Archive for September, 2007

Scientists and the media

Our orientation session on the interaction between science and the media included a panel of esteemed science journalists from the Washington Post, PBS Frontline, Science Magazine, and the National Journal. Amid friendly discussions of how to improve science writing and how scientists can relate successfully to the media, they gave us unsurprising advice like “use plain English to describe your research.” They explained how the standard journalistic strategy of getting a “balanced” story by quoting a nut on either side of an issue works badly for science stories, and two admitted guilt of doing this for climate change stories in the past. Among the non-obvious advice, 3 of the 4 panel members stressed that contacting reporters and editors directly is a good way to influence coverage and to get stories into the press. According to former Washington Post Science Editor Curt Suplee, “one of the last professional classes in America that actually answer their phones is reporters, and, 60% of the time, editors. In contrast, the press release, which I had been told in a university seminar on dealing with the media is the way to get in the press, is useless. 3 of the 4 said they never read press releases, and the 4th, Neil Munro of the National Journal, said

“I read a lot of press releases. Not for the lead, but to see what people are selling. Sometimes you get a story out of that.”

Public Relations people were held in similar low regard as sources for a story.

Most of the tone of the discussion implied reporters are basically trying to present accurate information that gets read, and scientists are trying to inform the public, especially about the importance of their research. In contrast, Munro’s comments were rooted in a cynicism of bracing purity, painting reporters as vain and self-interested and scientists as flawed and, well, self-interested. That is to say, his comments were fascinating and enlightening.

“Journalists”, he explains, “write for other journalists”. They are trying to impress their peers. They consider themselves a professional class, like lawyers, and as a consequence, do afford scientists some respect as professional peers. And they are subject to flattery. We can flatter them, for instance, by giving them a story that confirms their prejudices, which is an “easy way to get a story into the media.” Another way to influence the media is to give them what they want. For example, be “responsive and interesting — no geeks.” Or give them a story about a scientist who “subordinates the scientific ideal to professional interests.”

Scientists, for our part, know that the journalist’s service is really valuable to us:

“A front page mention in the New York Times is worth how much? 20,000? 50,000? Do I hear 200? Do I hear a MacArthur Grant? An NIH grant?”

In his view, when scientists come to journalists, we’re not doing science, we’re advancing an agenda, we’re doing PR.

A couple of other gems:

  • Asked about engineering coverage as opposed to science coverage, Munro quipped, “The problem is, if engineers do their jobs right, the bridge doesn’t fall down.”
  • Asked how she felt about Hollywood celebrities getting involved in environmental issues, Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post said that she interviews them sometimes, and that some celebrities know what they are talking about and some don’t. Then, “Actually, Robert Redford knows what he’s talking about and most of the others don’t.”

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The ethical bright line

Though I have thought about the corrupting potential of politics, I haven’t been really afraid of becoming corrupt myself (family members have expressed concern about this, however). I feel I am secure enough in my sense of self, and not particularly motivated by money or power, so I am at a pretty low risk for getting caught up in ethically questionable doings. And so the quote of the day from Friday (yes, posted a little late) gives me pause.

The quote comes from Raynard Kington, Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a man with a fascinating and variegated career, who happened to become the chief ethics officer at NIH during a serious scandal a few years back. He says,

The hardest part of Washington is knowing where you ethical line, your bright line is. Because it’s not so bright when you cross it. When you get up close to it, it looks rather gray.

He suggested we decide where our line is in advance (of coming to Washington, presumably). He explained that knowing your bright line is the “most difficult thing to prepare for” and that “it’ll stay with you for the rest of your life if you cross it.” Even if no one knows, “because you probably won’t get caught. But you’ll know.”

And yet, it’s hard for me to even imagine what ethically-challenging situation I’d be faced with, let alone plan my choices. I may just have to wing it.

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The pug

One of my housemates has a pug. The biggest, fattest pug I’ve ever seen, and possibly ever. This animal is endearing in the way that, immediately upon looking at him, one can’t help but feel sympathy for his plight, and be simultaneously amused by the sheer absurdity of his existence. His proportions are all wrong, his movements are labored and awkward, and he shows excitement by snorting wildly. And yet, in that snort, you can sense a pure and simple happiness that someone is there to pet or entertain him. He seems to have no agenda of his own but follow around people and observe their doings, and with his bulging eyes makes a silent, persistent case to be petted.

And the corollary is, I’ve never seen a creature frown so distinctly as he does when he is watching you go out the front door, knowing you are leaving him alone to hours of destitute boredom, belly laid against the floor in an attempt to stay cool, too-short legs splayed in every odd direction, snoring through his inadequate breathing passageways. Because as far as I can tell, this is precisely all he does when no one is around (and often even when they are around).

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The Greatest Threat

Today was all about foreign policy. We heard from 3-star General William Odom (Ret.), who was the head of the National Security Agency under Reagan and is now a professor at Yale. His unexpected but reasonable assertion was that the Greatest Threat to the United States is not terrorism, or China, or a nuclear North Korea or Iran, but incompetent American leadership. America, he says, has enjoyed a unique sort of empire since World War II, largely by virtue of the troops left in Europe and Northeast Asia since that time, creating security which allowed Japan, Germany, and South Korea to develop into prosperous, friendly states. That troop presence has been reduced under Bush, and if it is further reduced or eliminated, Odom fears disaster would ensue. And of course, Bush is doing many other things to destabilize “America’s Inadvertent Empire.”

Among Odom’s other refreshing views: the energy crisis should be solved by putting a $2/gallon tax on gasoline and using the proceeds to fund a Manhattan-project-style shift in the energy system, including a network of bullet trains to displace passenger air travel and cargo trucking, and development of improved nuclear power plants.

In other news, Moisés Náim, Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Policy and former director of the World Bank made the provocative claim that the Greatest Threat is not terrorism but illicit trade (smuggling, trafficking, counterfeiting). He explained that these activities are ubiquitous, sophisticated, highly organized, rapidly growing, and have never been successfully contained by any government. It’s all in his new book. By the end of his talk, I don’t know if I was convinced illicit trade is the the most important thing, but I went from not caring about the subject to being intrigued. I put the book on my potential reading list.

Náim also gives us today’s quote, which relates to yesterday’s post. He was explaining that the extensive illegal trade networks can exist because governments, or at least parts of governments, are complicit:

“All regulated businesses spend a portion of their revenue influencing their regulators. In some countries, it’s legal, it’s called lobbying. In other countries, it’s illegal, it’s called corruption.”

Said with black-and-white assurance, as only an economist can pull off.

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Quote of the day

Today we heard from several lobbyists, including a lobbyist for a large, public university, a lobbyist for the American Medical Association, and one for the American Physical Society. I think they wanted to make the point that not all lobbyists are evil and that they perform an important function in our government. They emphasized direct trading of money for votes is illegal, and mentioning campaign donations while in a representative’s or senator’s office is illegal. Also, many lobbyists and lobbying firms have rules about the kinds of clients they will take on and won’t lobby for the tobacco industry, for instance. On the other hand, there is no doubt that money makes politics go; the average House representative has to raise $10,000 per week to mount a competitive reelection campaign. Political donors get priority when congress members and congressional staff are choosing who to meet with. The speakers admitted that other lobbyists (not like them) are simply available to the highest bidder, and one mentioned that the going rate to buy 15 minutes with your representative is $5000.

Nonprofit organizations, however, like public universities and scientific societies, are prohibited from making campaign contributions. They must rely on appeals to reason, to abstract benefits, and goodwill toward their institutions to gain influence. And so the quote of the day comes from the university lobbyist, who lamented, “being a higher education lobbyist is like being a eunuch at the orgy.”

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Congressional fun facts of the day

Today at a talk I attended, a Senior Specialist in American National Government at the Congressional Research Service related the single most important factor to change the U.S. Congress since the 1960′s. It’s not the rise of cable news networks, the increase in bitter partisanship, or accelerating technological change. It’s the jet plane. The jet plane allows members of congress to take more trips home and spend less time in session. The number of trips per year was limited by internal rules for a while. The limit was increased and eventually gave way, culminating in the last Congress, when members typically only spent Tuesday to Thursday in Washington, heading home every Thursday afternoon. The extra time in the home district allowed them to be more available to constituents and more responsive during local crises. Of course, floor votes and committee meetings still had to be attended, so what aspect of congressional business was sacrificed for this compressed schedule? “Being informed,” says the Specialist. They used to hold hearings with experts to get informed on issues and legislation, but that became less and less common.

Later in the day, I heard a talk from U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) who informed us that Nancy Pelosi, upon becoming Speaker of the House, decided they needed to make up for a lot of lost time and one of her first actions was to institute a 5-day work week. The current Congress, apparently, is set to hit some record of most number of days in session. And they have been holding a lot of hearings. They heard testimony from the Administrator of the EPA, who, Markey says, hasn’t appeared before the committee in charge of EPA funding in any of the previous 6 years (which is rather amazing).

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