Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Selling science

Public Relations Campaign for Research Office at E.P.A. Includes Ghostwriting Articles - New York Times:
The Office of Research and Development at the Environmental Protection Agency is seeking outside public relations consultants, to be paid up to $5 million over five years, to polish its Web site, organize focus groups on how to buff the office's image and ghostwrite articles "for publication in scholarly journals and magazines."

The strategy, laid out in a May 26 exploratory proposal notice and further defined in two recently awarded public relations contracts totaling $150,000, includes writing and placing "good stories" about the E.P.A.'s research office in consumer and trade publications.
I'm torn about this. On one hand, the idea of a PR firm ghostwriting scientific papers is horrific. Scientific papers are not PR, they are an explanation of what you did and what you found. They should be clear, unambiguous statements about what the data are and what they tell you about a hypothesis, and spinning in a journal article is frowned upon. There is no upside to that.

I do, however, like the idea of promoting science, and if that means the government spending a little money promoting the valuable research it does, that's for the best. The EPA does great work, and all the EPA scientists I've met have been smart, serious people doing work that they hope will protect the health of the public. That deserves more public support, and that support only comes through understanding.

Unfortunately, in a climate where scientific reports are being edited by political appointees, I can't trust this proposal. I want to, but I can't.

What I'd rather see is a government chartered organization dedicated to educating the public about the state of science and the directions science can move in. The NSF gives grants for education, but not for scientific PR. The National Academies do great work, but not PR. The same is true of the NIH, AAAS, and professional societies and organizations.

The danger is that government funded PR for scientists will not promote the science, it'll promote the policies, and that's bad. Government scientists have very few opportunities for speaking out on the issues that they are world experts on. I know a guy who used to work at the Pentagon (he moved on years ago), reviewing new technology for cost and feasibility (roughly speaking). After working on the missile defense program for a few years, he was getting very frustrated. In his expert opinion, the system cost too much, it wouldn't work in its current state, was not improving, and was unlikely ever to be an effective defense, which means it wouldn't be an effective deterrent. He saw it as good money after bad, and realistic options for national security had to be squeezed to accommodate a broken piece of pork.

When I asked him about the life of a government scientist, I asked if someone in a situation like that could ever speak out publicly. "No, no, no, no" was his response. Nonetheless, he was very encouraging about life as a government scientist, because you hold one tiny thread in the reins of power. By slow steady work, you can shape the perception that produces the policy, and in time, shift the policy to reflect the data you are measuring.

What this editing takes away is the opportunity for government scientists to tell the public what's actually going on. Scientific journals don't let you turn a research paper into an opinion piece, and government scientists know better than to try. But the data can speak for themselves, if they are given the right forum.

A good scientific PR program would make sure that the public understood the backstory to a piece of obscure research. A bad scientific PR program would obscure the deeper meaning in favor of cheap propaganda. "Look, our scientists are researching pollution, so don't you worry about it," would be the wrong message. "Here's what we've just learned about pollution, and here's how that improves what we already knew," is the right kind of PR.