State of the Union

Science Addressing The Virtual Paradise?

The latest National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators suggests that in the US that three out of every four citizens are probably unable to either fully understand a news piece on astrobiology or any other science. More than half the US public, for example, absolutely believes the universe is teeming with intelligent life - and they are visiting us on a regular basis. According to European surveys around 50% of the adult population suffer from science illiteracy. The survey found, for example, that more than 25% of the public believes the Sun goes around the Earth – so where does that leave attempts to convey astrobiology to broader audiences?

Astrobiology Magazine had the opportunity to talk with one of the principal architects behind the Webby-award winning site, science.nasa.gov, Dr. John Horack, who addressed the challenges and rewards of opening astrobiology and space exploration to a wider scope of interested viewers.


Astrobiology Magazine (AM): What is the audience interested in finding life elsewhere?

Dr. John Horack (JH): I think the 10% of the population that is science-attentive (24 million) is at the core, for a few reasons.

First, the "science attentive" audience tends to be characterized by information-seeking, and a desire to receive information through channels other than traditional mediated communications (e.g., TV). Thus their pro-activity helps them find things via the Internet, and their affinity for sources other than mass-media makes them inclined to seek out new findings in astrobiology.

John_Horack
Dr. John Horack, who pioneered the outreach of the Webby Award winning site, science.nasa.gov, and led the assembly, testing and calibration program for the gamma ray burst experiment on NASA’s Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory
Credit: D. Rezabek

Second, this is the audience that governments and institutions do not see as being within a well-defined mission segment compared, for example, to "education" or "media relations." A science attentive will not simply absorb and be satisfied with a non-technical press release written for its "news hook" value rather than its content value. They tend to desire a deeper explanation and understanding, and are more concerned with the content rather than context.

James Cameron
"There’s no point assuming that if you go win that touchdown, anybody is going to be looking. You have to get them looking first and then go make the touchdown. If you came in yelling right now, "Hey we found life on Mars," and if it was microscopic, people are not predisposed to understand the significance. So that’s where the education and the outreach, the filming making, the story telling, the narrative part of it is just as important as the science mission". –James Cameron, Academy Award winner, best director

I believe that the initiation of high-quality science and technology communication must begin at the laboratory bench, with the scientists who are doing the research. It is not acceptable for scientists to simply "throw it over the wall" and hope that someone else will do the job. Scientists must make substantive efforts to initiate the communication that gives their work value. But they cannot do the job alone.

Modern science communications must be more than just an "add-on" to the scientific research process, but instead an integral part of what it means to "do science." Science must be redefined as the integral of generating and communicating new knowledge and technology.

AM: So what is the mission of communicating science to a wider audience?

JH: Because the taxpayer pays for science research, they should demand that the loop be closed through being informed about what exactly they have financed. Communicating the product and process of science is an ongoing "annual report" to shareholders that chronicles how their investment has performed, and what has been accomplished.

This differs markedly from "advocacy", which is designed to inculcate a positive response (e.g., writing your congressman for funding). Admittedly all hope that the response to science communications would be positive, but the first mission is accountability and articulation of accomplishment. I believe that this simply part of the cost of doing business within NASA or any other Federally funded research enterprise, just as shareholders expect the company to spend some money printing the and mailing the annual report to apprise them of performance.

Sagan and Druyan embracing
"[The internet] is making science a much less rarefied, elitist experience…It’s antithetical to controlling information, to controlling the public, to limiting the amount of information that the public can have. The consequences of this will probably be no less revolutionary than the development of the printing press. Any moderately technological group of people can have access to the world’s knowledge, to the latest discoveries from the spacecraft that fly the solar system. Imagine what Jules Verne or H.G. Wells would have made of this." –Ann Druyan, Cosmos

AM: Can this response be measured, say, to improve it?

JH: I am admittedly pessimistic about the effectiveness of science communications in America, and disappointed that the Federal research enterprise seems unwilling to place meaningful emphasis upon what I perceive to be a critical function. But, I think it’s accurate to say that the success is locally variable and very difficult to measure in several respects.

"Personally I’m very attracted to fundamental questions. …Is life unique to Earth, or has it happened elsewhere?. Right now we have only this one event, so we can’t do the statistics. But if we could verify that life had occurred someplace else, then we could. To me it seems so profound. We may be the last generation born with knowledge of only life here on Earth. And we might die with the knowledge that there’s life elsewhere. " –John Hendricks, founder, CEO, Discovery Channel

The emergence over the past decade or so of private sector enterprises like Discovery Communications, the success of shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy, the abundance of Hands-On Science Centers, and polls that show a continued support for science, technology, and space research — these all seem to indicate that there is some success in articulating the importance of science and being science literate, in communicating science effectively (perhaps even profitably), and that things are working well.

Conversely, one could also point to flat-or-declining research budgets for more than a decade, a continued performance gap in science and mathematics test scores compared to other parts of the developed world, or the equally successful showing of pseudo-science television — psychics who talk to your dead grandmother, UFO conspiracy shows, and so forth — to argue that things are not going terribly well.

Where it is successful, the "doing" of science communication – building web-pages, educational products, press releases, video files, etc. – is strongly informed by a focus on academic research in science communications. This research helps those institutions answer questions such as "How are people consuming science information?", "What do people do with it?", and "Can I effectively measure my process?"

Part of the ambiguity in measurement of the success of science communications is also due to a general lack of consensus or understanding in what exactly science research is supposed to accomplish. NASA says one of it’s primary goals is "to inspire". To me, this is like saying Michael Jordan’s primary objective was to sell shoes — a valuable byproduct, no doubt, but a derivative outcome of what was really trying to be accomplished at the core, namely to win basketball games. As another example, much of the success in science communications I noted earlier is tied to entertainment. But should entertainment really be a primary desired outcome of science research? I don’t think we monitor the skies for intelligent radio transmissions or search for life in the soil of Mars primarily so that Hollywood can make more realistic movies for public consumption.

I believe that in the Federal research area, the objective of spending public money is to perform research that generates positive social, educational, economic, and quality-of-life outcomes in our society. The generation and communication of new knowledge should make our Universities the strongest centers of learning in the world, our economy among the most competitive, our living standards ever-increasing, and should allow us to achieve these objectives in a socially, ethically, and ecologically responsible way. How we go about this business is a matter of debate and the subject of public policy.

AM: And how does this influence policy, particularly space policy?

JH: Time will tell. I think we’re all awaiting a clear picture of exactly what the Administration’s plans are for NASA after Columbia, through the Shuttle/Station era and beyond.


Related Web Pages

Scientists Need to Better Communicate Space Exploration Benefits
Table Talk: Astrobiology
A Perfect World V: Hendricks : Discovery Communications, CEO
Ann Druyan
James Cameron: Astrobiology
Science@NASA