Just as the pundits predicted, video is taking over the internet.  Youtube has now become the second most popular site on the internet, beating out Facebook.  And with the rise of video, science video blogs (vlogs) are taking off everywhere.  There are the big budget science vlogs by TED and Google, and popular lone wolf educational vloggers like Dianna Cowern (Physics Girl) or Derek Muller (Veritasium).  But there are still many niches to fill, and there’s always new science that needs to be shared, so there’s plenty of room for scientists to meaningfully add their own footage to the online world.


Last week, I had a chance to observe and participate in the birth of a new science vlog called “Cool Worlds” created by astronomer David Kipping, an assistant professor at Columbia University.  For years, I’ve been encouraging scientists who have an interest in outreach to make their own videos.  David is doing exactly what I pictured: using the medium of video to explain his own latest papers and relevant work of his colleagues.  Cool Worlds may not be as jazzy as educational vlogs, nor as technical as a professional conference. But it offers casual viewers a chance to hear about cutting edge research from the people who are doing the research–and that’s something that will always be fresh.

Prof. David Kipping studies planets around other stars. He films and edits the Cool Worlds science vlog in his office at Columbia University.

David shoots the “Cool Worlds” videos in his office using a Nikon D5200 DSLR camera, with a 50mm F 1/1.4 Nikon lens and a RODE VideoMic Pro.  He got the camera for Christmas a few years ago (it costs about 500$).  He already had a tripod to put it on (you can get one for <100$). He made two purchases for the purpose of starting the vlog: he bought the lens for about 300$ and the mic for about 200$.


David got the camera that he uses for Cool Worlds as a Christmas present.

He started by using a standard 18-55 mm zoom lens (there’s often a lens like this included with the camera), and found that his videos were coming out too dark.  So he bought the new lens, which collects a lot of light so there’s no need for specialized lighting.  It also makes the background “nice and soft” but keeps the person in focus.

David edits the video using the iMovie software that comes for free on a Mac laptop. The camera records the audio iself through its mic-in port, so there’s no extra work to do to sync up the audio and video.  The videos play for about 3-6 minutes, and it takes David about 2-3 hours to make each video.  He’s been putting out roughly one each week for for the last two months.

David started his vlog because he spotted an opportunity to connect with a vast audience. “I noticed that the vlog format is very successful on YouTube.  Like I’ll see a series of videos online, like reviews of TV shows like Game of Thrones, and they’ll get a million views.  I hadn’t really seen too many astronomy outreach talks done in a vlog format.”


It’s important to have a good microphone! This Rode mic sits on David’s bookshelf.

Cool Worlds may not yet have reached as big an audience as these Game of Thrones videos, but already, a Cool Worlds video about a cloaking device for extrasolar planets featuring Alex Teachey has had almost 20,000 views.  That’s a lot of fun. “There have also been lots of comments about the video,” David said.  “We filmed a Q. and A. video just to respond to all the comments. There have been some strange comments on there, but most have been genuine questions that we’ve enjoyed replying to.”

David had me sit in his desk chair and talk about one of my science projects, as his camera silently recorded me.  I stammered and sputtered a bit.  But after about 20 minutes of improvising, there was plenty of material for him to edit into this mini-masterpiece here.  “You don’t even need to spend a lot of time making artist impressions or animations.” says David.

So far the Cool Worlds vlog is mostly one scientist with a camera, a low budget–and a lot of guts.   But take a peek; I bet you’ll be inspired. And as David says, “if you can inspire a few people to become astronomers–that’s incredibly worthwhile.”


This book review was first published in Physics World.

The Weeknd In Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci At The Grammys 2016

The Weeknd at the Grammys.

The press coverage of this year’s Grammy awards taught me a new term: “producer inflation”. The term refers to the way making hit records seems to require bigger collaborations now than it did in years past, when teams of one or two producers sufficed to create all of the tracks. Pop star Taylor Swift’s latest Grammy-winning album, for example,  boasted no fewer than 11 producers, while another hit album, by an artist called The Weeknd, listed 15.

The trend towards large collaborations is apparent in science, too. A paper with more than 5000 authors appeared last year in Physical Review Letters (2015 G Aad et al. (ATLAS Collaboration, CMS Collaboration) 114 191803), while the paper announcing the recent discovery of gravitational waves had more than 1000. This development, along with a perennial hunger for career advice among young scientists, has set the stage for Alaina Levine’s book Networking for Nerds: Find, Access and Land Hidden Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere.

Networking for Nerds aims to teach you how to build relationships within this large pool of potential colleagues, mentors and collaborators via conferences, job interviews and online networking. As well as offering a dizzying array of networking dos and don’ts, the book takes readers on a tour of useful concepts and strategies such as branding, SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), etiquette and social media. This is all standard stuff in some circles, particularly the business world, but it’s material that most scientists neglect during their education. The tips in the book include intriguing insights about when it’s appropriate to put your photograph on a business card (answer: it’s expected if you’re a realtor, but not if you’re a physicist), and even where you should place your knife and fork on your plate when you are done eating a formal meal (answer: in the US, they go at the 3 o’clock position; in Europe, at the 6 o’clock position).

Here I must disclose that, thanks in part to Levine’s own prodigious networking skills, I came to know her long before reading her book. For years, she’s been an active participant in the “Marketing for Scientists” group I founded on Facebook. So, as Levine’s valued professional contact, I take some pride in recommending her work to you. Indeed, the book explains exactly why professional contacts generally enjoy recommending one another. There’s nothing wrong with this sharing of information – so keep reading.

Levine understands us nerds because she has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Arizona. She is also a science writer and a comedian. You should not, however, expect much comedy in Networking for Nerds. The tone is rather dry, despite the picture of goofy eyeglasses on the front cover. Bulleted lists of key points abound, and each chapter ends in a list of “Chapter Takeaways”. This textbook style is, perhaps, the book’s main limitation. While most readers of a book like this are probably not seeking a literary experience, while I was reading I found myself hungry for more narrative and a broader range of perspectives. Stories from nerds in various fields and from other career advice experts would have helped illustrate how the book’s techniques can apply across the diverse spectrum of scientific and academic subcultures. The prose provides many brief stories of Levine’s personal networking successes, but few stories of her failures that would help readers connect with her.

For a career advice book that’s easier to read and more comprehensive (at least for those aiming to stay in academia), try The Professor Is In: the Essential Guide To Turning Your PhD Into a Job. The author, Karen Kelsky, has a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Hawaii and rose to the rank of associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, serving for a while as the head of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. If you think physics jobs in academia are rare, try getting a faculty position in an East Asian languages and cultures department! The odds are about the same as becoming an astronaut.

The Professor Is In takes on the “peon” mentality that holds back so many graduate students and explains how to think differently in order to succeed. Kelsky plays the academic curmudgeon, overworked and too busy to be bothered with your simpering – thank goodness she’s on your side. Don’t read this book to pick up new social-media tricks, or learn how to sniff out hidden opportunities such as unadvertised STEM jobs. But if you expect to walk right through the front door of academia, you’ll need Kelsky’s advice on putting together your application packages, writing your essays and keeping your hopes realistic.

As a mentor of students and postdocs, I expect I’ll find both of these books useful additions to my library. I’ll hand Networking for Nerds to the shy first-year graduate student to help them break out of their shell when they go to their first science conference. The fourth-year student who is starting to peer sideways at those faculty job listings will get The Professor Is In. But whichever book you find yourself handing your students, you might want to temper it with a bit of encouragement, because all this advice can get onerous. Ultimately, my favourite moment in these books came in chapter two of Networking for Nerds, where Levine acts on her sympathy for the beleaguered junior researcher by delivering, in a few words, a much-needed confidence boost. “You are a lot more important than you might have thought,” she writes, like a coach cheering a prize-fighter mid-bout. She’s correct. As a trained scientist or engineer, you are vastly important to the very future of humankind, wherever you end up working. And whether you’re wandering a vast, crowded conference room, or placing your CV on a huge pile of applications, your future rests on a strong belief in yourself.


This week I’m writing to you from the National Speakers Association annual meeting, a great place to learn new marketing tricks.  I’m going to share with you a tip I just learned from journalist Geeta Nadkarni. It’s an idea that sounds simple and obvious–and I bet you haven’t tried it yet.

First, let me introduce Geeta.  Her dress is covered with glass beads that sparkle furiously at me. She gives me a hug even though she’s never met me before. She is not afraid of being seen and making new connections!  (The National Speakers Association is full of extroverts.) You can learn more about Geeta via her regular column in the Huffington Post, or click around her website, which is full of useful marketing advice.

So here is the trick. Whenever you have a media appearances say television or radio interview or newspaper, grab a small version of that media outlet’s logo (like the ones on the right) and paste it into your own webpage. That communicates to journalists that you are an interesting person to talk to. As Geeta pointed out, the media loves people who are in the media. Fame begets fame, and posting these logos on your own webpage helps you stay part of that cycle.

Guess what? Scientists are already using this trick. Take a look at the website of physicist Michio Kaku. You can’t miss the media logos everywhere: MSNBC, Fox News, CBS, Wall Street Journal and more. Astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s webpage is a bit more subtle, but still has mini logos for the New York Times and Natural History magazine.

Dang it! I should’ve thought of this myself.  Because my colleagues in the music business never hesitate to cover their websites with logos of their clients. For example, here’s the website of a music producer friend, Gary Earl, showing off the logos of some of his clients. It’s not the landing page of his website; it’s s separate page.  But it’s not hard to find.

But I never thought of using this approach as a scientist.  It seemed to me a little bit unbecoming of a scientist. It might give the impression that I was more interested in self-promotion than in research.

So here’s my suggestion. If you have the guts for it (and you already have tenure), do like Michio Kaku does and put the logos right up front on your website. Or if you’re nervous about what your colleagues will think, do like my musician friend Gary Earl, and add a separate page to your website that shows off your media credits, and all the logos. It will help you stay in the public eye, bring your message to the people who need to hear it, and heal the world through science.

And when you have a chance, try to drop by a National Speakers Association meeting! They are good fun, even if you’re not an extrovert.


I became a father two years ago last month. In those two years I blogged a little less often and gave few workshops than I would have otherwise. But I kept learning valuable lessons about marketing and baby-genius-image-300x257communicating science—from life with my toddler. Here are a few of the priceless lessons he has taught me.

You can’t win by fighting.

My two-year old son loves puppies, grapes, fire trucks—and above all—tongs. Yes, tongs: those springy tools you might use to grab chicken thighs from the grill or toast from the toaster. Whenever I open the drawer and take out the tongs, a row begins. “My tongs!” he cries, grabbing hold of them. If I try to yank them away, it becomes a tug of war. Screaming, crying, kicking—he pulls out all the stops. If I do manage to wrest them from his grasp, the screaming only intensifies. Fighting a two-year old is simply a waste of time.

Instead of fighting: redirect.

So the chicken thighs are burning and I need those tongs to take them off the grill. But my toddler has them and is using them to spread cheerios around the rug. So how do I get the tongs back? I offer him something else in exchange for the tongs, another enticing toy he can grab hold of. It works most of the time.

Use silly words.

There’s a chain of convenience stores in my part of the world called “Wa-Wa”. I stopped at one the other day with my son. He couldn’t stop giggling when he heard the name. And it was such an easy word to read and say and remember—and he could even almost read it himself. Now he asks to go to Wa-Wa all the time. Where do you want to go for your birthday? Answer: Wa-Wa! And if he really gets upset over the tongs and he won’t settle for a toy fire truck—you guessed it—I can always take him to Wa-Wa.

Much of this may seem obvious to you, but it dawned on me one day that my son was teaching me important tools for shaping the public debate over scientific issues. We scientists always seem to be in some kind of battle for public opinion these days, right? Certain topics in science—like climate change, for instance—just take them out of the drawer and they are guaranteed to start a fight. Well, that’s where these toddler techniques can really shine.

Living with a toddler has taught me that the fight over climate change, per se, is not a fight you can win. The big toddlers of the world—the Marco Rubios and the Sarah Palins and so on—will not let go of their end of this argument. They will just continue to get more and more upset, and continue outspending those of us with the right answers.

But we can still ultimately control the discussion, provided we let go of the tongs. The trick is to redirect our opponents by distracting them with new toys, that is, new topics for debate—of our choosing. And the best way to frame these new topics is with silly words (like “Wa-Wa”). The silly words are new brand names.

Of course, climate change is not a silly topic. And a proper discussion of climate change often does call for precise terms like external forcing and general circulation models, and other non-toddler friendly jargon.

But we do have some good, evocative, fun, easy-to-pronounce words about climate change that have already started shifting the center of this debate: Tesla. Carbon Footprint. Energy Star. Smart Metering. Any toddler can say these words. These words lead us down a path toward fixing the problem, and crucially, give us a good feeling just to say them. And we can invent more. By offering people enticing new brands like these, we can redirect them away from a hopeless tug of war over climate change itself, and get them talking about how the problem should be addressed. Maybe we can even save them from themselves.

I’ve never been very good at asking for things or telling people to do things. The other kids were better at it. Can I have the big one? Gimme gimme!  That was never my style, and I bet it wasn’t yours.

Now, as a grown up and as a scientist I must regularly ask for things. Often, when I ask for something from my colleagues it’s in the form of a proposal–a formal document.  My request is indirect.  It sounds something like this:  “I propose to apply this new class of models to the archived data.  Please see the attached budget.”  I generally wouldn’t think of walking up to my colleagues or my scientific customers and commanding them to something. It seems disrespectful.

But the principles of sales tell us to do just that. When we talk to the public, even to our colleagues, it can actually help sometimes if we are direct and commanding in our requests—like an impetuous five year old.  A good way to build a commercial, a website, even a tweet is to include what’s called a call to action.  That’s where you command–yes, command–your audience to do something for you.

Call us! 1 800 I FLY SWA

Buy the new Paperback edition. Click here!

Come in! We’re open.

It may feel awkward. But if you were really excited about something and you want to tell your friends about it, you might take this eager tone.  And your friends won’t mind one bit.  Here are some examples of how a scientist might use this approach.

People!  Go look at this image from the Hubble Space Telescope!

Really you’re still programming in IDL? Stop typing right now and read this book about Python.

Click here to send me an email and start a productive collaboration that will change your life.

This approach works on Twitter. Noted Twittter analyst Dan Zarella found that tweets containing the words “Please Help” and “Please Retweet” garnered roughly twice as many retweets as typical tweets.  It stands to reason, right?  In Twitter’s own analysis, the most effective calls to action ask for a retweet, a follow, or a download.

A call to action works on a webpage. There is a cornucopia of blog posts online about how to sell something online using a call to action, usually in the form of a button that you click to download something, start a video, enter a credit card, etc.  Here’s a long pdf with, 101 examples of webpages using calls to action.  Amazon.com is a classic example. “Buy now with 1-click”.

What do you hope to achieve with your scientific webpage?  I use my webpage to entice colleagues to collaborate with me! So the call to action on my webpage is to “Download ZODIPIC” a little piece of scientific software that I wrote that hope my colleagues will use (and ultimately be somewhat grateful for). I think every scientific press release should end in a call to action. To learn more about the California condor, join the CondorWatch citizen science project. 

A clever, direct call to action even works in person or in a personal email.  When you have to ask someone for a favor, do you ever find yourself stalling or beating around the bush?  Then ending with a timid, “Would you mind possibly…?”  This article in Lifehacker shows some great examples of how people asked for favors with shocking directness, and got what they asked for.

Sure you don’t want everything that comes from your mouth or your Twitter feed to be a call to action.  If you cry wolf, you’ll dilute the urgency of your message.  But don’t miss out on this simple marketing trick. Think of something science-y you want your audience to do because, by golly, it’s awesome. And go tell them to do it.

Go to Twitter and try it right now!


Dear Colleagues,

Last year, I made three science-marketing new years resolutions: clean my desk, spruce up my webpage, and launch a citizen science project. The desk and the webpage—let’s say they are still works in progress. But I am proud to say that this week is the launch of DiskDetective.org, a new citizen science project where volunteers can help me and my team sort through data from NASA’s WISE telescope to find disks where planets form and hide. Disk Detective is a new collaboration between NASA and Zooniverse and, I hope, a seed of progress here towards a more open Federal government.

Disk Detective Screen ShotAnd, gee whiz, launching a new citizen science project was much harder than I anticipated.

First, there was the challenge of coming up with a project. I tend to feel that anywhere there is big data, there is a place for crowdsourcing. But humans have limits; the amount of data processing to be crowdsourced can’t be too large to manage or too small to be consequential. People’s time must not be wasted duplicating a task that machines can do better. We had to find the right balance and a way to make the task interesting but intuitive. But I am lucky to be working with a talented science team, with experts in infrared surveys like Deborah Padgett, Luisa Rebull, Mike McElwain, and John Debes who made short work of this astrophysical brain teaser.

Then there was the matter of finding funding for the project.  First we applied to the usual NASA ROSES programs—for three years in a row we submitted 15-page proposals to the Astrophysical Data Analysis Program and to the Origins program, to no avail. One year we also applied to a NASA Planetariums program and to a Sloan Foundation program. We finally found enough funding to get the project off the ground through the Goddard Science Innovation Fund.

Then there were the many colleagues whom we had to convince that this was a worthwhile adventure. Nearly all had heard of the notion of “citizen science”. But most thought that citizen science was some kind of outreach or education. I had to explain to them that no, we are not launching some kind of make-work or “fun” science activity to entertain children. We are doing unique, novel, far-reaching science intended for publication in the literature.

Other colleagues had the opposite reaction: you’re taking away work from us professionals, work that we should be funded for! Now I had to remind people that part of what’s great about science is that as a community, we aim to pursue the best research methods, even if that means we enjoin people outside our usual community to perform the research with us.

And who does this volunteer work on Zooniverse and other sites? Surely, said my colleagues, it’s crazy people, obsessive-compulsive types. Or maybe it’s careless kids with short attention spans. Either way, the results could not be trusted. No, I explained.  The bulk of the classifications are done by people who spend maybe an hour at a time working on the site, not by dabblers or obsessives. And we combine the results from multiple volunteers to generate robust classifications for every subject. And by the way, groups of professional astronomers are also subject to fatigue and biases when they try to make sense of vast libraries of images. With Zooniverse, we have enough manpower to search for and calibrate out many of these human errors.

Best of all, I told my colleagues, when you’re working with so many eager volunteers, there’s a chance they might invent or discover something that you didn’t expect. There’s a chance that they might be smarter than you! When I suggested this possibility, my most ornery colleagues usually shut up in a hurry, and probably went off muttering under their breath.

NASA's WISE MissionThese are just a few of the obstacles we faced.  There was the matter of moving half a TB of data across the country from one NASA computer to another, and then over to Adler—a process you’d think would be easy, but which isn’t. Then there are a slew of other issues related to pursuing science in the federal government, which I won’t get into (see this report from the Woodrow Wilson center for more info).
Anyway, I am proud and excited to have arrived at this day. I’ve sometimes wondered why I’m lucky enough to be employed by our citizens to work at NASA—how exactly do taxpayers benefit when I write another paper in the Astrophysical Journal on a topic they might find esoteric? I can certainly think of indirect benefits. But right now, I’m certain I’m doing something well matched to the role of NASA scientist: enabling the people of the U.S. enjoy the fruits of a NASA telescope, not just showing them pretty pictures, but including them in the process, the adventure of scientific research that I thirst for.

So I hope you have a moment to try DiskDetective.org and share it with your students.  You might catch yourself thinking about how citizen scientists can help you with your research.  The site is not perfect: the day before launch and we’re still fixing typos (and a random link to a scientology site that somehow crept in there!). But the science and the joy of collaboration are very real. There may be obstacles to launching a project like this, but I can already say it’s worth it for the excitement I’m feeling today.


Marc Kuchner


Twenty thirteen was another topsy-turvy year for scientists in the U.S.  Many of us spent a good part of the year dealing with budgets slashed by sequestration. Government scientists, including last year’s Nobel laureates, spent October 1-16 on furlough. This year’s Nobel laureates were overheard telling their students that they would have better luck building a career if they left the country.


At the same time, 2013 saw shifts in the nature of our marketing tools, as social media outlets edged closer to market saturation. Teens began abandoning Facebook for Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat.  Popular Science turned off the comments on its online articles, to combat a “politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise”.

Despite these challenges, scientists kept on keeping on, finding creative new ways to market our work—new insights into our customers and their needs.  Here’s a list of my favorite science marketing success stories of 2013.  Let’s drink a toast to our colleagues who came up with these plans, and to ourselves for continuing to make new Earth-shattering discoveries this year.  Here’s 2012’s list, and 2011’s for comparison.

#5 Shot By Shot: Stories of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

Sick and tired of misinformed parents and lawmakers who rail against vaccination based on weak, anecdotal evidence?  Vaccines protect us from meningitis, polio, and hepatitis, and a range of other horrible diseases; the statistics are clear. But for those who don’t prefer to think about numbers, ShotByShot.org is collecting anecdotes—stories told on video—from people whose lives were changed by horrible vaccine-preventable diseases. In 2013, storytelling remains a crucial marketing tool, and scientists are catching on.

#4 Climate Name Change

Why do terrible hurricanes bear the names of nice people? Glad your name doesn’t happen to be Sandy or Katrina? ClimateNameChange aims to right this wrong, petitioning the World Meteorological Organization to name storms after prominent Climate Change Deniers. Their hysterical, viral video (2.7 million views) shows newscasters tracking hurricanes named for Senators Marco Rubio and David Vitter.  Add your signature here to the list of more than 100,000 signatures they have collected so far.

#3 ComSciCon

This new series of workshops, launched by Harvard and MIT graduate students, teaches graduate students to become better communicators. The first ComSciCon, held in June, 2013, focused on writing. The 2014 workshop, June 12th – 14th at the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center focuses on speaking. And get this: the founders scraped up enough funding that workshops are not merely free; they come with travel reimbursement. So there are no excuses not to apply.

#2 The Biotechnology and Life Science Advising (BALSA) Group

Many graduate programs talk about the importance of non-academic career paths. But graduate school remains an ivory tower experience for most. BALSA is working to change that situation in a unique and powerful way. This non-profit organization sends Washington University in St. Louis students and postdocs out into thebusiness community to serve as consultants and gain experience working with local startups.  The startups receive help with market analysis, technology due diligence, and other tasks that demand research skills. The students network with industry professionals–and learn to think about Customer Needs and Market Receptivity.  Mmm…customer needs!

#1 Citizen Science reaches the White House

White-House-Champions-of-Change-EventIt’s been 114 years since the first Audobon society bird count, and six years since launch of Galaxy Zoo.  And now the federal government has come to see the importance of involving laypeople as participants in scientific progress. The new open Govenment action plan, released this December, fosters “incentive prizes, citizen science, and crowdsourcing to harness American ingenuity”.  In concert with this plan, the White House recognized twelve leaders of citizen science this June for increasing public engagement in science and science literacy.  I think citizen participation in science is an ideal way to heal the rift between scientists and the rest of the country that’s been spreading since World War II.  Now that this movement catching on inside the beltway, maybe we’ll see more and more Americans in 2014 getting involved in doing science themselves.




Last week, I posted the first half of my interview with advocacy expert Stephanie Vance about how scientists can influence members of Congress. Here, in the second half, Vance goes into more detail about what to bring when you visit your legislator, what to say, and how to prepare.U.S. Capitol

Everybody walking into a legislator’s office has an “ask”–the favor you want the legislator to do for you, and the reason for your being there.  Stephanie talks a bit here about different kinds of “asks”. I think her advice (always make the ask!) supersedes the advice I gave in Marketing for Scientists about asks.

Props, Pictures, and One-Sheets

MK:  I often recommend that scientists use props as marketing tools.  What do you think?

SV:  Well, yeah. I think that works very well in the scientific community. For other advocates, it’s pictures. We do a lot of work with the American Library Association. If you’re a librarian, you bring in a picture from your library of kids sitting around a story circle or kids reading to dogs or people standing in line at the computer terminals or something that really tells the story.

Sometimes people bring props that actually work against their message. I remember when I was working on Capitol Hill, and someone was trying to make a point about clear cutting in forests. They were trying to say, “Hey, there’s a lot of stuff that’s cut out of forests and a lot of trees, and we brought you a board foot of timber.”

I was like, “OK, so you cut down a tree [laughs] to make the point that we shouldn’t cut down trees.”

MK:  I see–it can’t just be a random thing. The prop has to contain the story that you want to tell.  It’s also common to bring a “one sheet” to a meeting with your senator or representative—a  handout they can keep that summarizes your key points.  What do you tell people to put on their one sheets?

SV:  What goes on a one sheet…

First, your mission. This may be two sentences on what your organization is and a sentence on how it connects back to the legislator’s district.

Too many people go into a legislator’s office and don’t ask for something.

The ask. Too many people go into a legislator’s office and they don’t ask for something, and that just begs a conversation that is, “Well, thank you for your thoughtful research on climate change. I agree that climate change is important, and I will be working with my colleagues in the Congress to address important issues that relate to whether the global warming trend is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” If you don’t make the ask, you won’t get a very specific answer to your concern.

I’d say include one paragraph on why you think that ask is important and why it matters. I’d say two or three one? or two?sentence examples that relate again back to the legislator’s district. If you can make those examples pretty, with pictures, that is very helpful as well. Then include you contact information, “If you have more questions about this, here’s how you get back to us.”

MK:  Interesting! I had heard elsewhere that representatives are tired of scientists asking for stuff. They assume when you walk in the door that you’re going to ask them for money. How do you get around that when you’re asking?

There are relationship-building asks and there are policy asks.

SV:  I hear that a lot, like, “Oh, you don’t want to always ask them for something. Sometimes you’re there just to educate them or build relationships.” I think that’s true, but the way I think about it is there are relationship building asks and there are policy asks. You always have, in the back of your mind, a policy ask. Let’s be honest. You’re in there to ask for money or ask for a program not to be cut, most of the time–that’s a policy ask.

If you’re feeling like the office is like, “OK, God, stop asking us for this money, it’s a difficult economic time, we’re not sure if we’re going to be able to get it for you,” that’s when I think relationship-building asks are important. You ask them to come visit the facility, ask them to come to a scientific meeting where you’re presenting a paper, to ask them to spend a little time talking to the other researchers that you’ve worked with, to ask them to have a meeting in the district, something that’s still an ask but is not constantly, “Give us this money.”

When you make the ask, you switch the little switch in their head that says, “I have to pay some attention.” Constantly going in and saying, “Hi, I’m here to educate you,” those words come out of your mouth in any form and the legislator and staff are going to be like, “Oh, good, it’s education, I don’t really have to pay attention to what you’re saying. I can think about all the 15 other decisions that we have to make in this particular day.”

[For more about relationship-building asks, see this article.]

Say, “Imagine a World In Which…”

MK:  Some of the lobbying techniques that you recommend are really about connecting your subject to everyday life, right? What do you do if you’re working on the Higgs boson?

SV:  [laughs]  Yeah, it’s hard in the scientific community, and I actually worked for a member of Congress who was on the Energy and Congress Committee. There was a lot of discussion about DARPA and the scientific programs that were looking at very basic research that was not necessarily going to apply very specifically to something that would benefit mankind immediately. Those were always difficult arguments to make. I think for the scientific community it’s sometimes about capturing the imagination. One of the things I talk about in The Influence Game is capturing the ideological high ground. I think that for those longer?term projects, it’s all about figuring out a way to say, “Imagine of a world in which…”  DARPA’s a good example. “Imagine a world in which everyone can communicate wirelessly. There’s no cords connected to anything if everyone is operating over the spectrum.”

Ted Kennedy's Office

MK:  You’ve told me some good tips about how to handle a meeting with a member of congress—to lobby yourself. Now, when’s the time for scientists to go out hire lobbyists, and how do you do it?

SV:  I think that most scientists can actually connect with an organization that’s already doing lobbying in Washington, D.C., or with their facility that they’re working at. There is pretty much an association for every branch of science that you could imagine [laughs] on Capitol Hill. Also, if you’re associated with a University, if it’s a large University, usually they do have a lobbyist as well that’s looking at all the different programs in the University and talking to the local elected officials about that.

How to Hire A Lobbyist

MK:  OK. Say you’re the head of a new lab that’s got 100 people in it or something like that, so you’re representing a large group and you have a decent budget, bot no representation yet. What’s the next move for you in terms of getting representation on Capitol Hill?

SV:   If you don’t have a group in D.C. or if you feel like they aren’t adequately representing your interests and you want to hire a lobbyist, one of the first things I would do is go to some of the websites that list lobbyists.  There is the American League of Lobbyists and they have a directory of lobbyists. I’d also suggest going to the House and Senate lobbying reports and if you just type in “House Lobbying Reports” into Google or a search engine of your choice, you can find who is already lobbying on particular issues. That will give you a good sense of some of the firms that are already working on the issues you care about and it allows you to check to see who is lobbying for your competitors.

MK:  How much does it cost?

SV:  I’ll tell you what, you can get someone, anywhere from $1000 a month to simply look at bills and tell you what’s going on and help you figure out what your next steps are to a $100,000 a month to take on your full campaign and to unleash a cadre of lobbyists onto Capitol Hill [laughs] to get as many offices talking about your issue or sometimes are not talking about it, as they possibly can. It really runs the gamut.

MK:  Right. Are there any other websites that you recommend for scientists to look at to help them prepare an approach to Capitol Hill?

SV:  Yeah, absolutely. One of the things I talk about is how it’s so important to know your audience. They can go to congress.gov, they look up their legislator, and they see what bills he or she has introduced. Even if it’s nothing related to science or anything that scientists care about, it’s always good to know what the legislator cares about because it’s going to help them frame their message.

MK:  Right.

SV:  Then I suggest that they go a website like OpenSecrets.org, which helps them see who has contributed to a legislator’s campaign. Now, I hate it when people think that it’s appropriate to walk into a legislator’s office and say, “Hey, I saw so and so contributed to your campaign and so you should do x, y, z for me.” That’s not only illegal but it makes the staff and the member less likely to do what it is that you want them to do. That said, it is good to see that they contributed to legislator’s campaign because it gives you a sense of what issues interests them and you’ll see a very strong connection between who the legislator represents and who is contributing to the campaign.

It’s always good to know what their job was before they came to D.C.

I also suggest VoteSmart.org, because that’s a great website to get some biographical information on the legislator. It’s always good to know what their job was before they came to D.C. Were they a state legislator? Did they come from a small business background? Were they a consultant, were they a scientist, were they a doctor? If you know that background information, again, it can help you frame your message.

That website also has ratings from various groups, so a lot of groups will look at a legislator’s voting record and say, “Hey, we think he was 96 percent with us,” or, “We think he was three percent with us.” For example, if you’re trying to look at climate change, you might look and see what some of the energy and environment?related interest groups’ scores are, so that can give you a sense of what perspective they might come to the issue from.


And don’t miss Stephanie Vance’s own website, with funny and useful articles like “Ten Things Not to Say While You’re Advocating.”


Speaking as a citizen of the United States, I can say that right now I am not happy with our Congress. If you’re in the U.S.A., I bet you’re not either. So I’d like to offer you an interview with advocacy expert Stephanie Vance about how we scientists can influence our legislators.

Vance started her career as a legislative aid in a DC law firm. She went on to work as a lobbyist for National Public Radio, as legislative director for Congresswoman Eshoo from California, and then chief of staff for Congressman Earl Blumenauer from Portland, Oregon. After a while, she realized that “I’m the person who people would come in and advocate at, and sometimes they would do it efficiently and effectively and sometimes not so much.” Since then, she’s written five books on advocacy, including Citizens in Action: A Guide to Lobbying and Influencing Government and her most recent book, The Influence Game: 50 Insider Tactics from the Washington D.C. Lobbying World that Will Get You to Yes.  And for twelve years, now, Vance has run a business called Advocacy Guru helping people communicate with Congress and state legislators—so they will “not just be heard but agreed with”.

Let’s get to it.

Lobbying is Marketing

MK:  So your father was a physicist?

SV:  Yes, my dad was an optical physicist. He was, like many scientists, always believing that if he told people the most logical argument, that here’s Problem A and Solution B is obviously the thing that solves that, that’s what people should do. But logic never works on Capitol Hill. I think the scientific community always has a challenge in terms of recognizing that while their solution may actually be the best after extensive testing, on Capitol Hill you need to make your arguments in a different way.

MK:   What would you say is the difference between lobbying and marketing?

SV:  I would say there is virtually no difference. [laughs] Like in your book, Marketing for Scientists, you talk a lot about the structure of how to develop a marketing effort and really basic things like knowing what you want, knowing your audience, knowing how to develop a message. Those are just the basic tenets of lobbying. I think one of the key things of marketing is to try and talk about what you’re selling from the perspective of the person who’s buying it. In Washington, DC, we’re really selling ideas. We need to talk about that from the perspective of, again, the person buying that idea, which is usually a legislator or a staff person.

MK:  Clearly, lobbying has a lot to do with relationship building. Do you ever talk about things like branding and positioning and things like that?

SV:  I think that in the lobbying world, branding might relate to reputation. You want to brand yourself not just as an effective lobbyist or advocate; you want to brand yourself as a trustworthy one. That can be a challenge in Washington, D.C., although I don’t think it’s as challenging as people think it is. It’s really the exception rather than the rule when you’ll have any problem with someone being unethical.

MK:  That’s great to hear.

SV:  It’s true. Trust me.

MK:  That’s a relief, at a time when Congress is obviously spending such a large fraction of its time in a stalemate.

Congress: It’s Like Having 535 People Peer Review Everything You Do

SV:  Well, it’s true. I think people don’t realize that Congress is actually designed to be inefficient. It’s not a system that’s supposed to be constantly moving forward and that things are supposed to be getting done. The Founding Fathers actually set it up so that it would be very, very difficult to move legislative initiatives through the process. It’s very hard to get a member of Congress from very rural Alabama to agree with a member of Congress from urban New York. I think people a lot of times say, “Well, we want them to abandon what it is their districts want and come to agreement from a broader leadership perspective,” but that’s not what Congress does, especially the House. Both the House and the Senate are representative democracies, and they’re supposed to be representing the interests of their constituents. As you see the country more and more divided, that’s why you see Congress more and more divided. For the scientific community, I like to say it’s like trying to have 535 people peer?review everything you do.

MK:  When you work with people who have come to DC to visit their representatives, how do you help them prepare for the meetings?

When you walk in the door, you’ll meet a 14-year old staff person….They’re all 14. Your first words should be, either “I’m from your district” or “I represent people in your district”.

SV:  Well, that’s a good question. We call them grassroots advocates—the people who are coming from around the country to meet with their legislators.

When you walk in the door, you will probably meet a 14?year?old staff person. Don’t be all insulted when that happens. They’re all 14. Your very first words should be, either, “I’m from your district,” or “I represent people in your district. I’m here to ask you about this program. Here’s how it connects back to the district.”

Then you continue the conversation, “Oh, by the way, I saw you introduce legislation on…” you know, something random, small whatever it is.  Then you segue to your topic, keeping in mind how it affects the legislator’s district.  “Small businesses are very concerned in how these contracts, or how these grants are given. I know that not only is it important to your constituency, but it’s important to a policy agenda you want to move forward. Will you support this particular level of funding in this particular program?”

Too often, people have all the facts and figures, they get nervous about them. They aren’t really sure, oh, what to say. “Oh, my god, I’m going to say the wrong number. Then, I’m going to screw up the funding for everybody on the planet.”

The Influence GameIt’s not about whether you know all the facts and figures and statistics about the legislative process.

But the role of the grassroots advocate is really to make the connection between the crazy stuff in DC and back to the Congressional District. It’s not about whether you know all the facts and figures and statistics about the legislative process. That’s what the lobbying community is for.

MK:  Are you likely to be able to get a meeting with a staff person from a representative from outside your district?

SV:  If you can make a connection to the legislator’s district. If you’re a scientist and you are trying to deliver this message about how you want to keep a particular program funded, I would say you need to look at that legislator’s district, you need to look at whether any of the funding has gone to that district, whether there’s any university in the district that’s contributing to the research, whether there’s any facility in the district that sells some product that you need to conduct the research—anything that is even remotely connected to that funding level. Then, if you contact the Congressional office and say, “This particular widget in this district is very essential to this program. Whether this program is cut or not impacts you,” then you’ll have a, I’d say, maybe 60/40 chance.

It’s not enough to simply go to your representative and say, “Here’s the problem.” You have to propose a solution.

MK:  OK let’s say you’re a scientist, and your models have just spat out some numbers predicting that something terrible is going to happen to the people of the United States. What would you say is your next step?

SV:  I think the next step is to immediately develop a rocket and get off the planet. [laughs] Right after that, I think the step is to figure out very specifically what legislators can do to help solve that problem. It’s not just a matter of going to them and saying, “The world is ending. Hey, there you go, do something about it.” It’s really a matter of trying to figure out, OK, if the world is ending, what program can the federal government start, what policy change can they make, what provisions can they make for people to survive the destruction of the world. It’s not enough to simply go and say, “Here’s the problem.” You have to propose a solution.


The interview with Stephanie will continue next week with more specific advice about influencing Congress—maybe the shutdown will be over by then!


(This article first appeared in Nature.)

Planetary scientist Heidi Hammel was at the telescope when Facebook alerted her to an important new target: a comet had just crashed into Jupiter.

“I learned about one of the impacts on Jupiter via Facebook while observing on Keck, and we were able to do immediate follow-up.”

It is no secret that more and more, scientists are using Facebook not just for outreach or for fun, but to do real, ground breaking, earth-shattering science.

But how does this work, exactly?  There are so many websites devoted to science news and amateur science—but where do scientists go online to interact with their colleagues professionally? I asked my colleagues on the Marketing for Scientists Facebook group (mostly astronomers) to share their social networking tricks. I think their answers point to a fascinating shift in the social fabric of the scientific community.

The first “trick” I heard from my colleagues for harnessing social networks was the obvious one: if you have a lot of Facebook friends, you can have professional scientific discussions right on your wall. Angela Speck told me, “Since a significant fraction of my friends are scientists they do respond to science questions. And then the ensuing Wall discussion is like a chat over lunch.”

But it takes time and effort to build that long list of followers or friends, and then more effort keeping up with them and sorting through their status updates. Angela has more than 1100 Facebook friends, well above the median number (roughly 300).  So that trick doesn’t work for everybody.

Facebook/LinkedIn Groups: A New Home for Science

Instead of building large contact lists themselves, more and more scientists are working with colleagues through a strange new underground network—Facebook groups. For example, Adam Burgasser told me,

“Our Low Mass Stars and Brown Dwarfs group has been a great place to post papers, promote astro apps, announce conferences, ask about a pesky references etc.”

Joining such a group is like instantly acquiring hundreds or thousands of high-powered new friends/followers. Burgasser said,

“I think such groups stimulate interest, facilitate feedback and provide quick answers to expert questions.”

I took a closer look at Facebook groups in astronomy to see how they work and how they manage to concentrate professional scientists. The “Astronomers” group seems to be the largest in the field, with over 7000 members—about as many as the American Astronomical Society (the largest U.S. professional organization for astronomers). I also found groups for Exoplanet Imaging, the Submillimeter Array, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory Users Committee, Jobs for Astronomers, and many other groups populated strictly by professionals.

These professional groups are mixed in, of course, with groups like “I Fucking Love Science” which is fun, but not meant for professional scientific discussions. So the information page for the Astronomers group contains a serious warning to non-professionals. “*****Note to people requesting to join***** This is an informal group intended for *professional astronomers*. For membership requests to be accepted, you must have a “web presence” that indicates you are involved in some aspect of professional astronomy.”

I myself spend most of my social networking time on Facebook or Twitter. But LinkedIn groups are also a fertile home for scientific research. As Mark Eisner told me,

“In my field of hydrogeology, or more generally environmental consulting, I belong to 50. So much I cannot keep up.”

Wanted: A Directory of Facebook Groups for Professional Scientists

Facebook and LinkedIn groups have become new incubators for scientific progress, important virtual places for scientists to work and to mingle. It sounds like a kind of online intellectual paradise. The trouble is: there’s no good directory of these groups of professional scientists on social networks. Your colleagues may remember to invite you to join, or they might not. The most reliable way to find the professional Facebook groups for scientists seems to be to “friend” lots of colleagues whose interests overlap with yours, and look at their Facebook pages to see what groups they belong to. Then you have to ask permission to join. Either that or you need to start your own group and hope one doesn’t exist already for the topic you chose.

You might call this system “informal” or you might see it as a kind of underground network—a circle of insiders that can needlessly exclude scientists with less web savvy.

Perhaps one day, the AAAS or another organization will maintain a directory of Facebook and LinkedIn groups where active professional scientific collaborations are taking place. It would take a bit of work to build this directory—to separate the groups of professionals from those meant for entertainment. But building such a directory would help young scientists meet established scientists, and help established scientists move into new fields where they don’t already have contacts.

In the meantime, the rise of this informal network of professional scientist groups makes it more clear than ever: in science, it matters who your friends are.

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