[Coral-List] Did you see that sexy scientist on the news last night? Resiliency continued... really

Steven Miller smiller at gate.net
Wed Mar 8 22:31:08 EST 2006

Changing the subject just a little, I believe that one of the reasons 
scientists are so easy to ignore these days is that we don't have any 
nationally or internationally known personalities who speak for our 
discipline.  I'm talking about no Einsteins, Carsons, Sagans, or 
Cousteaus.  We certainly don't have any ocean advocates who are 
effective outside the realm of academics or NGOs.  Absent are 
charismatic, camera-savvy, camera-friendly, willing, and respectable 
scientists who are widely known and accepted by the public as 
entertaining and truthful.  In my opinion, our failure is related to the 
fact that today's media environment requires an approach that is outside 
the comfort zone of most scientists.  It's not about arguing better 
because that doesn't work and it's boring.  But that's what we're good 
at, arguing.  We need famous, entertaining, and trusted (heroic would be 
good too) scientists to speak for the ocean. 

How do we foster development of such spokespersons?  We need platforms 
to showcase the talents of our best communicators and hope that a few 
have that "something special" that allows them to connect broadly with 
audiences. Platforms that currently exist to showcase "talent" are 
traditional in the sense that TV news and documentaries are routine 
activities that touch the lives of many scientists.  Platforms we need 
but don't have include what is best described as a marriage between 
Hollywood and science.  What characterizes these hybrid science and 
Hollywood platforms is that they are entertaining, including comedy, 
emotion, drama, maybe even sex (thus my headline above). 

I don't exactly have the answer about how to make such a thing happen, 
other than we need to try lots of different things.  We know the 
conventional stuff does not work.  What might be unconventional?  
Development programs that send scientists to Hollywood to learn about 
script writing, filmmaking, even acting classes!  And then let these 
scientists loose with their new skills (fund them to do stuff).  And 
don't hold it against them when tenure decisions come up!  Most will 
never become famous but I bet they will produce some really good stuff 
that will be important in other ways so its a no-lose proposal.  Who 
knows, maybe one or two will produce something that helps launch a path 
to stardom (but not so they have to give up their day jobs).

I have other ideas too, but my agent told me not to let everything out 
of the bag... ha ha ha.  Not.  Seriously, we need help in the area of 
communications and I'm not talking about bigger budgets to do more of 
the same old stuff.   And I'm not talking about how to talk better with 
the press.  That's an issue, but it's a conventional issue.  I'm 
suggesting that we need to find and nurture a generation of scientists 
who seriously understand the new media landscape of public relations 
firms, sound bites, and all the rest (the Hollywood element).  And who 
get famous!  Of course, these scientists have to be excellent and well 
respected in their fields because you can bet they will be attacked 
(maybe first and most viciously by their peers).  This new 
communications paradigm requires an investment in infrastructure and 
training that I believe is missing, and worse is shunned, in today's 
academic world.  But that could change...  maybe.... eventually.... 
tomorrow would be good.

I suggest that innovative communication strategies that marry Hollywood 
and science also apply to organizations, especially environmental NGOs.  
When I say Hollywood I don't mean using Hollywood stars to front (the 
talking head syndrome) for scientific or environmental issues.  I mean 
the techniques of Hollywood that make issues and people interesting and 
entertaining, worth watching. 

Finally, I understand that people can do important things, make 
important discoveries, with a secondary result being that they become 
famous.  I don't think we are likely to see such discoveries within the 
realm of ocean science.  But I could be wrong.  Expeditionary science 
still has an important role to play and it's possible that placing the 
right people on ships and in subs, with the right documentary 
filmmakers, might eventually create Cousteau-like fame.  But we need to 
do more.  I'm suggesting a pro-active approach that uses a core group of 
people who are already good scientists and making them really special 
communicators, and then hoping a few of them won't mind becoming famous 
too, if the opportunity arises.

Best regards.

Steven Miller, Ph.D.
Research Professor
UNC Wilmington 

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