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Essay

Are they talking about us?

Lab lit fiction as a force for good

J. L. Greger 2 September 2012

www.lablit.com/article/737

Reflections: fictional depictions boost science

Savvy scientists care about their public image because their livelihood depends on it

Editor's note: We are pleased to publish this call-to-arms to all scientists about why they should care about their image – and what they can do to make it better. This essay includes advice that they should support the cause by writing 'lab lit' fiction themselves, a view with which we can heartily agree. We are especially happy to note that its author, J.L. Greger, has put her money where her mouth is and has just published an exciting new lab lit novel (see the author bio below for more details).

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?

How are scientists talked about in fiction?

Think of the scientists depicted in fiction and movies when you were a kid or teen – Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Strangelove, or Doc Brown in the film Back to the Future. Christopher Frayling studied a thousand horror movies distributed in the United Kingdom between 1930 and 1980 (1). He found “scientific research” was a threat to mankind in 39% of these films. In 2011, Dudo and his associates reported that since 2000 scientists were infrequently cast in prime-time TV, but were not evil (2).

During the last few years, media moguls have seen that science sells. For example, the budget for the 2011 movie Contagion, considered by many to be the most realistic view of science filmed by a large studio, was $60 million (3). Luckily for scientists and Lab Lit writers, the movie was a moneymaker; it grossed $130 million in theatres. Three popular network TV shows (CSI, Bones, and NCIS) feature quasi-realistic scientists. The number of novels published annually in the Lab Lit or science in fiction genre is also increasing (4).

Does the changing image of scientists in fiction make a difference?

Data are limited. The University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center has surveyed 800-3,000 Americans annually since 1973 (5). They noted no consistent change in Americans’ opinions about scientists; 35 to 45% of those surveyed expressed confidence in scientists. During the same period of time, confidence in the military rose from 32% to 52% and confidence in educators fell from 37% to 26%. Confidence in physicians fell from 54% to 41% and in banks and financial institutions dropped from 31% to 10%.

Anecdotal comments are more plentiful. At the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA) conference in July 2012, several forensic scientists mentioned the “the CSI effect.” They observed jurors and reporters were disappointed when real forensic scientists weren’t as good or as fast as Catherine Willows (CSI), Tempe Brennan (Bones), or Abby Sciuto (NCIS). For example, jurors became skeptical about an expert witness’s competence because he didn’t retrieve fingerprints from a rock at the murder scene.

Some guidance counselors postulate TV shows emphasizing crime have increased enrollment in forensic sciences programs (6). Abby Sciuto is considered a positive role model for girls interested in science (7). One biology professor told me several of her minority and female students indicated TV shows influenced their choice of biology as a major.

There may be a flip side to this free publicity. Forensic lab chiefs, attending the PSWA conference, reported that new graduates in forensic science are sometimes disappointed with their chosen career. They expected, based on viewing television, more glamour in their new jobs and assumed unlimited funds were available for endless analyses.

Should scientists care about their image?

Many scientists believe a good image is essential to gain the support for scientific research by the electorate and policy makers and to attract talented students. In 1953, universities in the US spent $255 million dollars on research and development; the federal government provided 54% and state and local governments provided 15% of those funds. In 2009, universities in the US spent $55 billion on research and development; the federal government provided 59% and state and local government provided 7% of these funds (8).

In 2010, George Osborne said the science budget in Britain would be “protected” at £4.6 billion per year (9). In August 2012, a British pound equaled about $1.56.

Put more succinctly, savvy scientists care about their public image because their livelihood depends on it. Writers of Lab Lit should care because two of the best audiences for their work are scientists and students interested in science careers.

Who promotes science and scientists to the public?

One of the key groups championing the image of scientists in the US is the National Research Council, the working arm of the US National Academies. Its stated mission is “to improve government decision making and public policy, increase public understanding, and promote the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge in matters involving science, engineering, technology, and health” (10). The NAS/NRC not only convenes groups of scientists and engineers and issues assessment reports on scientific issues, but they also sponsor symposiums and reports on science education and communications. A recent one on the “Science of Science Communications” focused on improving the image of scientists with the public (11).

The Royal Society in the United Kingdom is less overt in its mission statement, but notes that two of its priorities are to “provide scientific advice for policy” and to foster science “education and public engagement” (12). Its Science Policy Center is its working arm on policy issues and PR.

The Queen also generates a lot of good publicity for science in Britain and actually worldwide when she knights scientists. National Medals of Science in the US are great, but they don’t generate the same media buzz as knighthoods.

Ever wonder why you should bother with professional scientific groups? The good ones, like the American Physiological Society, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, and the American Chemical Society, are effective lobbyists for science.

What can I do to improve the image of scientists and science?

Learn about the views on science-related issues of candidates in local, state, and national elections and vote.

Write an opinion piece on a science issue for the local paper or an e-zine. It might even be a way to subtly advertise your new novel.

Blog or tweet on science issues and on Lab Lit. You can increase your impact if you blog about science on non-science blogs and blog about Lab Lit on science blogs. I found most of my writer friends had never heard of the genre Lab Lit but were curious to learn how it differed from science fiction.

Finish your novel. I modified a quote from Laura Kahn slightly (9): “If the scientific community wants to engage and inform the public, (Lab Lit) is an excellent strategy. Stories captivate people, they survive the test of time, and they become part of the popular culture.”

Are people talking about us?

I hope so. I believe all scientists should work toward making it positive. However, Wilde may have been right. It’s more important to get them talking.

References:

1. Frayling C. 2005. Hollywood’s changing take on the scientist. New Scientist 2518 (Sept. 24): 48

2. Dudo A, Brossard D, Shanahan J, Morgan M, Signorielli N. 2011 Science on television in the 21st century: Recent trends in portrayals and their contributions to public attitudes toward science. Comm Res 38 (6): 754

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contagion_(film) (accessed 9 Aug 2012)

4. www.lablit.com/the_list/ (accessed 9 Aug 2012)

5. University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center. General Social Survey (1973-2012). In: NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators, 2012. Appendix table 7-27. www.nsf.gov/statistics/seindiz/appendix.htm (accessed 9 Aug 2012)

6. Barr J. Career Inspiration on Film. Twitter. October 28th, 2010

7. McManus D. Director’s letter. GWIS News. January 2012

8. 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 (accessed 9 Aug 2012)

9. Osborne G. 2010 Spending review statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/spend_sr2010_speech.htm

10. http:///www.nationalacademies.org/nrc/index.html (accessed 9 Aug 2012)

11. Nisbit MC and Scheufe DA. 2012. Opinion: scientists’ intuitive failures. The Scientist July 23, 2012

12. www.royalsociety.org (accessed 9 Aug 2012)

13. Kahn L. 2012. The science fiction effect. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Feb. 14. http://www.thebulletin.org (accessed 9 Aug 2012)

Other articles by J. L. Greger