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

Q&A with NIGMS-Funded PECASE Winners

Each year, NIH nominates outstanding young scientists for the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government to scientists beginning their independent research careers. The scientists are selected for their innovative research record, potential to continue on this productive route and community service activities. Among this year’s PECASE recipients (nominated in 2014) are two NIGMS grantees, Tufts University’s Aimee Shen Exit icon (who started her career at the University of Vermont) and Montana State University’s Blake Wiedenheft Exit icon (who was the inaugural NIGMS Director’s Early Career Investigator Lecturer). Both scientists launched their labs with support from our Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which fosters health-related research and enhances the competitiveness of investigators at institutions in states with historically low levels of NIH funding.

Photo of Blake Wiedenheft (top) and Aimee Shen (bottom).

Below, they answer questions about their research and community service efforts, offer advice to other early career scientists, and share their experiences with the IDeA program.

What is the focus of your research?

Blake Wiedenheft: Viruses that infect bacteria (i.e., bacteriophages) are the most abundant biological entities on earth. The selective pressures imposed by these pervasive predators have a profound impact on the composition and the behavior of microbial communities in every ecological setting. In my lab, we rely on a combination of techniques from bioinformatics, genetics, biochemistry and structural biology to understand the mechanisms that bacteria use to defend themselves from viral infection.

Aimee Shen: My lab studies Clostridium difficile, the leading cause of healthcare-associated infection in the United States. C. difficile forms metabolically dormant cells known as spores that allow the microbe to survive exit from the gastrointestinal tract of a mammalian host. My research is directed at understanding how C. difficile spores form in order to transmit infection and how they germinate and transform into disease-causing cells to initiate infection.

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Sharing Our Passion for Science

NIGMS Director Dr. Jon R. Lorsch explains a protein letter computer activity to a young participant at the USA Science and Engineering FestivalA few weeks ago, 23 NIGMS volunteers and I spent an amazing day with thousands of highly engaged kids, their parents and other science enthusiasts of all ages at the Washington, DC, Convention Center. We were participating in the USA Science & Engineering Festival, the largest STEM event in the nation.

The NIGMS booth was a big hit! Our theme was Cell-e-bration of Science,
with activities that included spelling names with protein letters and a
“selfie station” with science-related props.Festival participants at the NIGMS selfie station holding science themed props in front of a colorful backdrop of a cell

Getting young people interested in science is essential to building a vibrant and innovative research enterprise. The Science & Engineering Festival, with more than 365,000 participants, gave us a chance to share our passion for science with thousands of young people. Hopefully, some of the kids we met are now thinking about careers as scientists.

NIGMS staff volunteer demonstrating how the protein letter computer activity worksI encourage you to share your own enthusiasm for science with young people whenever you have the opportunity. Whether you judge a science fair, speak at a career day or have students visit your lab, you put a human face on science and help students see it as an exciting, fulfilling and worthy career choice.

 

Help Spread the Word About Cell Day

Cell Day 2015On November 5, we’ll host my favorite NIGMS science education event: Cell Day! As in previous years, we hope this free, interactive Web chat geared for middle and high school students will spark interest in cell biology, biochemistry and research careers. Please help us spread the word by letting people in your local schools and communities know about this special event and encouraging them to register. It runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. EST and is open to all.

As the moderator of these Cell Day chats, I’ve fielded a lot of great questions, including “Why are centrioles not found in plant cells?” and “If you cut a cell in half and then turn it upside down will the nucleus, ribosomes, and other parts of the cell fall out?” It’s always amazing to hear what science students are thinking or wondering about. I’m looking forward to seeing what fantastic questions we’ll get this year!

Resource Spotlight: iBiology Videos

In this iBiology video, NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch gives an overview of the Institute and careers in scientific public service. He also answers questions from the scientific community during an iBiology Q&A session.

In this iBiology video, NIGMS Director Jon Lorsch gives an overview of the Institute and careers in scientific public service Exit icon. He also answers questions from the scientific community Exit icon during an iBiology Q&A session.

One of the research and training resources we help fund is iBiology Exit icon, a collection of high-quality, free online videos of scientists talking about their research, career paths and related topics. The project, which also receives support from the National Science Foundation and other organizations, produces material that is relevant to those at a range of educational and career levels, especially undergraduate students, graduate students and postdocs.

When Ron Vale started the iBiology project in 2006, his goal was to give people around the world broader access to research seminars. Since then, the scope has expanded. The collection now includes 350 videos that fall into three main categories:

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