I haven’t been posting much because technically I’m on vacation. Last week I attended the Santa Fe Science Writers Workshop in, you guessed it, Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’ve been wanting to go to this gathering for years, as much to hang out with other science writers as to tune up my writing skills from the cabal of New York Times editors and science writers who run the workshop. One of the other attendees posted this wonderful blog entry, complete with drawings of a visit to Bandelier National Monument, an archaeological site of ancient cliff dwellings. The weather was gorgeous and we got to visit the Santa Fe Institute and hear from two very different scientists there. The first was Bette Korber, who talked to us about her work on an HIV vaccine, which involved creating an artificial version of HIV based on the theoretical ancestor of this highly mutating virus. But what she was most passionate about was what she describes as the growing public distrust of vaccines in general and the ways in which conspiracy theories involving pharmaceutical companies, coupled with what she judges as media misconceptions, can undo the work of research scientists and public health doctors. The second speaker, Eric Smith, described his work on the origin of life, which he hypothesizes started with energy-producing, or metabolic, chemistry rather than the self-replicating, protein-making molecules of RNA. Like Bette, he also seemed aggrieved but directed his displeasure at other scientists, the so-called “RNA-first” contingent, who are centered at UC-San Diego (he called them the San Diego mafia, that’s how personal these scientific disagreements can sometimes get.). If you want to read more about “metabolism first” theories, here’s an article in Public Library of Science, an online science journal.
I’ve also been negligent in keeping up with my friends in the blogging world. This is old news to many of you, but American University Communications Professor and Exploratorium Osher Fellow Matt Nisbet and his partner in science persuasion, Seed Magazine writer Chris Mooney, have started their speaking tour about the importance of framing science topics in ways that are meaningful to the public. It started as an article in Science Magazine and has expanded from there with appearances in Kansas and New York. Their talk is posted on YouTube and it’s been the subject of lots of blogerly discussions already. I think their arguments make a lot of sense but as a first step, I’m happy to encourage more scientists to simply try communicating directly with the public about their research. If they can make their own work accessible to a lay audience, then they can hone their talks to focus on broader issues involving policy, controversy, and public welfare. From its founding in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium has worked with working research scientists to create exhibits and programs that bring the world of science to a larger audience. Science museums in general are great places for scientists to get their communication sea legs with a receptive public before branching out to tougher, less interested, audiences. We’ll be talking strategies for broader science communication with Matt when he continues his fellowship at the Exploratorium this July and August.