How public relations and the media are distorting science

Rafael Irizarry

Throughout history, engineers, medical doctors and other applied scientists have helped convert  basic science discoveries into products, public goods and policy that have greatly improved our quality of life. With rare exceptions, it has taken years if not decades to establish these discoveries. And even the exceptions stand on the shoulders of incremental contributions. The researchers that produce this knowledge go through a slow and painstaking process to reach these achievements.

In contrast, most science related media reports that grab the public’s attention fall into three categories:

  1. The exaggerated big discovery: Recent examples include the discovery of the bubonic plague in the NYC subway, liquid water in mars, and the infidelity gene.
  2. Over-promising:  These try to explain a complicated basic science finding and, in the case of biomedical research, then speculate without much explanation that the finding will “lead to a deeper understanding of diseases and new ways to treat or cure them”.
  3. Science is broken:  These tend to report an anecdote about an allegedly corrupt scientist, maybe cite the “Why Most Published Research Findings are False” paper, and then extrapolate speculatively.

In my estimation, despite the attention grabbing headlines, the great majority of the subject matter included in these reports will not have an impact on our lives and will not even make it into scientific textbooks. So does science still have anything to offer? Reports of the third category have even scientists particularly worried. I, however, remain optimistic. First, I do not see any empirical evidence showing that the negative effects of the lack of reproducibility are worse now than 50 years ago. Furthermore, although not widely reported in the lay press, I continue to see bodies of work built by several scientists over several years or decades with much promise of leading to tangible improvements to our quality of life.  Recent advances that I am excited about include insulators, PD-1 pathway inhibitors, clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, advances in solar energy technology, and prosthetic robotics.

However, there is one general aspect of science that I do believe has become worse.  Specifically, it’s a shift in how much scientists jockey for media attention, even if it’s short-lived. Instead of striving for having a sustained impact on our field, which may take decades to achieve, an increasing number of scientists seem to be placing more value on appearing in the New York Times, giving a Ted Talk or having a blog or tweet go viral. As a consequence, too many of us end up working on superficial short term challenges that, with the help of a professionally crafted press release, may result in an attention grabbing media report. NB: I fully support science communication efforts, but not when the primary purpose is garnering attention, rather than educating.

My concern spills over to funding agencies and philanthropic organizations as well. Consider the following two options. Option 1: be the funding agency representative tasked with organizing a big science project with a well-oiled PR machine. Option 2: be the funding agency representative in charge of several small projects, one of which may with low, but non-negligible, probability result in a Nobel Prize 30 years down the road. In the current environment, I see a preference for option 1.

I am also concerned about how this atmosphere may negatively affect societal improvements within science. Publicly shaming transgressors on Twitter or expressing one’s outrage on a blog post can garner many social media clicks. However, these may have a smaller positive impact than mundane activities such as serving on a committee that, after several months of meetings, implements incremental, yet positive, changes. Time and energy spent on trying to increase internet clicks is time and energy we don’t spend on the tedious administrative activities that are needed to actually affect change.

Because so many of the scientists that thrive in this atmosphere of short-lived media reports are disproportionately rewarded, I imagine investigators starting their careers feel some pressure to garner some media attention of their own. Furthermore, their view of how they are evaluated may be highly biased because evaluators that ignore media reports and focus more on the specifics of the scientific content, tend to be less visible. So if you want to spend your academic career slowly building a body of work with the hopes of being appreciated decades from now, you should not think that it is hopeless based on what is perhaps, a distorted view of how we are currently being evaluated.

Update: changed topological insulators links to these two. Here is one more. Via David S.