interchangeably without thinking about what they specifically refer to, and which types of jobs and activities they encompass. Are they all the same thing? I don’t think so, and using the wrong term often leaves many of us swimming in a sea of confusion. Let me illustrate my concerns by sharing some definitions taken from the Free Dictionary Online: Life Science: “Any of several branches of science, such as biology, medicine, anthropology, or ecology, that deal with living organisms and their organization, life processes, and relationships to each other and their environment.… Read more


Science reviews FY2015 White House budget proposal

President Barack Obama on Tuesday released a $3.901 trillion budget request to Congress, including proposals for a host of federal research agencies. The unveiling is just the beginning of the annual budget process; Congress will now chew on the proposal, and is likely to ignore many of the White House’s suggestions. Still, the budget request offers insight into the White House’s research priorities, and can play an important role in negotiating final spending levels for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins 1 October. ScienceInsider has been combing through the document, and the stories below report some of what we found on the first day. Come back for more stories this week on research spending. NIH Faces Flat Funding and a… Read more


A Successor to Sagan Reboots ‘Cosmos’

A poignant moment occurs near the end of the first episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a rollicking 13-part tour of the universe to be broadcast on Fox starting on Sunday. Sitting on a rock by the Pacific, Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the show and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, pulls out an old desk calendar that had belonged to Carl Sagan, the Cornell astronomer and author. On a date in 1975 he finds his own name. The most famous astronomer in the land had invited young Neil, then a high school student in the Bronx with a passion for astronomy, to spend a day in Ithaca. Dr. Sagan kindly offered to put him up… Read more


Scientific Publishing Is Killing Science

Even the National Institutes of Health acknowledges that biomedical science has a growing credibility problem. Last month, Director Francis Collins and Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak wrote that “the recent evidence showing the irreproducibility of significant numbers of biomedical-research publications demands immediate and substantive action.” The evidence they cite includes a startling 2011 report by researchers at the pharmaceutical company Bayer, who were unable to reproduce the results of nearly two-thirds of a set of peer-reviewed, pre-clinical drug studies. Collins and Tabak cite several reasons why researchers produce so much bad science these days, but among scientists in both academia and industry there is a growing feeling that how we publish science is a big part of the problem. Scientific publishing… Read more


In defense of curiosity

Basic science research projects often become political punching bags, trotted out during budget talks as examples of frivolous spending of taxpayer money. Targets of the mockery can vary so much from season to season that it’s hard to keep track of what’s considered wasteful in a given year, but the tone is usually the same — a headline without context. The science of duck penises? Parisian fruit-fly research? Moth pheromones? Really? Now, a researcher who studies duck penises has spoken out, penning a powerful argument in defense of oddball science driven by curiosity in the journal BioScience. Patricia Brennan is a research scientist from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who studies the bizarre and fascinating sexual battle that occurs… Read more


How to stand up for science, Apple style

At a shareholders meeting on Friday, CEO Tim Cook angrily defended Apple’s environmentally-friendly practices against a request from the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) to drop those practices if they ever became unprofitable. NCPPR put forward a shareholder’s proposal asking Apple to disclose how much it spends on sustainability programs. If those costs detracted from Apple’s bottom line, the NCPPR demanded that Apple discontinue the programs and commit only to projects that are explicitly profitable. Cook apparently became angry at the group’s request. According to an account from MacObserver: What ensued was the only time I can recall seeing Tim Cook angry, and he categorically rejected the worldview behind the NCPPR’s advocacy. He said that there are… Read more


I Didn’t Want to Lean Out

My name is Frances Hocutt, and last year I leaned out. I didn’t make that decision lightly. I’ve loved chemistry since middle school. I saw the way it made the world fit together and it was beautiful. I earned a bronze medal in the International Chemistry Olympiad, continued my studies at a prestigious and challenging undergraduate-only college, and was quickly promoted for my work as a medicinal chemist at a well-known pharmaceutical company. People I chatted with would shudder when I said “synthetic organic chemist;” I would smile and say, “well, someone has to like the stuff.” And I do. I love the way that life is built from a bare handful of elements. I love following the push and… Read more


Google to offer data interpretation MOOC

Google has launched its own Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to teach the general public how to understand surveys, research, and data. Called “Making Sense of Data” and running from March 18 to April 4, the course will be open to the public and, like most MOOCs, will be taught through a series of video lectures, interactive projects, and the support of community TAs. Users who complete the final capstone homework assignment will even have the option of receiving a certificate of completion (the unlisted YouTube introduction is embedded below): Click here to read more from this February 26, 2014 TechCrunch article by Gregory Ferenstein.… Read more


Academic Tribalism

When I was a younger scholar, a very famous cognitive psychologist came to my office to visit me during his colloquium trip to my university. I mentioned with pride that I had just written a new textbook in cognitive psychology. His quick response was, “Bob, you’re not a cognitive psychologist anymore.” I was deeply hurt. I had been trained in cognitive psychology by some of the top scholars in the field and always had thought of myself as their protégé. True, I had strayed and done some research on love. What I did not realize was that this straying from the tried and true path would lead to my expulsion from my academic tribe. Like many academics, I always had… Read more


NIH BEST program not quite best yet

A love of science can inspire a career in research, but it is not enough to deliver the goods: Only about 15% of biomedical Ph.D. researchers ever secure a tenure-track position. The rest end up—often after a long, uncertain transition—in a very wide range of careers. In 2012, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) committed to doing more to help this other 85% by (among other initiatives) providing some training for Ph.D. students and postdocs in the skills needed for careers outside academia. In principle, it’s an ambitious expansion of NIH’s core agenda. The agency has traditionally existed to facilitate biomedical research and research training. But that objective has long depended, in turn, on an academic workforce made up of… Read more


The highly cited Ike Antkare and his gibberish papers

The publishers Springer and IEEE are removing more than 120 papers from their subscription services after a French researcher discovered that the works were computer-generated nonsense. Over the past two years, computer scientist Cyril Labbé of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, has catalogued computer-generated papers that made it into more than 30 published conference proceedings between 2008 and 2013. Sixteen appeared in publications by Springer, which is headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, and more than 100 were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), based in New York. Both publishers, which were privately informed by Labbé, say that they are now removing the papers. Among the works were, for example, a paper published as a proceeding from… Read more


The importance of Stephen Hawking’s two-page paper

“…instead of looking at a slide, I’d like to start this morning’s discussion by having you look at a mental picture. The picture is of Stephen Hawking. You can picture the physicist thanks to us–the media—thanks to the magazine covers, newspaper portraits, web site photos, TV documentaries, episodes of the Simpsons, and dust jackets where he has appeared. For over twenty years, Hawking has been at the media’s frontier, helping to define how scientists present themselves to the public and are represented by others. And just three weeks ago, at age 72, Hawking once again did something new. He posted a two-page document online. This is actually a much bigger deal than it may sound at first.” Click here to… Read more


Recent advances in massive, open, online science research

First MOOCs, now MOOLs: Massive Online Open Laboratories Self-assembling RNA molecules present compelling substrates for the rational interrogation and control of living systems. However, imperfect in silico models—even at the secondary structure level—hinder the design of new RNAs that function properly when synthesized. Here, we present a unique and potentially general approach to such empirical problems: the Massive Open Laboratory. The EteRNA project connects 37,000 enthusiasts to RNA design puzzles through an online interface. Uniquely, EteRNA participants not only manipulate simulated molecules but also control a remote experimental pipeline for high-throughput RNA synthesis and structure mapping. We show herein that the EteRNA community leveraged dozens of cycles of continuous wet laboratory feedback to learn strategies for solving in vitro RNA… Read more


Why Carl Sagan is Truly Irreplaceable

We live in Carl Sagan’s universe–awesomely vast, deeply humbling. It’s a universe that, as Sagan reminded us again and again, isn’t about us. We’re a granular element. Our presence may even be ephemeral—a flash of luminescence in a great dark ocean. Or perhaps we are here to stay, somehow finding a way to transcend our worst instincts and ancient hatreds, and eventually become a galactic species. We could even find others out there, the inhabitants of distant, highly advanced civilizations—the Old Ones, as Sagan might put it. No one has ever explained space, in all its bewildering glory, as well as Sagan did. He’s been gone now for nearly two decades, but people old enough to remember him will easily… Read more


The Sixth Extinction

There have been five mass extinction events in Earth’s history. In the worst one, 250 million years ago, 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land species died off. It took millions of years to recover. Nowadays, many scientists are predicting that we’re on track for a sixth mass extinction. The world’s species already seem to be vanishing at an unnaturally rapid rate. And humans are altering the Earth’s landscape in far-reaching ways: We’ve hunted animals like the great auk to extinction. We’ve cleared away broad swaths of rain forest. We’ve transported species from their natural habitats to new continents. We’ve pumped billions of tons of carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans, transforming the climate. Those changes could push… Read more


AAAS to launch major new open access journal in 2015

The mission of the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the publisher of Science, is to advance science for the benefit of all humankind. Science contributes to that mission by communicating the very best research across the full range of scientific fields to an extremely broad international audience. The research enterprise has grown dramatically in the past few decades in the number of high-quality practitioners and results, but the capacity for Science to accommodate those works in our journal has not kept pace. Its editors turn away papers that are potentially important, well written, of broad interest, and technically well executed. Although other journals provide publishing venues for more papers, many authors still desire to be published… Read more


Kristof’s good start

Kudos to Nicholas Kristof for highlighting an important issue in science much more effectively (or at least visibly) than we’ve been able to do so far. Kristof’s February 15th piece in the New York Times (“Professors, We Need You!”) opined about how academia has increasingly insulated itself from the rest of the world by virtue of (in at least some cases) obtuse research written in turgid prose hidden in obscure journals. Kristof’s criticisms are largely accurate, despite the howls of protest his piece has kicked up in social media circles. Academia is caught on the journal publishing treadmill, and this treadmill—while an important part of the science communication infrastructure—is also causing a great deal of harm to the ability of… Read more


Professors, We Need You!

SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates. The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant. One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Obama as “a snob” for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves. “All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and… Read more


Sun goes around the earth? Not since 1542

The headlines are depressing. A 2012 National Science Foundation survey (released on Feb. 14th at an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) has revealed that 26 percent of US adults think the sun revolves around the earth. But is this really news? Once the shock wears off, it’s helpful to note that: General science knowledge hasn’t been declining markedly. For instance, a 1999 Gallup poll showed that 21 percent of adults answered this same question incorrectly. This doesn’t excuse the 26 percent (or 21 percent), but at least we can rest assured that we aren’t experiencing a sudden crisis in US science education; and The full NSF report contains some interesting and not altogether discouraging… Read more


A new genetic atlas of world history

The rise and fall of empires, the march of armies, the flow of trade routes, the practice of slavery — all these events have led to a mixing of populations around the world. Such episodes have left a record in the human genome, but one that has so far been too complex to decipher on a global scale. Now, geneticists applying new statistical approaches have taken a first shot at both identifying and dating the major population mixture events of the last 4,000 years, with the goal of providing a new source of information for historians. Some of the hundred or so major mixing events they describe have plausible historical explanations, while many others remain to be accounted for. For… Read more


More Americans Think Astrology Is Science

“I believe in a lot of astrology.” So commented pop megastar Katy Perry in a recent GQ interview. She also said she sees everything through a “spiritual lens”…and that she believes in aliens. According to data from the National Science Foundation’s just-released 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, Americans are moving in Perry’s direction. In particular, the NSF reports that the percentage of Americans who think astrology is “not at all scientific” declined from 62 percent in 2010 to just 55 percent in 2012 (the last year for which data is available). As a result, NSF reports that Americans are apparently less skeptical of astrology than they have been at any time since 1983. The data on Americans’ astrological beliefs… Read more


The Science of Science Communication II

Successful scientists must be effective communicators within their professions. Without those skills, they could not write papers and funding proposals, give talks and field questions, or teach classes and mentor students. However, communicating with audiences outside their profession – people who may not share scientists’ interests, technical background, cultural assumptions, and modes of expression – presents different challenges and requires additional skills. Communication about science in political or social settings differs from discourse within a scientific discipline. Not only are scientists just one of many stakeholders vying for access to the public agenda, but the political debates surrounding science and its applications may sometimes confront scientists with unfamiliar and uncomfortable discussions involving religious values, partisan interests, and even the trustworthiness… Read more


Fifth Annual Pacific Northwest Climate Science Conference

When: Sept 9-10, 2014 Where: University of Washington, Seattle, WA Registration: pnwclimateconference.org The PNW Climate Science Conference annually brings together more than 250 researchers and practitioners from around the region to discuss scientific results, challenges, and solutions related to the impacts of climate on people, natural resources, and infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest. It is the region’s premier opportunity for a cross-disciplinary exchange of knowledge and ideas about regional climate, climate impacts, and climate adaptation science and practice. The conference also provides a forum for presenting emerging policy and management goals, objectives, and information needs related to regional climate impacts and adaptation. Conference participants include policy- and decision-makers, resource managers, and scientists from academia, public agencies, sovereign tribal nations, non-governmental… Read more


US lead in science and technology shrinking

The United States’ (U.S.) predominance in science and technology (S&T) eroded further during the last decade, as several Asian nations–particularly China and South Korea–rapidly increased their innovation capacities. According to a report released today by the National Science Board (NSB), the policy making body of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and an advisor to the President and Congress, the major Asian economies, taken together, now perform a larger share of global R&D than the U.S., and China performs nearly as much of the world’s high-tech manufacturing as the U.S. Evidence in NSB’s biennial report, Science and Engineering Indicators, which provides the most comprehensive federal information and analysis on the nation’s position in S&T, makes it increasingly clear that the U.S.,… Read more


Bill Nye lost the debate by showing up

On many mornings, I wake up and think, “You know what this country needs? More culture war.” As I scramble up a couple eggs, I find myself wishing—fervently wishing—that we could spend more time reducing substantive issues to mere spectacle. Later, as I scrub the pan, I’ll fantasize about how those very spectacles might even funnel money toward some of the country’s most politicized religious groups. Fortunately, Bill “the Science Guy” Nye has heard my wish—which, really, is the wish of a nation. Why else would he have traveled to Kentucky this week in order to debate Ken Ham, the young-earth creationist founder of Answers in Genesis, about the origins of the world? Actually, there are two other reasons that… Read more


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