Keep it Simple
Telling a simple story about your data is the easiest way to get funded—and it’s one of the hardest things to do.
One common piece of advice I frequently give to young scientists is to always tell a story with their data, because it’s a useful way of organizing and presenting research ideas. An equally important piece of advice I give is to pick a story that an audience—namely, the reviewers of grants and papers—wants to hear.
It’s no easy task. Creating a story for a particular audience is one of the most difficult tasks for anyone to learn. This is true for scientists and writers as well as any creative artist who tries to understand the complexity of the world and explain it to other people. Telling a good story always takes skill. Telling a popular story, however, requires simplification.
I have noticed that the most popular stories tend to cast complex matters in terms of black and white or good and evil. And the simpler the story, the broader the audience it can attract. Stories that have more nuance and eschew simple outcomes or explanations seem to be decidedly less popular.
For example, it has been easier to sell the simple concept that cancers are caused by specifically mutated genes rather than by the complex deregulation of signaling networks. The former might be true in certain cases, but the latter also appears to be very common, if not more so. Yet, the gene mutation story is far more likely to appear in papers or presented to a seminar audience.
The most popular books and movies almost always boil down the complexity of the world into simple terms. The enormously successful movie Avatar was a simple tale of greedy industrialists destroying the idyllic lifestyle of a primitive society. All of the subtle issues of the relative costs and benefits of advanced civilization were swept aside in favor of a moralistic tale of good versus evil. Audiences everywhere loved it. Contrast the success of Avatar with the fate of the far more sophisticated film The Hurt Locker, which presented the much more complex issues of war and the human response to danger. Artistically, it was a great success, winning numerous awards and accolades. Unfortunately, almost no one watched it, making it the lowest grossing film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
So it goes with scientific stories. The big and simple stories attract ample funding and top scientific talent, whereas the complex stories remain mostly ignored in specialty journals.
When I was a young scientist, I too was attracted to the simple stories that were prominently featured in the trendy journals. After all, much of the science I learned came from these journals and the simplicity of their stories made me believe in the possibility of absolute answers. Of course, the reality of experimental data soon crumbled that illusion.
Despite the growing complexity of my own research ideas and data, I still managed to keep most of my stories relatively simple and pitched at a clearly identified target audience. For example, we demonstrated that removing the part of the EGF receptor required for endocytosis caused cells to grow uncontrollably, thus showing the cancer community that receptor internalization attenuates signaling. Focusing on simple stories was motivated by my desire for funding and peer acceptance, of course, but was also due to the newness of the field of cell signaling. When you don’t know much about how receptors are regulated, the first things you find tend to be simple.
Sadly, I have found that it gets more difficult to tell simple and popular stories as time goes on, unless you are willing to change fields. Mechanisms turn out to be complex and pathways are redundant. I also find that I have become less interested in what other people think is important and want to follow my own instincts instead. This might be more personally fulfilling, but definitely makes it more difficult to sell my stories. I might be fascinated by the architecture of a complex signaling pathway, but unless I can show that it demonstrates some fundamental biological feature, it is unlikely to interest other scientists.
Being an independent scientist is similar in many ways to being an independent film maker. To be successful without a big budget, you need to have outstanding storytelling skills. However, you always have to find an audience to survive.
H. Steven Wiley is Lead Biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.