Scientists as rock stars?

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

Amy Maxmen
Nov 16, 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;
[9th July 2010]*linkurl:Docs that rock;
[13th November 2009]*linkurl:Researcher razzle-dazzle;
[28th May 2009]