Avoiding Hype and Enhancing Awareness in Science Communication

When I joined NIGMS about four years ago, I was struck by the number of press releases from journals and grantee institutions that came across my desk each day. Many of them focused on a recently published paper and failed to explain how the work fit into the broader field. Others overstated the research results to make them sound more exciting and closer to clinical application.

I moderated one of the panel discussions.

Around the same time, science communicators started writing articles and conducting studies about the effects of hyped research findings (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2012; Yavchitz et al., 2012 Exit icon, Sumner et al., 2014 Exit icon; Vox, 2017 Exit icon). While these discussions focused on clinically oriented research, we at NIGMS began thinking deeply about how the issue relates to basic biomedical science. On the heels of our work with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) on enhancing rigor and reproducibility in biomedical research, we started talking to them about this topic as well. Two years later, we were pleased to host their Workshop on Responsible Communication of Basic Biomedical Research: Enhancing Awareness and Avoiding Hype Exit icon.

The June 22 meeting brought together a diverse group of science communicators Exit icon [PDF, 22KB] who included early and established investigators, researchers who study science communication, academic and corporate communication officers, policy advisors and journalists. Each panelist represented a stakeholder group with a role in what panelists later called the “hype cycle” and shared his or her perspectives on the problems of hype, the incentives that cause it and recommendations for avoiding it. The meeting focused on basic biomedical research, but the discussions were also relevant to other areas of science.

In her keynote address Exit icon, veteran science journalist Erika Check Hayden defined hype as “exaggerating the outcomes of research, for whatever motives people have, leading to potential negative effects due to inaccurate portrayal of research.” She credited this definition to Judith Greenberg, our deputy director.

The keynote address by Erika Check Hayden focused on new directions in science communication.

The subsequent discussions Exit icon highlighted the shared responsibility among all the stakeholder groups for improving science communication and changing the incentives for it. Panelists acknowledged that scientists sometimes oversell the conclusions of studies hoping to get their work published in “better” journals or to improve their chances for obtaining funding; journals may decide on manuscripts to publish based on which ones they think will be cited the most or get press attention; communication officers and journalists are often judged by how many hits their stories get; and universities and research institutes may consider the fundraising potential of scientific news stories.

Here are some of the topics discussed during the workshop that really resonated with me. Continue reading

Notes from the 2017 Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity Program Directors’ Meeting

2017 TWD Program Directors' Meeting: June 18-21, 2017. Baltimore Marriott Waterfront. Baltimore, MarylandThe 2017 Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity (TWD) Program Directors’ Meeting Exit icon, organized through a grant to the Federation of Associations for Experimental Biology, took place June 18-21 in Baltimore. This biennial meeting brought together the community of faculty, staff and administrators who manage TWD undergraduate and predoctoral training programs across the nation to network, share best practices for program improvement and connect with NIGMS staff. This year, participants presented more than 100 posters. Plenary sessions and keynote talks described innovative approaches for training and evaluation, efforts to enhance diversity in the biomedical workforce and more.

Highlights included:

  • Alison Gammie, director of NIGMS’ TWD division, outlined the new predoctoral T32 funding opportunity announcement (FOA) in her presentation Exit icon [PDF, 4.4MB]. The FOA will emphasize cultivating a diverse pool of well-trained scientists and will focus on skills and career development, the importance of scientific rigor and reproducibility, and the value of inclusive and supportive training environments. It is scheduled for publication this fall.
  • Principal investigators of administrative supplements to NIGMS predoctoral training grants presented their approaches to modernizing biomedical graduate education through increased focus on scientific rigor, career and skill development, and training opportunities.
  • Melanie Sinche, director of education at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine and author of “Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science,” shared her research on recent STEM Ph.D. graduates’ career pathways Exit icon [PDF, 1.7MB]. She found that the majority of recent STEM Ph.D. graduates who responded to her survey expressed satisfaction with their work, and they chose their employment primarily for “intellectual challenge” and “flexibility.”
  • Erin Dolan, a professor at the University of Georgia, talked about effective strategies for science education Exit icon [PDF, 1.7MB]. Citing a variety of references, Dolan presented on how the research training community can help students develop interests and careers in the sciences by incorporating models from educational research and social cognitive career theory. This approach is intended to nurture greater enthusiasm for science because it’s based on how students learn and make career decisions. Later, members of the Diversity Program Consortium’s Coordination and Evaluation Center led a workshop on evaluation techniques [PDF, 4.7MB] and shared some tools with attendees that may aid in more effectively evaluating training programs.
  • In his Message from the Director Exit icon [PDF, 5.5MB], Jon Lorsch included an overview of ongoing NIGMS priorities, including the expansion of the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program. He also announced that NIGMS is the new home for the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, which supports educational and career activities for pre-K to grade 12 students, as well as other public outreach programming. SEPA strongly complements the rest of NIGMS’ workforce diversity and training portfolio. Examples of SEPA projects Exit icon include mobile laboratories Exit icon that bring science to rural communities, professional development Exit icon for teachers and media-based projects like the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs Exit icon.

To view more of the presentations and to access abstracts for the poster sessions, please visit the 2017 TWD Program Directors’ Meeting resources page Exit icon.