Monday, November 12, 2012

ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT US?


by J.L. Greger

 Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray said, “There is only thing worse in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Was he right? Probably most writers and scientists would agree, perhaps not all politicians (or at least former politicians).

Is publicity just for the ego?
Scientists and writers want publicity for practical reasons. First the obvious reason – sales. Consider the plethora of books, which are written or at least 80% written by ghostwriters, but “authored” by celebrities. The publishers know the celebrity’s name and the attendant publicity (past and present) help sales and ghostwriters happily take the money to the bank. Everyone wins.

Generally, scientists believe a good image and publicity are essential to gain the support for scientific research by the electorate and policy makers and to attract talented students. In 2009, universities in the U.S. spent $55 billion on research and development; the federal government provided 59% and state and local government provided 7% of these funds (NSF/ Division of Science Resource Statistics. Survey of Research and Development at Universities and Colleges, FY 2009 http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf11313/pdf/tab1.pdf). In other words, scientists depend on public opinion for financial support of their research.

Is bad publicity really bad? What constitutes bad publicity?
It depends.

Lots of people complained about Dan Brown’s literary style and his use of historical information in The DaVinci Code. All the attendant bad publicity probably helped sales. The “tell-alls” of disgraced celebrities sell better than well-written memoirs of less famous, but often heroic, people.

Scientists found guilty of scientific misconduct are often barred from being a principal investigator on federal research grants for several years. Many quietly resume their careers afterwards. Those hit with a firestorm of publicity are often forced into a career change. The seriousness of the offenses does affect the level of publicity, at least sometimes. So there is such a thing as bad publicity for a scientist.

Perhaps some variables are more responsive to bad publicity. I suspect recruitment of students, particularly graduate students, to a major in the sciences is a variable sensitive to image and publicity. Between 1998 and 2008, the number of doctorates earned in the sciences grew by nearly 40% (Nature [April 20, 2011] 472:276-279).

Many factors influenced this growth, besides the job market (which was not that good for newly minted PhD scientists). One is the changing image of scientists, i.e.  positive publicity on scientists and science in fiction and in the press.

Before you say no, think of the scientists depicted in fiction and movies before 1980, i.e. Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Strangelove. Christopher Frayling studied a thousand horror movies distributed in the United Kingdom between 1930 and 1980 (New Scientist [Sept. 24, 2005] 2518: 48). He found “scientific research” was a threat to mankind in 39% of these films. Since 2000, being a scientist has been “cool” in mainstream TV shows and movies. The 2011 movie Contagion grossed $130 million in theatres. Two popular network TV shows (CSI and Bones) feature quasi-realistic scientists as their heroes and heroines.

Bottom line?
Oscar Wilde was probably right, at least much of the time. Maybe that’s why so many authors, scientists, educators, etc. are writing blogs. The next questions are:
Does anyone read most blogs?
Are they worth reading?
What makes some worth reading?

Do you care to comment?
Or will these questions just remain my bugs (annoyances).

JL Greger
The medical thriller Coming Flu will have a sequel in April. It’s called Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight.