• Who listens to scientists?

    Kevin Outterson emailed me* a link to a paper that might as well be the very definition of “insular.”

    Journal publication has long been relied on as the only required communication of results, tasking journalists with bringing news of scientific discoveries to the public. Output of science papers increased 15% between 1990 and 2001, with total output over 650,000. But, fewer than 0.013—0.34% of papers gained attention from mass media, with health/medicine papers taking the lion’s share of coverage. Fields outside of health/medicine had an appearance rate of only 0.001—0.005%. In light of findings that show scientific literacy declining despite growing public interest and scientific output, this study attempts to show that reliance on journal publication and subsequent coverage by the media as the sole form of communication en masse is failing to communicate science to the public.

    That’s the abstract of “Scientists are talking, but mostly to each other: a quantitative analysis of research represented in mass media,” a paper by Julie Suleski and Motomu Ibaraki, both of Ohio State University.

    One answer: my call for “the great translation.”

    * Later Kevin noted that a hat tip is due to Tyler Cowen (see “irony test”).

    • h/t on the link to Tyler Cowen – he filed it under “irony test” yesterday

    • If you are familiar with the fox and hedgehog dichotomy which Cowen has noted in the past, I think that we have plenty of hedgehogs who know their individual areas quite well. We need better foxes, people who are widely versed in many areas and able to integrate specialty knowledge into policy or technology. While the group blogging here may or may not be foxes (only your wives can answer that), I think you play a key role in making information available and understandable so that those who influence and make policy can do so better informed. So that the rest of us can make informed decisions about what to support.

      The net has changed the way we communicate. I am a bit surprised that more scientists have not caught on to this. Any scientist doing work in an area that affects public policy should be thinking about some way to make his/her work more accessible to the general public. Why wait to catch the eye of some journalist?


      • @Steve
        the incentives aren’t straight in Universities yet to reward integration of this type. I think it is and will change, but Universities are very conservative places (meaning slow to change). And of course the scientific method is centered around the null hypothesis. The metaphor you cite works pretty well. Key is knowing broad literature, and being able to bring it to bear in hours or at most a few days, when there is a small window of people *possibly* listening to researchers/scientists

        • Many universities barely tolerate academic blogging; it counts little for tenure or promotion. Academic journals are taking very tentative steps. Foundations seem slightly more interested in dissemination by blog.

          As a law professor, my “output” is through several channels:
          (1) Law review articles, 30,000 words read by super-hedgehogs;
          (2) Peer-reviewed health policy research in journals like Health Affairs (doesn’t count for law school tenure);
          (3) Student work I’ve supervised;
          (4) Teaching in class; and
          (5) Academic presentations and workshops (the grey literature).

          I added academic blogging to my tool box because it reaches a different audience, and is “just-in-time,” solving the asynchronicity problem Austin has described. SSRN was a significant step in that direction, but remains passive, unlike academic blogging.

        • I have often thought that we need PhDs in broader areas, especially in the sciences. If we had more people who were knowledgable and conversant with multiple sciences I think we could be better off when we try to make public policy applications. My sense from working with my son applying to college this year that universities are aware of this need. He was offered the opportunity to join several programs that work across schools and disciplines. We met with several professors to talk these over and these were all relatively new programs. Once a person has the ability and knowledge to address cross discipline issues, they will still need a way to convey that to the public.


    • @Don,

      Minor correction: The statistical sciences, particularly the softer ones, deal in the null hypothesis. The harder natural sciences do not. They jump higher bars for publication.

      • @Jonathan H
        OK. I have no experience in natural sciences. I guess you mean if I find a new element I find a new element. To me that just seems like an even harder null to overcome (there are only x known elements and takes lots of proof to say there is another one, like replication)? Like I said though, I don’t have experience with natural sciences…

    • My law professors made names for themselves, and many have been on tv to consult on whatever topic. It may not have anything to do with earning actual tenure, but a little more publicity can raise your profile enough to land something else that may lead to a more lucrative end.

    • I think more people would read more scientific papers if they were freely available. Many publishers hide this critical-to-the-future-success-of-the-world information behind $20-$30 per purchase walls, which is ridiculous for an 8 page work.

      Thank goodness for the publishers/conferences/journals/authors that make their work available to a wider audience.

      Quick note on irony — this very study lies behind a pricey wall.

      Another feature of scientific papers is many of them are rather bland and full of jargon. But that is another story.

    • The web and other technologies expose raw information and allow collaboration faster and among more people, and in many cases that *helps* speed the pace of discovery. However, it doesn’t negate the fact that many useful scientific discoveries come from a few people who intensely study one small narrow thing for decades, trading information only among themselves because *it can’t* mean anything to anyone who doesn’t already spend all their time thinking and studying the same narrow thing with equal dedication. It doesn’t mean that more interdisciplinary PhD’s and more transparent publication won’t help our speed to discovery, but it isn’t the panacea that we’ve made it sound like for the last 15 years.