You don't have to be smart to be rich, study finds," reads a press release from Ohio State University released on April 24th, 2007. This study determined that people with below-average intelligence are just as wealthy as those with higher IQs, and being smart doesn't prevent you from having financial troubles.Starving PhD students might not be all that shocked.
Want to know the elusive secret about how to quiet a screaming baby? Throw away that subscription to Parenting magazine. According to Ohio State, "strong marriage helps couples deal with temperamental baby." This release, also published in April, reveals that if you don't have a good relationship with your spouse, you may be critical of them when faced with a fussy baby. Another June release from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine states the shocker that sleep deprivation is not a good way to earn good grades in college.
Journals, which also issue press releases, can be equally liberal in their criteria for "news." Another gem: "Survey: Most patients want to shake hands with their physicians," reads a press release from the Journal of the American Medical Association and Archives journals on June 11, 2007. This study, supported by a $70,000 grant from the American Board of Medical Specialties, Research and Education Foundation, surveyed 415 adults and looked at videotapes of 123 new patient visits to doctors.
Jeff Grabmeier has been a university science writer for 20 years and wrote the "you don't have to be smart to be rich" press release. He says a lot of the research that comes across his desk can often be categorized as confirming the seemingly obvious. "But surprisingly the obvious ones get as much media attention as the shocking stories," says Grabmeier, and this is the ultimate goal of the university's press office: Get the media to mention the school's research.
Grabmeier estimates he spent 12 to 16 hours writing the "you don't have to be smart to be rich" press release. He was familiar with the researcher's (Jay Zagorsky) past work and after reading the peer-reviewed study, decided to pen a release, with the approval of his supervisor. "I was confident that the media would be interested in the results," says Grabmeier. He was right. The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal , The Associated Press, and at least 11 other media outlets picked up the story.
So what happens to significant findings that come out of basic research, which could eventually lead to major clinical or applied research papers (even, perhaps, self-evident ones)? For example, OSU passed on crafting a release on research done partly at OSU, and in press in Cell , that showed the transcription factor FOX3P is an X-linked breast cancer suppressor gene. Grabmeier defends his decisions: "There is no way we could report on all the research at the university, so we basically have to act like journalists and try to figure out which will be of interest to the public."
Grabmeier adds that he could write more press releases on basic findings, but that doesn't mean the media will cover them. He recently wrote a press release on an OSU paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that levels of daylight affect aggression in mice through estrogen. In comparison to 14-plus media articles relating that we can be smart and poor, the PNAS paper barely registered, despite the common belief that testosterone is the main actor when it comes to aggression.
Grabmeier says he puts a great deal of thought into the issue of whether some research deserves PR. He says that press releases about self-evident findings, and the news stories they engender, can be comforting to the public, since they give people faith in their knowledge of the world. "You think the whole point of news is that it's supposed to be something new or exciting," he adds, but the obvious findings remove the alien and difficult side of science that people often see."
And to be fair, although PR might make it hard to see at times, any research could one day have nonobvious benefits. That's often the reason it's funded. As Michael Faraday responded, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gladstone interrupted this talk on his research about electricity by asking what is it good for: "Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it!" May shaking hands with doctors one day fill the nation's change purse.