Keep it Simple

By H. Steven Wiley 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. The big and simple stories attract ample funding and top scientific talent, whereas the complex stories remain mostly ignored in specialty journals.

By | May 1, 2010

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.

The big and simple stories attract ample funding and top scientific talent, whereas the complex stories remain mostly ignored in specialty journals.

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.


Avatar of: Jean-Luc Lebrun

Jean-Luc Lebrun

Posts: 5

May 6, 2010

Cary Grant, the famous Hollywood actor, is quoted as saying "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." Substitute the name "Cary Grant" with any "top scientific talent" working for a popular research grant magnet with a consistent track record in modest-to-good research deliverables that routinely attracts the risk-averse fund administrator, ... and chances are you'll get your cash, and Cary Grant fame to go with it, to help with your next movie - I mean grant.
Avatar of: Vinita Krishna

Vinita Krishna

Posts: 2

May 6, 2010

Very true to the field of writing..short and simple win the race in the eyes of the audience.\n\nBut at one point,i too feel that when you get set to write,it comes as an inherent trait of a passion for something you want to work upon or write,if one foolows the market needs only,there is hardly "a work with difference"\nMe too is a bioscientist working in the policy and social aspect of science issues.I too have faced similar problems as an independent scientist and as per my view,the definition of simple is quite relative..depending on which group of reders are we trargeting?
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

May 13, 2010

It appears to me this is more of a tongue lashing in drag of science reviewers than it is an advice for grant writers. Science is not supposed to be a popularity contest. Entertainment (e.g. movies) are precisely that. Thus, the notorious failings of metaphor are broken in the making of this one.


Posts: 31

May 13, 2010

Perhaps I am different from most reviewers, but when I am presented with a grant proposal describing a simple story for something I know to be complex, the score starts to fall immediately. I will not give proposals that isolate a single molecule as "the answer" to cancer as anything other than a triage-level score. It is acceptable to isolate a single pathway experimentally, but that must be justified and the applicant must show that he or she is well aware that the real story is more complex.
Avatar of: Henry Bayele

Henry Bayele

Posts: 1

May 13, 2010

Very true indeed. One of the best articles I've ever read was the Nobel-prize winning paper by Watson and Crick- not because of the quality of its content but the simplicity with which the paper was written e.g. "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material." This simple but precise (under)statement must be a template for scientific discourse.\n
Avatar of: Tarakad Raman

Tarakad Raman

Posts: 31

May 15, 2010

I wish The Scientist has provided means for rating the comments as well as the articles. If it were possible, I would give Five Stars to "Simple story" by ROBERT HURST and "More a comment on failings of science reviewers"\nby Ellen Hunt. \nI particularly liked Ellen Hunt's pithy statement, "Science is not supposed to be a popularity contest." CHEERS!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

May 30, 2010

Simple is not the same as simplistic. Even the simplest story can have ramifications. It is only the talented, hard working writer who could handle these. If one writing grants stops at simple, and does not address the multiple layers of complexity, he would obviously fail. Simple is just the first step in the right direction.

Popular Now

  1. Top 10 Innovations 2016
    Features Top 10 Innovations 2016

    This year’s list of winners celebrates both large leaps and small (but important) steps in life science technology.

  2. Gut Microbes Linked to Neurodegenerative Disease
  3. Pubic Hair Grooming Linked to STI Risk
    The Nutshell Pubic Hair Grooming Linked to STI Risk

    Observational study suggests pubic hair grooming correlates with heightened risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections, although causation remains unclear.

  4. Naive T Cells Find Homes in Lymphoid Tissue