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Good Science Needs Good Reporting

Today's major research universities routinely “buy” scientists to help turn their most promising research programs into world-class ones. Why, then, after spending so much money to woo these big time scientists and their research entourages, don't more institutions do a better job of telling the world about the success of their research activities? Of course, many universities do try to publicize their researchers' work. But few devote as much attention to promoting re search resul

By | December 15, 1986


Today's major research universities routinely “buy” scientists to help turn their most promising research programs into world-class ones. Why, then, after spending so much money to woo these big time scientists and their research entourages, don't more institutions do a better job of telling the world about the success of their research activities?

Of course, many universities do try to publicize their researchers' work. But few devote as much attention to promoting re search results as they should or could. In many cases, the institutions are so attuned to wishes of the research faculty that they unwittingly miss out on chances to profit from the researchers' work.

When the surge in science communications began in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the birth of a host of science and technology magazines and weekly science newspaper sections, many colleges and universities suddenly added science writers to their public information staffs. Many hoped for a quick fix. Unfortunately, the mere hiring of such writers often did little to capitalize on the potential for explaining science and re search to the public. Sometimes it even did more harm than good.

Tell the Story Straight

The problems lay in a series of conflicts inherent in the way science is done, in the way institutions choose to promote themselves, and the ways in which the media inform the public. One problem with most university science information programs is that they are not programs at all. On all too many campuses, the role of the public affairs office, the public information office, the public relations office—whatever name is used—is, intentionally or not, to obfuscate, to paint the glowing picture, to mask the blemishes and argue that nothing is ever rotten in the State of Denmark.

These offices should instead simply be telling the story straight. They should ex plain all the good things emerging from the institution's efforts—and when necessary, explain as best they can the things that are not so good. That should be the real goal of such offices. But it is a bitter pill for some institutions to swallow.

It means that institutions need to persuade researchers who are hesitant in dealing with the press that it is sometimes in their own and the institution's best interests to go public.

It means that sometimes institutions need to make preemptive strikes, issuing stories that tell the institution's side of a sticky situation. In the long run, the most sensible way to deal with such situations is to acknowledge that all is not right, but to emphasize the positive steps being taken to correct things.

It also means tolerating the lack of scientific understanding that permeates the press. The attitude that the media always screw up the science story can no longer be used as a justification for not bringing science to the public. For one thing, it is frequently not true.

Likewise, the naiveté of most researchers about how the media work can no longer be an excuse for scientists to stay away from the public arena. They must learn how to communicate with the media, just as they had to learn to teach and do research.

In the first place, a great deal of scientists' attention is paid to being sure, to getting things right, to not overstating claims of discoveries. Alas, the science reporting emerging from the nation's universities often ignores these constraints. Claims of uniqueness and potential applications that stretch the truth are not uncommon.

It's easy to blame these on the media, or, in the case of university science reporting, on campus science writers. But the fault is not theirs alone. Culpability also rests with the researchers who allow that stretching of the truth.

In the best cases, both researcher and writer strive to keep claims accurate, to harness the adventure of science without turning it into science fiction. Unfortunately, the best cases are rare. They happen because the writers have the clout to reign in the grandiose claims by researchers, or because re searchers have emphasized where their work
stands compared to other work in the field, keeping the record clear. This requires both scientist and writer to waive personal pride in exchange for communicating the truth, whatever that might be.

Sometimes, under the bright light of skepticism, the greatest discovery can be portrayed as something short of wonderful. But that's all right! In fact, the best science writers in the media, the pros who rank as high in their fields as do the big-time scientists in theirs, value a somewhat muted but accurate report on science or medicine more highly than a splashier account featuring not-quite-so-correct claims.

In the final analysis, those working science writers are the gatekeepers of science news for the country. They tell the public what is new and beneficial about science. Thus they are integral to maintaining an institution's image of being on the cutting edge of science.

It's time that universities and research institutions take a realistic look at how they communicate their work. Why should they succeed wondrously in science only to fail miserably in telling the public about it?

Holland is director of science communications and periodicals at The Ohio State University, Columbus, 43212-1153.
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