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Scientists as rock stars?

They pose with famous musicians to excite the public about science, but not everyone thinks it's working

By | November 17, 2010

Flip open the next issue of GQ, and you'll find a full-page photograph of the classic rock band Heart beside Nobel laureates Elizabeth Blackburn and Phillip Sharp, equally decked out in rocker fashion. It's one image from a 6-page spread of rock stars mingling with scientists in the men's magazine with some 7 million readers, intended to help seal the growing gap between science and the public.
Joan Massagué, Craig B. Thompson, and Charles L. Sawyers of MSKCC with American singer-songwriter Debbie Harry (Blondie)
But some are less than optimistic. "If you are operating under the illusion that all scientists run around with pens and slide rulers in their lab coat pockets, then this campaign will say no, scientists look like ordinary people," said Jon Miller, director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at Michigan State University. "But if you expect to ignite popular support for science with this campaign, I doubt that will happen." According to their website, the Rock Stars of Science campaign aims to show the public how scientists and doctors are "rock stars" for making discoveries that save lives. It's to combat the finding unveiled in a 2010 Research!America survey that 72 percent of Americans can't name a living scientist. A cause for concern, said Stacie Propst, vice president of science policy and outreach at Research!America, which offered consulting advice to the Geoffrey Beene Foundation for its Rock Star of Science campaign, "because funding for science needs to be a top priority for our country to survive...if it's not, we will be out-competed in science by other countries."
Frank M. Longo, Stanford; Michael W. Weiner, UCSF; and Eric M. Reiman, Banner Alzheimer's Institute with Reality TV star and Poison legend Bret Michaels
Propst praises the GQ campaign, but the message may be lost on the target audience. When GQ reader Jesse Penridge, associate director at the Richard Gray Gallery in New York City, took a peak at the "Rock Stars of Science" pages, he said, "I don't really get it -- is there a correlation between fighting cancer and Debbie Harry?" However, to the executive producer of Rock Stars of Science, Meryl Comer, proof that the campaign works came in the form of a call last year from Capital Hill. "A staffer saw GQ and asked us to do something on the Hill," Comer said. In September 2009, the scientists and rock stars played a concert on Capital Hill followed by briefings from scientists. "This campaign is a playful foil for a substantive conversation about science," she said.
Bernard A. Harris, Jr, The Harris Foundation, and Mehmet C. Oz, Columbia University, with pop stars Timbaland and Keri Hilson
Since the campaign was launched, nearly 250,000 people have visited the Rock Stars of Science website. Videos of the Rock Stars Hill briefing on September 24, 2009 were seen by more than 4,500 people, according to Research!America. And the events have attracted media attention. For example, ABC gathered some scientists from the 2009 Rock Star campaign in a panel on Alzheimer's on Nightline. And Harvard neuroscientist Rudy Tanzi, who rocked out with Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins in 2009, said the photos likely influenced his invite to the 2010 TED MED talks in San Diego. He said he has also received letters from teachers and students asking for signed posters of him rocking out with Perry.
Geraldine Dawson, Autism Speaks; Catriona Jamieson, UCSD; Emil Kakkis, Kakkis EveryLife Foundation; Rear Admiral Susan J. Blumenthal, Former US Assistant Surgeon General; and Frank L. Douglas, Austen BioInnovation Institute, with British singer-songwriter and rapper Jay Sean
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases and 2009 Rock Star Scientist, said he's gotten feedback that suggests the campaign helps encourage young people to contemplate careers in science. "The message was that you can get the same thrill and rush from science as you can from being a rock star," he said, "so from my point of view it was a home run." Collins, another rock star alum, said in an email he thinks the campaign is a "terrific" vehicle to excite kids. "The effort aims to show scientists as a very cool part of our culture," he said. "Kids need to know that you don't have to be a total geek to be a great scientist."
Phillip A. Sharp, MIT, and Elizabeth H. Blackburn, UCSF, with Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson
Yet Sofya Low, a public high school math and science teacher in Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, with a PhD from Harvard in Earth and Planetary Sciences, called the campaign hubris. "They're asking kids to go to this website, process that they like Timbaland and then that he's standing with scientists, read that the scientists study Alzheimer's, figure out what that is and then see how that's exciting," she said. "I just don't see it happening with teenagers and their 20-second attention spans." She says her students aren't heading into scientific careers because they think there's no money in it and they don't see it as glamorous. "Teenagers are smart enough to know that scientists aren't rock star celebrities and they don't usually hang out with Joe Perry, so it's got to be interesting at a fundamental level," she said. And in school, science education is often lacking, consisting of memorizing boring definitions in heavy textbooks. If students aren't regularly being presented science in an exciting way, there's not much a photo-shoot can do, she said. "I don't care if the campaign brings Tupac back from the dead, it won't stand up to one year of poor science education."
Stephen B. Baylin, JHU Medical, and Mehmet Toner, Harvard Medical School, with rapper B.o.B
Nonetheless, perhaps someone who's never read about modern science might now find themselves staring at Blackburn in stiletto heels and thinking about research as an option for their children. "This isn't a literacy campaign -- there's no scientific facts in the spread -- but it is public engagement," said Chris Mooney, a partner on the campaign this year and the author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. "It will be disseminated broadly and by depicting scientists in this way, it will also create conversation." Images courtesy of the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back Rock Stars of Science campaign. Photographer Kurt Iswar.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:We Are (not) Scientists;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57550/
[9th July 2010]*linkurl:Docs that rock;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/56146/
[13th November 2009]*linkurl:Researcher razzle-dazzle;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/55743/
[28th May 2009]
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Comments

Avatar of: Fred Schaufele

Fred Schaufele

Posts: 52

November 17, 2010

The real issue is not the lack of pop icon status for scientists. Most of us are far too busy doing what we love to be concerned about that. The major concern is the lack of public knowledge about what a scientist does. Exposing a teenager contemplating his/her future to the notion of 'scientist' has no downside, even if the vehicle for the publicity doesn't begin to hint at what a scientist does. Any positive publicity helps. Thanks to the rock stars and scientists for their time and effort. Gosh, I'd give my right eye to pose with Heart.\n\nOh. BTW. What's with all the suits and ties? Show scientists as they normally appear in the labs.
Avatar of: Cheryl Scott

Cheryl Scott

Posts: 10

November 17, 2010

If they'd done this with David Lee Roth when I was in high school in the 1980s, I would've been all over it. And I sure needed someone or something to show me the potential future for a career in science. No one ever did, and I ultimately had to get to it (or almost, anyway) the long way round through journalism... If this campaign reaches even a few kids, then it's a success. And I disagree with the teacher who said it wouldn't work: Those who are smart enough to possibly be scientists some day will be smart enough to make the connections. "Rock star" is an idiom for awesome person these days, anyway.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 3

November 17, 2010

I agree with the comment about reaching a few making the intention worthwhile. \n\nI found the "rock stars" in the piece outdated. I love Heart and Blondie but they are not exactly current trendsetters and so do not connect well with today's teenagers. Try Lady Gaga, J. Timberlake, Tegan and Sara, Nelly, the cast of Glee... most of these are tacky, possibly short term acts but CONNECT with those pesky youngsters. In short: Know your audience.\n\nOf great importance is to connect the boring textbook terms with the visual, hands-on applications that go on in the lab. If kids know that they can work hard and yet still have their hair dyed blue then that is reaching out. Message: You don't have to sell your soul when you're too busy doing research (or something like that).
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 12

November 17, 2010

I might pose with my eldest son, who once was Johann Sebastian Bach\nWith my youngest brother who once was Johann\nChristian Bach\nAnd myself, who once was Amadeus.\n
Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

November 17, 2010

Cool!
Avatar of: Jim Wickson

Jim Wickson

Posts: 4

November 17, 2010

Fans of punk bands Bad Religion and The Offspring have known of band members' interests in science. \n\nDexter Holland (The Offspring) has a Bachelor's degree in Biology and a Master's degree in Molecular Biology, both from the University of Southern California.\n\nGreg Graffin (Bad Religion) attended El Camino Real High School, then double-majored in anthropology and geology as an undergraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles. He went on to earn a master's degree in geology from UCLA and received his Ph.D. from Cornell University.
Avatar of: Roma Levy

Roma Levy

Posts: 4

November 17, 2010

I have to agree 100% with Sofya Low. If we want our kids to be interested in science, we need to make science education exciting and germane to their everyday lives, starting in preschool. High School is far too late to spark interest. Unfortunately, in my experience, this is too much to expect of over-worked and underpaid teachers at almost every level, most of whom do not have sufficient science background to do more than stick to state-defined curricula.\n\nHow to improve science education, then? Scientists need to volunteer! Offer to teach a 1 day or 1 week session (or longer if you can) on experimentation at a local school or in your child's own classroom. Challenge the kids to come up with their own theories and test them -- no matter how simple or simplistic they may seem. Help them see how REAL science is accomplished, step by step. Tie it in with the required curriculum, and most teacher's I've worked with will be delighted. They don't feel they've lost important class time, and the teachers I've done this for have told me that the impact of my short stint in the classroom had lasting effects, with students applying scientific theory on their own throughout the school year. And, don't forget to help out at local science fairs. Top quality judges are always needed, and usually in very short supply.\n\nAt the high school level, funding is in short supply and many schools lack adequate equipment and materials to offer good lab opportunities. If you work somewhere where equipment or reagents are being discarded, investigate the possibility of getting those materials donated. They'll do far more good in the classroom than on the trash heap.
Avatar of: Mark Maier

Mark Maier

Posts: 1

November 17, 2010

The pose with B.o.B., is tough, yo. Blondie more like dandy. Awesome concept either way.
Avatar of: GREG PRONGER

GREG PRONGER

Posts: 9

November 17, 2010

I'd have to agree with the sentiment in working to improve the overall perspective of careers in the sciences. For whatever reason, we have US TV now liking forensics, but there's (and I realize I'm preaching to the choir) a lot more to science than what's portrayed. \n\nSomehow education (at least in the US) does an outstanding job of convincing youth not to go into the sciences. If having someone of higher notoriety and willingness put on a public face then it's hard to imagine the downside.\n\nIf you put together a reality TV program following an paleontological or archeological expedition into Africa, or the research bases in Antarctica you'd have some great reality TV (and PR). Externally, paleontology and archeology could seem like dry and mundane, (once back at the university or museum) but getting the field work is frequently quite the opposite. \n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

November 17, 2010

As a scientist myself, I find that those scientists who do aspire to become "rock stars" or have become legends due to the things they have discovered create a dangerously ambitious atmosphere where ethical boundaries are easily crossed because these people have a greater desire to be famous rather than helpful to humanity. \n\nIn such a socially-isolated field, these over-inflated egos, like rock stars, have groupies and are often treated as "all-knowing" gods. But just like the saying goes Absolute Power corrupts absolutely - scientists are no exception and you have a situation where some of these top-notch scientists start to believe they can do or say anything they want without consequence. Like Tiger Woods who thought he could get away with cheating on his wife - so Jim Watson thought he could get away with stating that "Black people are less intelligent." \n\nScience is not cool because of the scientists - science is cool because of the science itself!\n\nAnd discovery is most often not due to the work of one person - it is usually a team effort and often built on years and years of discoveries that came before. \n\nFor every scientist who is featured in the pages of GQ - there are hundreds of post docs and grad students who actually do the work and keep their labs running. People, who when you breakdown the numbers, often make less money than a manger at McDonalds.\n\nThe field of science and how things are done have serious problems that need to be addressed and fixed. A few scientists posing with rock stars isn't going to fix them. That's just Hollywood glitter covering up the reality of the situation.\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

November 17, 2010

This was an interesting experiment, if a bit naive. The hypothesis was that somehow the glamor of the rock stars would rub off on the scientists. Judging from the accompanying photographs, the opposite occurs. It reminds me of the famous (apocryphal) exchange between George Bernard Shaw and dancer Isadora Duncan.\nID: You are the greatest brain in the world and I have the most beautiful body, so we ought to produce the most perfect child.\nGBS: What if the child inherits my beauty and your brains?\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

November 18, 2010

What, no one invited insane clown posse to this shoot?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

November 18, 2010

I am always concerned by a scientist with a big ego. Science and scientists should do whatever possible to avoid cults of personality, instead of encouraging such. To me this is shameful.
Avatar of: William Penrose

William Penrose

Posts: 5

November 18, 2010

I find it hard to believe that scientists have to run around pretending we're not nerds in white jackets and slide rules(!). Of course, we're mostly ordinary people, but do we really want the public to know that? \n\nOrdinary people don't ask for and get million dollar government grants to play in their laboratories. Bankers and Wall Street gamblers keep an aura of mystery and magic around them, and citizens can't stop themselves from throwing money at them. \n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

November 18, 2010

Running into a rock star in your daily life is even rarer than encountering a scientist, i.e. when was the last time you saw Alice Cooper at Costco? The man behind Alice may have been there, but being out of costume, he looked like the rest of us, which illustrates the huge gulf between the public persona of rock stars and their off-screen lives. Convincing the public that scientists are cool can be done by living out your daily life in your community and being a good citizen.
Avatar of: William Penrose

William Penrose

Posts: 5

November 18, 2010

I recall in the 1970s when prominent British Columbia geneticist David Suzuki went before the public to host a weekly science TV show. It was well done,with minimum gee-whiz, good production values, and a sincere attempt to educate. \n\nThe jealous hatred of the Canadian science establishment fell on him like a ton of bricks. It was hard to find someone who wasn't contemptuous of him, partly because he interviewed on subjects other than genetics, but mostly because he was seen to be elevating himself above his fellows. The same fate awaits others who violate the sanctity of the ivory tower. Can we say Carl Sagan? \n\nMany of us seem to think that the job of the public is to hand over the grant money and shut up, because we're doing Important Work That They Won't Understand. \n
Avatar of: Sean Schmidt

Sean Schmidt

Posts: 1

November 18, 2010

As one of the initial fans of the 2009 I was pleased to see things evolve a bit for 2010. All science/scientists need some good PR and this truly is a great campaign that gets a lot of attention. But I can't say it is all that inspiring, especially to young folks. Over at Future-ish, we're trying to increase interest, literacy, and involvement in science, design, and culture so we've highlighted 'scelebs' (celebrity scientists) as well as Smart Stars. We need to make science aspirational and connecting with mainstream pop culture is certainly one way to do this.
Avatar of: Cheryl Scott

Cheryl Scott

Posts: 10

November 19, 2010

I'm surprised to hear that 72% of Americans can't name a living scientist. Stephen Hawking has become a public icon. Michio Kaku is all over the sci-fi world. Craig Venter goes without saying... And Neil Degrasse Tyson is a favorite guest on The Daily Show. I realize that, as someone pointed out, any scientist daring to step out of the lab into the public eye gets branded an ego-maniac, publicity hound, whatever... But really? These guys are already the "rock stars" of science. And what each of them does is probably the best way to make the public aware that it can be pretty darn cool. Say what you want about Carl Sagan -- but he probably had the strongest influence on the person I grew up to be of anyone outside my family.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

November 19, 2010

If a scientist comes over and stands next to you, all your charisma immediately drains away.
Avatar of: Steven Pace

Steven Pace

Posts: 22

November 20, 2010

Rock stars can and should try to influence the public in positive ways, not just self promotion, and anti-social behavior. If rock starts are seen looking up to scientists, than the public will follow.\nIf scientists are guilty of putting fame before truth, they are human. Good science is partially the result of fighting many human urges, and always only with partial success.
Avatar of: Brain Bites

Brain Bites

Posts: 1

December 21, 2010

Ummm...if this is supposed to be inspiring my children I'm afraid it's not achieving the desired result: 1) they hadn't heard of it; 2) they hadn't heard of some of the 80s acts (Hey I have fond memories of Heart, but my kids?); 3) they had trouble connecting the dots between the "rockstar" and scientist aspect of this effort. My kids aren't dumb, but this unusual mix of celebrity and trangenerational outreach just did not gel. Maybe this is for a totally older demographic.\n\nI think if those involved find this fun and enjoy this sort of fame they should go for it. But I would caution against equating the number of hits on a web site with education, or much else beyond the fact that most people spend waaay too much time online. Many YouTube videos of nonexistent educational value receive millions of hits. Popularity does not equal education. \n\nIf you want the way to a kid's heart, think Mythbusters.

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