Joe Palca

One of the good things about still being in grad school is that I have access to the calendar of invited speakers.  Lucky for me, Joe Palca, NPR’s science correspondent, gave a Discovery Lecture at Vanderbilt on October 25.  I was interested to hear him speak, but also to see who turned up to fill the audience.  The entire biomedical community is invited to the Discovery Lecture Series, which means that I am just as likely to sit next to a white-haired and -coated oncologist as to another graduate student.  Joe Palca as invitee was slightly unorthodox, and I was uncertain whether any of my scientist colleagues would be interested enough to show up.  On occasion, I have encountered the belief on the part of scientists that journalists willfully get the story wrong and thus make the scientists look foolish.  I was, therefore, pleased to see the lecture hall fill up, and settled in for a fun talk.

The problem with reporting science, according to Joe, is twofold.  First, most science stories come with necessary vocabulary, in a way that very little other news does.  He used football as an example here and played a newscast of himself explaining Superbowl results with each tiny element defined, just as it would be in a science story.  Boring!  The second problem with reporting science news is that no one knows in advance which stories are going to be important, so timeliness is a true challenge.  Making an example of several Nobel Prizes, he illustrated how little coverage these discoveries (eventually considered by the Nobel committee to be really big deals) received initially.  Because news operates on (increasingly 24/7) news time rather than science time, which can drag on and on, initial discoveries that seem like a they might be a big deal are highlighted too soon and so much that the public loses interest; gene therapy is one example.  By the time science catches up with news, the next big science thing is already all over and no one wants to hear about something they initially heard about years ago.

Because of this twofold problem, the public’s current impression is that scientists are discovering awesome things daily, and while collectively we probably are, no one scientist is discovering something every single day.  What I do as a scientist is confirm what I think are discoveries, which actually involves bucket loads of troubleshooting, waiting, testing, and reevaluating what I think I know.  So rather than reporting news in leapfrog fashion, jumping from one breakthrough to another, and perpetuating the public’s misconception of how science works, Joe has a Big Idea.  He wants to tell stories about the process of science and the delight that comes with learning something that no one ever knew before.

When he started to talk about his Big Idea, the scientists in the audience got a little twitchy.  Joe spotted them twitching and said that he knows that scientists sometimes feel uncomfortable with making science about the people doing it rather than about the science itself (perhaps because here another chance exists to make scientists look foolish).  His answer to this discomfort is that his job as a communicator is to intrigue people enough with the stories of the scientific process and the scientists that his readers or listeners want to go forth and learn about the science themselves, shifting responsibility for understanding science to the public.  After Joe helped the audience that he wants the same thing that they want (people to care about their research), the room relaxed again.

Going forward, Joe’s Big Idea has serious merit, and as an aspiring communicator, I love the idea of telling a different kind of story.  Journalists and scientists could operate on the same time scale and work together to communicate engaging science in which everyone wants to take ownership.

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