(This article was originally published in Nature.)

Elizabeth Bass’s job title doesn’t sound odd; she is the director of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  But what she does may strike you as challenging to say the least.  Founded in 2009 at the urging of Alan Alda, the Center for Communicating Science helps scientists become better communicators using, among other things, exercises in improvisational acting.

I’ve been fascinated by the notion of combining science communication and acting ever since Nobel Laureate John Mather told me how he thought studying acting had helped him succeed as a physicist.  So I jumped at the chance to interview Liz when I was visiting Stony Brook last fall.  I also wrote briefly about the Center for Communicating Science this summer, in an article about a contest they sponsored called the Flame Challenge.

Before taking on leadership of the Center for Communicating Science, Liz worked for 20 years as a journalist at Newsday, where she served as deputy national editor, deputy foreign editor, and health and science editor. She has also co-authored two books, Bioterrorism: A Guide for Hospital Preparedness, and KidsHealth Guide for Parents: Pregnancy to Age 5.

I had lots of questions for Liz, and our interview turned into a long conversation.  Here is an excerpt that I found surprising—about the essence of improvisational acting, and why acting exercises can be a challenge for scientists.

Marc:  Liz, tell me about the concept of teaching improvisational acting to scientists.

Liz:  That really came from Alan Alda, and it was based on his personal experience. He said that the only acting training he ever had was improvisation, and he felt it really transformed him as an actor and to some extent as a person. Of course, he had a lot of it.

We use a series of exercises that are based on the work of someone named Viola Spolin, who was a theater educator in the 40s and 50s in Chicago out of a school that then led to Second City. She did a lot of work not just with actors but also with teachers and school children, applying these exercises in different ways.

The basic idea of it is that it’s really an exercise in paying attention to the other person. A lot of it is about paying attention and trying to imagine what the other person is thinking. Focus on the other person, rather than on what you’re saying.

Marc:  Paying attention?

Liz:  Just to give you an example, some of the exercises are very simple and are almost purely like paying attention exercises. For instance, say you and I are doing one of these. You just start talking about anything. You’re talking about movies you saw—anything—and I just have to repeat your words as close to simultaneously as I can.

So basically, I’m looking at your mouth. I’m trying to imagine if you use a phrase, what the next word would be.

People get really good at this. It sounds almost like stereo. People can get so close, but it’s really mostly “Now I’m really paying attention to you in a different way.”

Or there’s very simple things like these mirror exercises.  Again, two people are facing each other. One person is moving, and the other person has to mirror their gestures. Then, the leader changes.

You can even tell people to close their eyes and see how closely they can mirror each other. You might say, “How can you mirror someone with your eyes closed?” It’s because you’ve been paying so much attention to them that you can imagine what they’re going to do next.  Sometimes it’s amazing how close people are.

Marc:  So the acting skills you’re teaching are all about listening and paying attention. That’s funny because you’d think scientists are all about observing nature. We should be good at paying attention! But, maybe we’re not. Maybe we’re not good at paying attention to people.

Liz:  That’s interesting. You would think you’d be. A certain kind of paying attention you’d think scientists would be very good at.

Obviously, there’s certain kinds of people that are particularly good at paying attention, like you would think an elementary school teacher might be really good. Nurses tend to be really good at this often, if they’re good nurses. This is what they do day in and day out: listen to people and try to make judgments about “how sick is this person really” from the way they’re talking.

I don’t know that scientists are necessarily worse [than average]. I do think from my experience, that especially with a lot of young scientists, they are schooled that they’re not supposed to be personal. They’re not supposed to bring much of themselves to the way they communicate.

Marc:  Right.

Liz:  I remember one student who—he was very good at our science communication classes—and he came back after a while and said how he had some presentation coming up and he had run through it as a trial run for his mentor. It was very good, but he was told he really needed to be drier. So, it was like he was applying too much of our stuff.

Marc:  Isn’t there a contradiction between improvising, which is making things up on the spot, and sending a message that you’ve already distilled?

Liz:  Well, improvising isn’t really making things up. You wouldn’t just make up something that wasn’t true. It’s really responding. The way we do it, it’s really responding to the other person and trying to pay attention to what they need and what they’re understanding. That can be very useful in an interview situation, because you’re more attuned to the person you’re talking to. You may perceive without them even saying anything when they’re not understanding you or when they may be misinterpreting what you say. Then, you can correct that or deal with it right on the spot.

It is a balance depending on the situation. For instance, if you were in an interview that was extremely sensitive, dealing with really controversial and sensitive material obviously, you might want to be more scripted, frankly. Scientists tend to think that the press is a lot more hostile than it is, and every interview is a disaster waiting to happen, and they’re going to be tripped up and tricked and that kind of thing. The vast majority of media interviews are not at all like that. They’re really friendly.



(This article was first published in Scientific American.)

This week, presidential candidate Mitt Romney got into hot water after made some remarks at a fundraiser attended by the wealthy that seemed to denigrate middle-class and poor Americans. Similarly, last week, Bill Nye released a frank video denouncing creationism that sent some religious viewers into a tizzy and prompted the Creation Museum to release their own video countering his message. Both of these public figures seemed to be addressing their base of supporters—not recognizing that everyone else could be watching.

I had a rousing discussion here in the blogosphere about these events, involving science bloggers Greg Laden and Justin Starr. Starr posed a question that got me thinking. In a world where nothing is off the record, and anything we do or say can suddenly appear on YouTube, what can we do to energize our base of supporters? How can we avoid making the same mistakes as Romney and Nye? It seems to me that we scientists have three winning options here, all borrowed from politics.

The first option for energizing science fans—and for crafting all our messages—is to stay positive. When politicians talk about “hope” and “change” and making a better life for the American people and so on, that’s what they are doing. It may sometimes feel generic, but it’s hard to criticize. Much of science communication works perfectly well in this mode—there’s typically nothing contentious about discovering a new kind of galaxy or learning how whale sharks migrate.

The second option is to craft a negative message doing your best to forecast the responses you’ll get from your opponents and tailoring your message to anticipate those responses. Taking this approach often means ratcheting up the emotional appeal. For example, in an effort to counter widespread childhood obesity and diabetes, the United States Department of Agriculture released new standards limiting the number of calories in a school lunch. Shortly thereafter, Representatives Steve King and Tim Huelskamp introduced a bill that would remove these limits, called the “no hungry kids” act. The name of this act, with its emotional appeal, illustrates this approach.

I argued that scientists could address rampant creationism with a video campaign modeled on the ad campaigns crafted by the anti-smoking lobby. I showed some example videos about the dangers of smoking that use music and child actors to speak to the heart of the viewer. This approach also exemplifies the second option; is hard to combat such an emotional appeal with any sort of logical argument.

A third option is to try to speak to multiple groups at once. Pundits commented that when Mitt Romney spoke of “life” “marriage” and “religious liberty” in Tampa this month, he subtly referenced the slogan of a conservative political group called the family research council. Romney placed each of the above terms at the end of successive sentences to make the reference less overt, yet still allow those involved in this political group to hear them. In politics, this technique is called a “dog whistle,” referring to a high-pitched sound audible to dogs but not to humans.

Scientists giving a colloquium sometimes use a similar technique. When you give a scientific colloquium, you general face a diverse audience: a mix of experts and non-experts.  To keep the experts entertained while introducing your material in such a way that the non-experts can understand it, we sometimes use what are called “depth spikes”. A depth spike is a kind of side comment made using the jargon of the field.  E.g. “For those of you who work on photochemistry, this trend is equivalent to the Stark-Einstein law.”

It may seem restrictive to be forced into these three modes of communicating. Perhaps scientists should always be candid and unfettered by political concerns. Or perhaps the free flow of information that underlies this trend could ultimately serve science. Science is about uncovering the truth, and open communication helps the truth come out faster.

Either way, I’m pretty sure there is no turning back; in the age of the Internet, what seems like it should be private often isn’t, and we must adapt. When scientists enter the public arena, we must remember the Romney gaff, the Climategate scandal and the reaction to Bill Nye’s video. We are all politicians now.



Last week, I was lucky to have the opportunity to pick the brain of communications expert Partick Donadio. Instead of having an abstract conversation on the topic of communicating science. I decided to ask him about a concrete example: Bill Nye’s recent video called “Bill Nye: Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children”. Patrick provided for us a thoughtful dissection of Nye’s speech. In a later interview, Bill Nye used some of the techniques Donadio described, as Patrick and I were gratified to see.

In writing the article about Nye and Donadio, I plunged into a engrossing debate about how we scientists should respond to the creationist movement. Through blogs and comments on Google+, I heard from evolution advocates enamoured with Donadio’s approach: trying to understand those who are on the fence about the issue to better pull them to our side through empathy, storytelling, and conversation. I also heard from scientific thinkers ready to draw a line in the sand, as Nye did in his video, and engage creationists in verbal battle.

I’d like to take a moment and respond to some of the comments I heard, and throw out a challenge to the more eager evolution advocates. I believe that if you intend to mount an effective campaign against vocal creationists, the only option is modern marketing. If you support a direct verbal attack on the ideals of the young-Earth movement, as Kyle Hill clearly does, I would like to challenge you to film an anti-creationist video with the marketing punch of the top anti-smoking videos, like this one, above.

Marketing. Because in Today’s World, the Content Dictates The Audience

There was a discussion and disagreement about who the intended audience of Nye’s video was. Greg Laden suggested that it was intended to convince the “casual creationist”. Others, like Justin Starr, suggested that the video was intended to rally the base of evolution advocates, and thereby help shift the political center of the debate, the “Overton Window”. A debate blossomed over which end of the belief spectrum was most important to address, and about how hard a line we must draw.

One premise of the debate seemed to be that one could effectively make one video (Nye style) to energize the base of fervent evolution advocates, and perhaps a different video (Donadio style) to recruit new evolution advocates by coaxing the undecided. As Justin Starr put it, “If the video was heard by the intended listener, he/she would not be offended.”

However, I must insist that this is not how communication works in the age of the internet. Routing a video to a particular audience simply by deciding how accommodating your stance will be is not possible. As Laden acknowledged, placing a video on YouTube, as Nye did, makes it viewable to everyone: the base, the creationists, and everyone in between. Indeed, even if Nye hadn’t placed the video on YouTube himself, someone else would likely have done it for him—and it would still have ended up on CNN for all the world to see.

Instead, in today’s internet-driven world, the content itself dictates the audience. It’s not about whom you send a video to; it’s about who feels compelled to watch. If the video isn’t intriguing and exciting to the viewer in the first few seconds, the viewer just surfs away, and argument doesn’t get heard, whether it is an accommodating plea or a blunt diatribe.

So instead of focusing on how accommodating or adamant we need to be, I would like us science communicators to try our hands at devising a heart-stopping marketing campaign for the theory of evolution. Let me explain what I mean.

Science Marketing Lessons from the Anti-Smoking Lobby

Marketing is the craft of understanding and meeting the needs and wants of your audience—like the desire of YouTube watchers to be moved or entertained. Donadio’s communication tools are part of the marketing toolkit; so is “framing” of science. A good marketing campaign, like a political campaign, ensures that your intended audience receives your message and anticipates that your opponents will also receive your message.

We need good marketing to confront savvy creationists like the folks at the Creation Museum. Maybe Bill Nye is not a businessman, as Kyle Hill proposed. But I would venture that Creation Museum CEO Ken Ham is. So to better compete for space in people’s minds, I believe we scientists should no longer eschew the use of business concepts like marketing to further our causes.

There is a growing number of videos about science that demonstrate successful marketing: they draw in their audience using music, irony, animations, rhymes, humor, sex, real life stories. Then they infect viewers with scientific knowledge. Marine biologist-turned filmmaker Randy Olsen has written at length about this kind of videomaking: appealing to the heart, the gut, and the groin. One of my favorite examples of science marketing is the Large Hadron Collider rap video; it’s so catchy, I still find myself singing it in the shower.

Some science marketing videos even draw a line hard enough to satisfy the most vigorous anti-creationist. Some science marketing videos shock and terrify their audience, or aggressively paint opponents as liars. I’m talking about the best videos by anti-smoking lobby: videos that present the medical science of smoking hazards in an unforgettable way, while gluing your eyes to the screen.

Take a look at the stirring anti-smoking video from Thailand (above) that aims right at the heart. It’s analogous to Nye’s video in a way: it’s about teaching smoking to your children. But unlike Nye’s video, it lets the children themselves do the talking, with moving results. Can we summon this kind of emotional impact in a video about evolution?

Or if you’re eager to go negative and you have a taste for ironic humor, you might prefer to use this anti-smoking video (below) as a model. It features dancing big tobacco execs and bloody surgical scenes set to carnival music. This video targets the teen audience in particular, capitalizing on their distaste for insincerity. Teens are often undecided about their religious beliefs, so they are also an important audience for videos marketing the theory of evolution.

Granted, the creationism issue is trickier in many ways than the smoking issue; it’s more abstract, and it involves the touchy subject of religion. But if you feel strongly about battling the intellectual threat of unfettered Biblical literalism, I dare you to make your own creative, unforgettable anti-creationist video that lives up to the anti-smoking lobby efforts, and post it on YouTube.

I have one last comment today on the topic of marketing, creationism and cigarettes. All successful anti-smoking advertisements are created using a basic marketing principle: people don’t change their minds just because you tell them to change. To quote thetruth.com: “Tell someone not to do something and they will. Don’t read the next sentence. See what we mean? We’re not here to tell people not to smoke, because, well, it doesn’t work.”

For me, that was the essence of Patrick Donadio’s message for us scientists on the matter of creationism. Don’t tell people not to smoke, because it doesn’t work. But with some marketing savvy, you can fight Big Creationism and win.


(This article was first published in Scientific American)

Have you seen the new video by Bill Nye called “Creationism is not appropriate for children”? The video simply shows Nye standing in front of a white background and speaking, for two minutes, thirty seconds. Yet almost three million people watched it on YouTube, and many discussed it on YouTube and Facebook. Some folks are cheering on Bill Nye for his sharp dismissal of the creationist viewpoint in favor of modern science. Others find fault with his take on the issue, disagreeing, or accusing him of talking down to his audience.

When I watched the video myself, I cringed. I was pretty sure that the video would do nothing for those who don’t believe in evolution but turn them away. However, I suspected that as an astrophysicist, my views on the subject could be somewhat limited. So I showed the video to business communication specialist Patrick Donadio to get his take on it and learn what I could about how we who support the teaching of evolution can be more effective communicators.

Patrick Donadio, MBA, is a professional speaker and a communications coach to the leaders of Fortune 500 companies. He has received his Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) designation from the National Speakers Association (NSA), a designation earned by less than 8% of NSA’s worldwide members. His book, Communicating with IMPACT, will be coming out next summer. One of Patrick’s specialties is helping people adapt their styles of communication to match their audiences.

MK: Patrick, can you sum up what you do in a sentence or two?

PD: Since 1986, I have been teaching and coaching leaders and their organizations to improve their presentation and verbal communication skills, enhance their credibility, deepen relationships, and boost performance and profits.

MK:  Woah! That was a mouthful. OK, let’s start with some of the things Bill Nye clearly did well in his video.

PD:  First of all, it is obvious he knows how to work the camera. You can tell he’s been on TV before, because he makes good eye contact.  He talks to the listener by talking to the camera.  He uses voice inflection and overall he appears professional.  Also in his content he uses an example, a quote and even a question, all good ways to engage the audience.  These are some of the areas he is doing well.  I would say that in the first twenty seconds he did a nice job of pulling me in.

Patrick Donadio

Patrick Donadio

MK: Now, how would you improve this video, or make a better one?

PD:  I would be careful of the language you choose.  He said, “…your world view just becomes crazy…” Even though he didn’t call me crazy or call you crazy, people may start to think, “What, are you saying I’m crazy because I don’t believe in evolution?” So I would say, be careful of the language you use, especially if it might insult the listener.

But more importantly, think about the tone.  He is trying to convince the viewer with what I call a “push” message.  I would encourage him to shift it to more of a “pull” message.

MK: Pull instead of push. What does that mean?

PD: Instead of pushing people towards the sides [of the issue], I would try to pull them into the conversation. I might ask some rhetorical questions to get them to think about why they feel the way they do. Instead Bill is pushing out information, for example “if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it.”

He could say, “Scientific recent research shows us that we have evolved. I encourage you to explore this concept deeper.  When you’re talking with your kids, I encourage you to allow them to discuss the issue with you and have a healthy dialogue.”

It is my belief that you can’t change someone’s opinion by trying to force—push—them to change. You can change their view by inviting—pulling—them to change. Winston Churchill once said. “I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like to be taught.”

MK: That makes sense.

PD: He says in the video what happens when you don’t believe in evolution. “Your world becomes complicated when you don’t believe in evolution”.  But when you’re trying to convince somebody, it’s might be more helpful to say what happens when you do believe.

He might have said, “I want to encourage you to explore the concept that there is some truth to the idea of evolution.  I don’t necessarily want to convince you today that you have to stop believing in creationism, rather to invite you today to be open the idea that evolution does exist. I don’t want to change you today; I want to challenge you to explore this concept a little deeper.” That’s a pull, verses a push.

MK: I like that: “I don’t want to change you, I want to challenge you”.

PD:  Also some of his premises are faulty. Like his suggestion that you can’t be an engineer if you are a creationist. Well, I’m not sure that’s true.  Many of his points are not really going to help convince me if I’m on the other side, because I’m finding a lot of holes in his examples.  So who is his real audience?  What is his intent for this video?  These are two important questions to answer as your craft your message.

Let’s say there’s a continuum of beliefs around this issue. There are those people in the middle that you might be able to attract and of course, you have “either/ors” on sides of the continuum ; the creationists on one side and evolutionists on the other. The people in the middle have the potential for an “and/and” shift on this issue.  You might be able to influence them.  If we can move people from “either/or” to and/and, that would be a smaller move.  This is a challenge sometimes for scientists, because many times scientists think in terms of black and white, “either/or”.

MK: I see, so you first try to take people to where they might consider that the science and their religious beliefs might be consistent and co-exist.  Did you like that quote from Carl Sagan?

PD: A quote is good. But maybe this is not the best quote for his cause.

MK: Of course he quoted a scientist. I think if I were doing this video I would quote from a religious figure.  Maybe from the Bible?

PD: Yes if you found a supportive quote that worked.  His quote [from Carl Sagan] “When you’re in love you want to tell the world,” doesn’t really support his cause because someone on the other side could use this argument against him, For example, “Yes, I believe in creationism and want to tell the world about it.”

He could have also used an example or story of how a similar situation may have happened in the past.  For example, Galileo and his theory of how the earth revolved around the sun.  At the time many did not believe him and over time we have come to learn that this was in fact true.

MK: So if I could sum things up, Patrick, you suggested that you could improve the video by being careful with language, by asking questions, by explaining in positive language why you should consider believing in evolution, by using quotes from people your audience already trusts, by offering analogies or stories and by allowing for the possibility that both sides of the issue could be considered at once—for those people in the middle.

PD: And by understanding that changing peoples opinions is a process, not an event.  If Bill Nye’s real intent was to convince people about evolution, then he has to look at this as a process.  If he is thinking that in two minutes he’s going to do it–that’s “event” thinking.  Don’t think “event,” think “process”.  It takes time to influence people’s opinions.



(This piece was originally published in Scientific American)

When I speak to scientists about marketing, I like to say how important it is to “keep it real”.   Pardon me while I say that again in business-speak. I like to emphasize the importance of developing long-term relationships with your customers. That means being as honest as possible about what you can do for your customers, and it means doing work with transparent integrity and clear lasting value.

Space ShuttleWell, I used to take it for granted that scientists met this standard automatically. What could be more “real” and honest than scientific research? But when I interviewed former Congressman Robert Walker about his experiences as chair of the House Science Committee, he told me about some mistakes NASA made back in the 1970s and 1980s that damaged the relationship between NASA and Congress. His stories illustrate why it’s crucial for us to keep it real as we communicate with Congress and other customers for our scientific work.

Of course, building relationships means taking risks, like the risk that people won’t want what you have to offer. And there’s nowhere that the risks seem higher than on the floor of Congress. Walker’s stories show why marketing science at these high levels calls for a rare kind of guts and confidence.

This is an excerpt from a long interview. The first half of the interview is published here.

MK:  Robert, earlier on you were starting to tell me a story about NASA, and how it has lost some of its credibility.  It was about the space shuttle, and how NASA proposed to fly the space shuttle 53 times in a year.

RW:  Yeah. NASA, when they were first getting the approval of the space shuttle, wanted to show the Congress that they were capable of reducing the costs of going to low-earth orbit. That was the whole premise behind the shuttle, that you would have a reusable vehicle that thereby we cut down the cost of launching expendable launch vehicles. So in order to prove their case they had to have a significant number of flights each year so they could say that the cost per flight then is low. But they gave us numbers that had the shuttle flight more than once a week, and no one on The Hill believed them. We would say to them, “You have seven shuttles. How in the world are seven shuttles going to fly more than once a week?”

Oh, they assured us they had three bays for processing them, and they could take them over to the vertical assembly building and put them up on that and hustle them out to the two pads they had on the launch. They would be firing these things off all the time.

When you saw the complexity of the system that was involved, when you saw that there were literally dozens of points of catastrophic failure that were inherent in the system, it just wasn’t believable.

My point is that in those instances science and technologists lose their credibility with the Congress because we know that we’re being scammed. We know that this is an attempt to make budget numbers work–to survive the political process rather than making the system entirely believable and acceptable. NASA has paid a huge penalty for that over the years.

Space StationThe original proposal for the space station was to build it for $8.5 billion, but it cost $100 billion. Now, that wasn’t all NASA’s fault. Congress contributed mightily to that. We used to have a staff member in the Appropriations Committee that would redesign the Space Station every year. He would add a few things to it, subtract a few things. Well, of course, you don’t just do that in a system that complex.

MK:  Right.

RW:  And so you stretched out the time that it took to build it at enormous cost. It’s a combination of things, but NASA’s fiscal credibility has been badly damaged over the years with an attitude that says, well if we start it, they’ll build it. And they’ll give us the money that we need to do what we want, even though we know we don’t have the money at the beginning. And with people who have to justify that spending over a period of time, that’s not an acceptable path.

MK:  Do you think that this incident with NASA hurt the reputation of scientists in general?

RW:  Well, no. I think it hurt NASA and it hurt some scientists, but it probably exists in the back of people’s minds as one more place where we have to be careful. But I’m not certain that that in itself was a major credibility problem, but you put that together with a series of things…For the whole 20 years I was in the Congress, the guys at the High Energy Physics Lab at Princeton would come in and testify to us that, just give us a few hundred more million dollars, and we’ll get there. We’re 20 years off. They were 20 years off when I got there; they were 20 years off when I left. In the meantime, we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the project.

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Tokamak

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Tokamak

Now, is this [cost-effectively generating energy through controlled nuclear fusion] a tough thing to do? Absolutely, and I think Congress believes even if it’s always 20 years off it’s an investment worth making, because if it can ever be done it would be revolutionary.

But the testimony itself before the Congress lacks a lot of credibility, because it’s just kind of an ongoing sore spot with the Congress to be told, well it’s 20 years off. You get out in 20 years, and then it’s still 20 years off.

MK:  The problem remains, though, the time scale is 20 years.  It takes 20 years to find out that it wasn’t really going to be 20 years.

RW:  Twenty years. No, no. But meantime, Congress is being told, well, we only have this much more money. We’ll get there in 20 years. And I think scientists need to say, we don’t know when the endpoint is on this. We’re doing basic science here–and the whole point of doing basic science is you don’t know where it’s going to take you–but here are the potentials. Now, do you want to invest in this kind of basic science and move us forward in this field and have world leadership in a field that has revolutionary potential or not? They run the risk that the answer to that will be “or not”.

I just happen to think that scientists need to be much more honest inside the process about just what the hurdles are that they’re facing in all of this. That they have to regard the people who actually have to raise the money and spend the money as being skeptics.

And to those skeptics, and particularly to skeptics who actually are skeptical because they want to be advocates, it really hurts them to have the cost and the schedule mis-portrayed.

MK:  How do you know when someone in Congress is being skeptical because he wants to be an advocate?

RW:  You don’t.


(This article was originally published in Scientific American)

Scientists are aloof and socially inept. That seems to be part of the message of the video that won the Flame Challenge, a science communication contest run by the Center for Communicating Science. The winning video, made by Ben Ames, was just announced on June 2 at the World Science Festival in New York.

What is a Flame from Ben Ames on Vimeo.

The Flame Challenge, launched with help from Alan Alda, dared scientists and educators to submit videos explaining what a flame is—a subtle concept touching on many subfields of physics and chemistry. What set this contest apart from other science communication contests is that the judges were roughly 6000 11-year old students at 130 schools.

I was enthralled by the premise of the contest and by its surefire mix of schoolchildren and celebrity. I was dazzled by the top entries and the video and music skills on display; more than 800 contestants from 31 countries participated.  It was only after my third time watching the winning entry that I realized something was amiss.

The winning entry, an animated video, shows a prisoner chained to a wall in a room full of flames that threaten to engulf him. Then a voice says, “Hello, I am a scientist. And I’ve come to improve your situation just a bit.” But then, without helping him escape or cool down, without empathizing with the prisoner’s pain in any way, the scientist launches into a theoretical explanation of what flames are. This cruel, aloof scientist is such a familiar character that he comes across as funny. The prisoner gets to eat a cupcake at the end of the video–but by then the damage is done.

Now, I appreciate that in a short animated film, the characters must be broad. But I’m concerned that this video propagates the very stereotypes of scientists we’ve been trying to replace, like the socially inept nerds of CBS’s “Big Bang Theory” or the heartless mad scientists of countless Hollywood movies. These standard characters may entertain, but their repetition could also damage the appeal of scientific pursuits at a time when the world economy demands a boost from technological advances.

I have to wonder: what does it mean that 11-year olds preferred this film? Maybe it means that they are already familiar with the stereotype of the socially inept scientist—a crisis we must learn to deal with. And what does it mean that scientists like Ames, a Ph.D. student in quantum optics, feel compelled to reach for self-parody in an effort to communicate with children?  It is healthy to laugh at ourselves, and humility is good marketing practice. But I can’t picture a video about a sports event, for example, making light of the star athletes the way this video makes fun of scientists.

The contest had five other finalists besides Ames. These entries were not all videos; some were simple written explanations or static cartoons.  But though some of the other finalists used animation or comedy, with actors playing clowning oxygen atoms for example, none of the other finalists seem to rely on the nerdy/mad scientist trope to hold the audience’s interest.

I applaud the Center for Communicating Science and Alan Alda for holding this brave and ground-breaking contest, and I congratulate all the winners.  It is not their fault, after all, that 11-year olds have a taste for nerdy, cold scientist characters. I’m looking forward to the contest’s second year, hoping that it will uncover more new ways to excite students about science.


Congressman Robert Walker represented Pennsylvania in the United States House of Representatives as a Republican from 1977 to 1997. He’s has taken an interest in helping scientists understand Congress, and he invited me to his marble office building on K Street in Washington DC to interview him. That’s what I am lucky enough to offer you today.

During his time in the House, Walker served as Chief Deputy Whip, Vice Chairman of the Budget Committee, Chairman of the Republican Leadership and Speaker Pro Tempore. But most crucially for us, Walker was Chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology, then called the Science Committee. In these roles, Walker worked to reduce government spending overall, but at the same time advocated more spending on the space program, weather research, hydrogen research, and earthquake programs.  He proposed to consolidate into a single department the National Science Foundation, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Patent and Trademark Office, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and several small research groups–and create a Cabinet post for science. Walker’s name was circulated as a possible NASA administrator following the 2004 resignation of Sean O’Keefe.

Walker now works as a lobbyist at Wexler and Walker. His particular interest is in the private space industry; he sits on the boards of the Aerospace Corporation, Space Adventures and SpaceDev. Walker holds a B.S. in Education from Millersville University and an M.A. in Political Science. The walls of his office are covered with framed pictures of himself with various NASA officials and astronauts.

Sean O'Keefe

Former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.

I’ve divided the interview into two parts.  In this first part, I focus on asking Robert questions that I think would be useful for scientists interacting with Congress.  In the second part, Robert talks about long-term relationships between Congress and scientists.

MK:  Congressman Walker, you have a long record of supporting science and technology. What compelled you to devote such a large part of your career towards this goal?

RW:  [laughs] I got assigned to the Committee.

MK:  Yes. [laughs]

RW:  No, literally that’s true. I mean I didn’t go to Congress with the idea of being a science advocate or a technology advocate. I went with the idea of pursuing a broad general issues agenda, and I got assigned to the Science and Technology Committee as a freshman Congressman and found it to be a fascinating assignment, that it gave me a chance to look over the horizon for a decade or more. If you came like I do from a political science background, what you did was assess where that science was taking the culture potentially. Then you could put that together with what that impact might have on society and on politics and so on.

So I found it fascinating and as a result began to devote a lot of time and attention to a variety of science issues, a lot of them surrounding the space program but also energy programs. Like I became an advocate for moving to a hydrogen economy and then pursued a lot of technological programs as well. I found it to be fascinating, and it became a major of mine in the Congress over a 20-year period then.

MK:  So it was completely random?

RW:  Yup. There’s a Committee of people that assigned people to Committees, and they made a determination that they would assign me to the Science and Technology Committee. I didn’t go there with the idea that I was going to spend a huge amount of time there, but I got deeply involved in the work almost instantly upon arriving at the Committee and stayed for the whole 20 years I was there.

MK:  Did they look at your background and was there something that …

RW:  No, no. They needed to fill slots. I’ve told people that I have science teachers and professors who are rolling over in their graves thinking I had anything at all to do with the science policy of the country because…

MK:  Oh, I doubt it.

RW:  No, but it was not one of my best subjects in school. I did OK, but it was not something that I excelled in. I wasn’t much into theorems and algorithms and all that in high school and college. But, on the other hand, I got a pretty good graduate education in science as a result of the work that I did in the Congress.

MK:  I bet.

RW:  And as a result began to understand some of the meaning behind some of the stuff that I didn’t pay much attention to when I was doing it academically.

MK:  Fantastic.  Now, some scientists may have the impression that Republicans in general are not supportive of science. You are a clear counter-example to that.  But what would you say to this accusation?

RW:  Well, I think it’s often based upon kind of singular subject areas. Scientists who are in favor of the use of abortion in our society view pro-life Scientists or pro-life Republicans as antithetical to the whole thing of science. Stem cells got into that kind of argument and so on. I always point out to people that for all the complaining that was done about George Bush in the stem cell debate, that fact is he preserved it. That we were on the verge of having Congress overthrow all stem cell research when George Bush stepped in with a compromise and allowed the Federal Government to continue to do stem cell research in addition to what was being done in the private sector.

But for many scientists, it wasn’t the whole hog. So therefore, they said that Republicans were anti-science. The same thing has been true in the climate science. There are lots of people who have devoted their scientific careers to the study of climate change and view Republicans who are skeptical, or at least in my case feel that there are still questions to be answered before we do major public policy decisions tied to a climate change science, that is anti?science.

Newt Gingrich

Congressman Newt Gingrich

On the other hand they ought to take a look at the fact that when Newt Gingrich and I gained power in the Congress in 1995, one of the things that we did was preserve science budgets despite the fact that we made significant budget cuts across the board and so on.

Newt really assigned me to the Budget Committee, made me Vice Chairman of the Budget Committee, so that the Budget Committee did not touch science programs. In fact we expanded science programs. In the case of the National Institutes of Health over a five?year period we doubled their budget.

So there are those of us who are genuinely pro-science and who believe that the investment in science and technology will define our ability to maintain world leadership during the twenty-first century.

MK:  The whole compromising and bargaining aspect of politics is something that’s foreign to many scientists.

RW:  But scientists make those same kind of judgments. Scientists, when they do the peer review process, select some things and reject others. They say they do it on the merits. Well, the same thing is true in the legislative realm. When we’re making budget decisions, it’s not that we’re necessarily against the things that we don’t fund and so on. It’s just that they’re not the highest priority at that point. So scientists inside the scientific method do some of that same balancing, and yet they see themselves as dealing in absolutes at times rather than in dealing with a shaping of varieties. And the other thing that we tend to forget is that the fundamental basis of our democracy in the United States is adversarial. The Constitution was set up by the forefathers as an adversarial document.

They set up three branches of government, all of which are to have an adversarial relationship. They set up two houses of Congress. The two houses of Congress, the Senate and the House, hate each other. Now not at a personal level, but they are institutionally incompatible. The forefathers wanted it that way because they did not want an easy exercise of power.

So we have an adversarial system, and then you pile political philosophies and parties on top of the adversarial nature of our Constitution, and it requires compromise in order to achieve an end. This idea that somehow we can all wrap our arms around each other and sing “Kumbaya” on every national policy that comes down the pike is total mythology.

There is always going to be the need to find the strain of things that allows for an ultimate compromise, and those are not always going to be satisfactory compromises even to the people who fashion them.

There were many times in Congress that legislation went somewhat in the direction that I wanted to go, and so therefore I voted for it because it was headed in the right direction. But was every piece of it something that I endorsed? No, because it was a part of the compromise process that got us there.

MK:  As a Congressman, what’s it like interacting with scientists? When do you see scientists in your office, and what are they like? What impression do they make?

RW:  Well, a lot of the interaction I’ve had with scientists came as a result of Committee activities and so on. Some of it was instituted by them, and others of it was instituted by me. If I came up against a question where I wanted good advice and so on, I knew as a member of Congress and particularly when I became a senior member of the Science Committee, that virtually every major scientist in the world was at my disposal. If I called them up as a member of the Science Committee or as ranking member or as Chairman of the Science Committee, they were going to take my call and they were going to tell me what they knew about it. So some of it was instituted at that level.

But in general I think the main problem between Scientists and Congressmen is that Congressmen have this wide panoply of interests that they have to deal with. The particular work of a scientist in a fairly narrow stream fit into that somewhere but was not the be-all to end-all of the Congressman’s consideration.

He has money considerations. He has policy considerations. He has foreign policy considerations. He has all kinds of things that he’s blending into that information stream that he’s getting from the scientist.

The scientist on the other hand wants him to put all of that aside and say, “This is really vital” and so on. In his perspective it is, and it should be. But members of Congress do have to weigh a lot of different areas in order to make a judgment about things.

MK:  What’s the biggest mistake you’ve seen a scientist make when addressing you or when addressing members of Congress?

RW:  Oh, gee. I’m sure there was something along the lines. There were people from the science community who came in and were fairly arrogant in the way in which they approached the Congress. Like “I’m smarter than you are. I have a Nobel Prize.” Or “I’m the superior person here in the room,” and it came across very, very clearly in a hearing. Members of Congress don’t react very well to that. He may well be the smartest guy in the room, but his job at that point is to take the rest of us who may not be as smart and make us smart enough to be able to make a good judgment.

MK:  How about what’s the best thing that you’ve seen a scientist do before congress?  Tell me about the scientist who really impressed you.

RW:  They were usually people who had a genuine excitement about their work and then could translate it into layman’s terms. They brought a storyline with them if you will. They came across as really committed to what they were doing and really excited about the potential of what they were doing. So that generally came across very, very well in the Congress.

MK: Can you give me an example of someone in particular?

Neil Tyson

Scientist Neil Tyson

RW:  Again, I don’t remember particular personalities that were good at that. Just off the top of my head I’m not coming up with somebody that I can point out. One of the guys who’s around right now who is really good at this, and I don’t remember him testifying before Congress but he’s really, really, really good at it, is Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil is just fabulous at taking science concepts, boiling them down in a way that the general public and politicians can understand it.

MK:  What does he do that’s so compelling?

RW:  Well, for one thing he loves his subject. I remember when we were doing the Aerospace Commission, where we went down to a Conference Center down here in Virginia that’s owned by the government. We’d finished dinner and it was dark out. I was walking back alone and so on, and I came back. Here was Neil. He had members of the Commission and the staff sitting on the steps of one the buildings and so on. He had a segment of the sky, and he was pointing out. He was telling all the stories of the mythologies, the stars, what part of the galaxy they were, how far out they were, and all of this kind of stuff and so on. He was excited about it and so on, and he was putting it in story terms and so on.  The group was just absolutely enthralled by it.

That’s just neat. That’s who he is. When we talk about astronomy being a basic science, there’s a guy who takes basic science and makes it so exciting that people are standing and cheering at the end of it.

MK:  So let’s say you were a scientist, and you were planning to make a pilgrimage to D.C. and go have your 15-minute meeting with your representative. How would you make a good impression?

RW:  Well, first of all to recognize that most members of Congress don’t serve on Committees that have a science orientation. So you have to make the presentation in a form that is understandable to a guy who is not going to be looking at the subject matter in any depth. Congressmen just don’t have the bandwidth in order to do things in depth. So if you want to get it across take your best punch line–what it is you’d like to see as the end product, why you think it’s important–and then be excited about the fact that if Congress actually did it, that it would make a difference.

That’s what members of Congress want to hear. They don’t want to hear about the bench tests. They don’t need a lesson in all of the physics theories or chemical theories that go into it. What they need to know is why it’s important, what needs to be done in order to bring it to fruition, and why that would be an exciting outcome.

MK:  In her book, Cornelia Dean encourages scientists to work with politicians while they are campaigning.  Have any scientists worked with you while you were campaigning?

RW:  Yeah, they did. I’m trying to think. The answer is yes, but they were campaign volunteers. They did campaign stuff. They weren’t really advancing their science agenda when they were out doing this.

MK:  Do you think that’s potentially a way to influence a policy maker’s agenda?

RW:  Oh, sure. Anything that you do that builds a personal relationship with a policy maker gives you access to be able to have more effect on him. So yeah. Insofar as there’s an opportunity to build personal relationships, those are good things to do.

MK:   What do you think about scientists running for Congress?

Congressman Rush Holt

Congressman Rush Holt

RW:  Well, there’s some open to that. Rush Holt, Vern Ehlers. There are a couple of good science Ph.D’s. who may do it. But it’s a very different kind of profession than most scientists are used to pursuing. It is a commitment that leaves you little time for pursuing science, once you’re there because it’s just a commitment to a constituency and a commitment to the time schedules of the Congressman is a 24-hour-a day, 7-day-a-week enterprise. You literally are on call all the time in Congress.

MK:  Do you think scientists could do it? I mean could Neil do it? He probably could.

RW:  Neil could be a great politician if he wanted to.


I spoke to Congressman Robert Walker as a private citizen.  Tune in next week for the second half of the interview!


The original version of this article appeared in The Scientist magazine.

A group of researchers led by Stanford University neuroscientist Brian Knutson ran an experiment in 2007 to study how shoppers decide what to buy. Their discoveries startled me and left me wondering: how do scientists make decisions?

fMRI machineKnutson’s team placed experimental subjects in front of a computer screen in an fMRI scanner and had them engage in a kind of online shopping simulation. The scanner showed that a brain region called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) lit up when the subjects saw enticing images of products for sale. Then another region called the insula would glow when the subjects saw high prices on the screen. The NAcc is a reward center. The insula is involved in processing pain, anger, and fear.

Remarkably, the experimenters found that they could predict whether the subjects would purchase a given product simply by comparing the relative activation of these centers. The shoppers’ brains held an internal battle: NAcc vs. insula. If the NAcc won, they bought. If the insula won, they refrained.

This study got me thinking about how scientists make decisions when we are “shopping” among our peers for grant proposals to fund and young scientists to hire. What happens when you are sitting on a committee and you read a new funding proposal? At first, perhaps, you enjoy the stimulating new ideas and colorful figures. Then your thoughts may turn to matters related to your job security: could this research contradict my own findings? What will my colleagues think about my comments on this work?

We scientists often like to imagine that our decision-making is purely rational. But experiments like Knutson’s suggest that decision-making is essentially emotional. When we are deciding what research to support, I suspect we weigh emotional rewards and costs, just like the subjects in those studies.

Now call me crazy, but if scientists really do make decisions the same way Knutson’s experimental subjects did—NAcc vs. insula—then I think we can apply these concepts to marketing our work to our peers.  For example, I like to talk about three kinds of figures all scientists need to market their work.  You can use these figures when writing a paper, giving a job talk, or preparing a grant proposal—to help you appeal to the right parts of your colleagues’ emotional brains.

The first is what I call the beautiful butterfly figure: an image that is as eye-catching as possible, like the pictures on the cover of Nature or Scientific American. These images don’t need to communicate anything quantitative; they serve to stimulate your NAcc. As shown by another Stanford study exploring the gambling styles of men who had just been shown erotic images, people whose NAccs are stimulated tend to take risks, and might be primed to impulsively buy a magazine—or fund a new research group.

The second figure is the family portrait. These figures display the interconnected work of many research teams on one plot or diagram. The goal of the family portrait figure is to relax the insula. It shows something safe and familiar and conveys respect for the community. Maybe it even cites the work of someone on the review panel, appealing to his need for job security.

And finally, I like to say that every proposal needs a Jenny Craig figure. Like advertisements for a diet plan, these images compare and contrast the state of the art before and after the proposed work is completed. They illustrate precisely what the proposed work will achieve, so your customer can see what he or she is buying.

Do you buy the idea that scientists make decisions based on emotions? After your insula battles your NAcc, let me know what you decide.  Or better yet—if you have access to an fMRI and some willing scientist friends, please try the experiment and tell me what you find.


This article was originally published in Optics and Photonics News.

Have you ever wished you could know what your colleagues think when they look at your website? I have.Robert Vanderbei's Website

I know from experience that our peers judge us partly by our presence on the Web. Hiring committees often search online to learn more about job candidates, and review panels use our sites to help decide whether to fund us.

So with some help from my friends I did an experiment to learn a bit more about what our colleagues look for in a website. I organize a Facebook group called Marketing for Scientists, where scientists, engineers, and other interested professionals discuss issues related to science communication, science advocacy, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. I suggested to the group that we take turns examining each other’s websites and critiquing them. Altogether, 26 people volunteered. They were a mix of faculty and postdocs, with a few science communication professionals thrown in.

I made a list of all the websites, and I emailed everyone with assignments. I asked each volunteer to review three URLs. I instructed them to play with each site for a minute or so and then to write a few sentences about what they liked and didn’t like. I asked them to address the following questions:

  • What impression does the site give about the person who made it?
  • Does the site make you want to find a way to work with him/her?
  • How could the site be improved?

At first I was worried that there would be no responses. If you’ve ever organized a meeting or a review panel of scientists, you know how hard it can be to stir our kind into collective action. But then a few eager folks sent in their critiques, initiating a chain reaction. Soon my inbox was flooded, and the constructive criticisms provided a wealth of information and some real surprises.

The Basics

First, I heard a cry for more basic information. Andras Paszternak, a chemist at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the founder of The International NanoScience Community social network, suggested that scientists place an email address on their home page. In today’s world of social networking, it’s easy to forget about good old-fashioned email, but this mode of communication is still vital.

Next, I heard a broad demand for more images and video. “I would supplement your homepage with more graphical things,” said Robert Vanderbei, chair of the department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton. “Please use some color and/or pictures,” said Stella Kafka from the Carnegie Institute of Washington’s department of terrestrial magnetism.

Now, many of us recognize the importance of images—but forget the captions. We have photos of things that are important to us but unidentifiable to those who visit our sites! “Nice photo. Is it decoration? Art? Should it have a caption? Are we supposed to guess what it is?” asked Nancy Morrison, professor emerita of astronomy at the University of Toledo. I heard that sentiment several times: Please post descriptive captions that every scientist can understand.

Passion and Generosity

So far, you might have the impression that we were merely proofreading each other’s sites. But one element multiple reviewers asked for caught me by surprise. If I could to summarize it in a word, it would be passion.

“Maybe the homepage could include your personal motivation,” suggested Phil Yock, a professor in the department of physics at the University of Aukland. “I really like to know what scientists are passionate about, so I’d love to see a short write-up of what fascinates you the most about the universe.” That comment was from Emilie Lorditch, news director and manager at the American Institute of Physics.

The other feedback that really touched my heart was expressed well by Yale astronomy professor Debra Fischer. “I was impressed that you offer Powerpoint slides, poster presentations and tools/data from your papers: It’s generous and collaborative and makes me want to follow your example,” she said. Generosity: that’s not a value that was emphasized when I was in graduate school. But science has evolved since then, and in today’s collaborative environment, it seems to be a sought- after trait. That generous site, by John Debes at the Space Telescope Science Institute, is chock full of free tools and Powerpoint slides that send a warm message of science-y love.

Next time I’m up late tweaking my website, I’ll know just what to post: Full contact information with an email address on the homepage; video and pictures with descriptive captions; a passionate written description of my research; and generous freebies that my colleagues can download.

But there’s something else I learned from this experiment. There’s another kind of website that can be a powerful way to interact with our colleagues: It was, after all, a Facebook group that made this experiment possible.

Sucessful Websites at Every Level


This article was originally published in Scientific American.

In magazine reporting (and maybe science blogging), they say three events suffice to indicate a trend. So let me announce a new trend: popular entertainers are sticking up for science. Here are three trendsetting entertainers turned notable science advocates.

Alan Alda with Muppet Scientist Bunsen Honeydew

Actor Alan Alda wrote an editorial in Science last week launching a science communication contest to be judged by 11-year olds. He challenged scientists to write an explanation of what a flame is “that an 11-year-old would find intelligible, maybe even fun.” Alda is also a founding board member of the Center for Communicating Science.

Icelandic pop singer Bjork gave a series of shows at the New York Hall of Science this February in support of her latest album, called Biophilia. She also helped develop a series of classes for middle school students on scientific concepts mentioned in the album, like crystalline structures, lunar phases, and viruses.

Last summer, rapper Will.i.am from the Black Eyes Peas used his own money to co-produce a back-to-school TV special called “I.am FIRST — Science is Rock and Roll” promoting education, science and technology. In the process, he successfully goaded singer Rihanna into tweeting “science is dope” to her more than seven million followers.

Alan, Bjork, and Will.i.am: thank you for joining our cause, sharing your hope for America, and spreading the good word about science to a wider audience than most of us could ever hope to reach alone.

Of course, the bulk of our task to restore science to its rightful place in American society remains ahead of us. But I wonder if the good work done by these stars signals the beginning of a deep change in our culture. Is science starting to become cool again?

Interior design meets Natural History!

On the one hand, the outlook for science looks bleak. Last month, Nina Fedoroff, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), said that she was “scared to death” by the anti-science movement. “We are sliding back into a dark era,” she said, as reported in the Observer. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed…”

But on the other hand, signs of a cultural shift toward interest in science might be appearing all around us. For example, you may have noticed that Natural History has infiltrated home decorating. Last year, a shop called “Curiosity… Intriguing Objects for the Home” opened in my neighborhood in downtown Baltimore. The store sells antique star maps, pieces of coral, and brass magnifying glasses—the accoutrements of a fin de siècle science museum. Across the street from Curiosity, Shofer’s furniture store is displaying glass Bell jars and large Audubon-Society-style prints of jellyfish and sharks.

Maybe science really is becoming cool again, or maybe the trends above are just fads. But I’ve started to think that the recent celebrity interest in science is partly our own doing. Maybe celebrities tend to sympathize with struggling groups that show a kind of helplessness, like AIDS victims, endangered animals, and abandoned children. And maybe scientists have been seeking that kind of sympathy, consciously or unconsciously.

Furniture store selling Audobon-Society-style prints.

Let’s take another look at how Nina Fedoroff spoke to the press in her new role as AAAS president. Federoff has a lot to be proud of, and you might expect her tone to reflect that. She founded and directed the organization now known as the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences at Penn State University. She has received the John P. McGovern Science and Society Medal from Sigma Xi and the National Medal of Science. But she said, “I am profoundly depressed,” and “there seems little we can do about it”; this is not the usual bearing of a scientific leader or hero. To borrow a bit of marketing terminology, I would describe the archetype of her brand as the needy orphan. She’s purposefully sending the world a message of helplessness.

Federoff joins a chorus of scientific voices begging for aid. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists came out this February called, Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public’s Expense. And you’ve probably heard of the 2010 report from the National Academies Press called Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5. The titles of these reports imply that scientists are victims of a tempest, fighting a losing battle. Fortunately, there are celebrity philanthropists ready to be heroes to our victim.

Branding scientists as orphans, as a kind of endangered species; that’s probably not a marketing strategy I would have suggested we employ. But at the moment, in Hollywood, it seems to be working.

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