in his own words on
By Jim Barlow
Life sciences editor, UI News Bureau
Science often is exciting. And science at the UI is extraordinary. Certainly that's part of the reason our institution, despite being hidden from big-city lights and the glare of daily metropolitan media coverage, attracts more than $135 million a year in federal support.
Off campus, as is the case here and everywhere else, the public frequently fails to understand what science is about and why so many tax dollars go into research. Polls repeatedly show, however, that the public wants more coverage of research findings, yet the space allotted to science coverage by U.S. newspapers continues to shrink. What's a scientist to do?
In the last year, Congress had to be reminded that science is important, an effort that held back, for now, projected major cuts in federal support. It's hard to believe that anyone would have to be reminded how the past 50 years of public support of science and technology brought huge benefits to everyone. The reminding, however, must continue, and the best people to carry the message are the scientists.
Researchers should be willing to talk about their work, to tell others why their work is important even if it just represents a new, small step in the right direction. Those are daunting thoughts, since many scientists have been taught to be wary of the media and to be satisfied with publishing their work in journals.
At the News Bureau, we serve as go-betweens for researchers and the media. Most of us have held jobs with major U.S. newspapers as reporters, editors or both. We have chosen to be here to get the right message out to the public. Yet, many scientists remain hesitant to discuss their publicly funded work. They are worried that they may be misunderstood by us or by the public, or be ridiculed by their peers for "going public."
Neal Lane, a physicist who also is the director of the National Science Foundation, says his agency has learned that it has "a responsibility as an advocate for the cause of science and engineering to the public." In an address this year to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, Lane said, as he has done in many earlier speeches, that researchers should be willing to talk to the media. He has urged scientists to work with their institutions' public information officers. He has urged us PIOs to convince our scientists to talk to us.
"Many scientists and engineers are reaching out to the public through speeches and discussions with local reporters, but not enough of us consider such outreach a continuing part of our professional responsibilities," Lane wrote in an editorial in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Scientists and engineers need to get away from their computers, out of their labs, off their campuses and into community groups. They need to have a dialogue with the American public about the role of science in our society."
Lane says that maybe more science coverage would make its way into the media "if scientists would make their case and talk about their research in more compelling terms."
Much of the national and international coverage of UI has come as the result of the News Bureau's news releases and monthly news tips, or from our working with the media who call us and our faculty members. We have fielded calls or e-mail queries from all over Illinois, from Asia, Europe, the Mideast and South America.
I would like to make a humble suggestion to UI scientists. When you have a paper accepted for publication, consider taking a minute to send a copy (a draft version is fine) to the News Bureau. Add a short note saying why the findings may be important. Do the same in advance of an oral presentation at a professional conference/ Both of these situations often are good opportunities to interact with the media.
The next step is an interview, usually in your office or lab. We then write a draft of the story and send it back to you for your corrections and suggestions. We don't call it done until you are happy with the story. You call the shots on the science of the story; we make sure it is written in journalism style. Then the story goes out. It may go nowhere with the media. It may be printed as is, or it may result in a television interview or a "big picture" story quoting you and other scientists doing similar work. There have been cases where our news, published in just one "right place," has resulted in a new source of funding.
It comes down to this: Very few elected officials who dictate whether
you get government-sponsored funding read academic journals. Many
of them read newspapers, and most watch TV.