What media accounts of real scientists can teach us
14 September 2008
Media misrepresentations come from the exaggeration of experiments that actually make only incremental advances
Boffins strain for answers – scientists launch study to get to the bottom of constipation.”
Or so the UK newspaper the Sun wrote in 2005. Papers like the Sun use the term ‘boffin’ humorously when referring to scientists, but it also has a somewhat pejorative sense, rather like ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’. It seems to be very difficult for scientists to escape this nerdy image and most people outside of science find it difficult to imagine what life is like in a laboratory. It is always of interest, therefore, to see how lab life is portrayed in the media. This doesn’t happen very often but in a recent article, the Guardian's Leo Benedictus looked at what it is like to work in a lab by exploring the life and lab of Dr Yotis Senis, an independent Research Fellow in Steve Watson’s platelet lab in Birmingham.
There are some irritating stylistic aspects in the article including the title which I have, therefore, pinched for this article. For the most part, however, the article gives a fair and insightful perspective on lab life. Senis wanted to work with Steve Watson because he is “top notch”: “I thought I’d come and train with the big doc,” he says. (Amusingly the article refers erroneously to James Watson, but it must be flattering to be confused with a Nobel Laureate.) Senis is keen to do basic work on understanding human diseases associated with platelets: “I want to figure out…the molecules involved”. Rather unfortunately, he says he chose this career instead of medical school because he “didn’t really want to spend [his] days with a bunch of sick people hearing them whining…”. Nevertheless, Senis comes across as a man who enjoys his work and has a great enthusiasm for his research, especially the lab work itself. He is also portrayed as a normal person, which is very good for the image of scientists. It was a pity, therefore, that it appeared in a rather obscure part of the Saturday edition (the Work section) that many don’t read. Given that it provided a genuine insight into lab life it merited better exposure.
The article gives some genuine insight into what life in a lab is like. The lab is described as a bit of a mess, conglomerated with equipment and throbbing with R&B music. There is a reference to thin pink goo in several vessels which I assume is culture medium. Senis works 8-10 hours a day and “likes doing just about everything in the lab”. He talks about the highs he gets from a new discovery and the thrill of presenting new findings at a conference. Stressing the mundane and boring nature of lab work, he likens it to cookery. (I have always felt that the nature of wet lab science should equip us to be good cooks, but very dependent on recipes!)
Senis speaks openly about the problem of getting funding for his work, and how writing grants, finding support and the need to publish can be a struggle – though this struggle, he says, “keeps you hungry”. I am sure the funding agencies would be pleased to hear this but I doubt if all scientists would agree. With current grant success rates, rather too much research time is being wasted on writing unnecessary grant applications. It is only good to be hungry if you know you can get some food eventually.
The work done by Senis is funded by the British Heart Foundation and the article suggests that the research he is doing could reveal “all sorts of new treatments for heart disease and strokes”. I would guess that a lot of non-scientists might interpret this at face value: that the work will directly lead to cures for heart disease. This is slightly misleading and I feel it is important to be clear about what sort of work people are doing. Senis does really basic cell biology but in a system, the platelet, which has strong medical relevance. Studying this is absolutely essential in terms of understanding disease but it is unlikely to give a treatment in the short or even medium term. Also, any actual developments of a new drug will most likely occur in industry using assays developed in academic labs.
Rather ironically, then, Senis was asked about misrepresentation of science in the media, such as headlines frequently seen in the press along the lines of New drug found to cure cancer. In many cases we never hear anything more about the initial claims, a situation that raises false hopes and creates mistrust both of the media and of scientists. Senis believes that these misrepresentations come from the exaggeration of experiments that actually make only incremental advances, and he blames both the media for not understanding and the scientists for inflating their own work. But what can be done? We want to have our results disseminated as widely as possible. We have to realise, however, that by presenting exaggerated interpretations or allowing our university publicity departments to do so, we are being slightly dishonest. We need to be absolutely straight about what our experiments mean and stick with that.