April 19, 2002

Educating media, world focus of panel

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Dr. Richard Klausner, senior fellow at the National Academy of Sciences, urged scientists to do a better job of informing the public and government of advances in their fields. Klausner was a guest speaker at the media-science forum at Peabody. (photo by Neil Brake)

Educating media, world focus of panel

Scientists must do a better job “telling their stories” to the public, and to the federal government, which funds the bulk of research in this country, the former director of the National Cancer Institute said Monday during a forum on science and the media at Peabody College.

Despite widespread public support of research, and the growing reliance on science and technology to protect the nation from further terrorist attacks, there is an alarming lack of understanding about how science is actually done, said Dr. Richard Klausner, senior fellow at the National Academy of Sciences.

“For science to thrive in a society, the stories of science must be central to how we attempt to understand our world and ourselves,” Klausner said during the meeting, cosponsored by Vanderbilt University and Research!America, a non-profit alliance of organizations dedicated to making health-related research a higher national priority.

“The American public overwhelmingly supports science … (yet) a large majority of the population cannot tell us any where scientific research is being conducted,” said Research!America president Mary Woolley.

Following Klausner’s talk, John Seigenthaler Sr., chairman emeritus of The Tennessean and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt, moderated a panel discussion that included Vanderbilt scientists and members of the national news media.

Vanderbilt panelists included Rick Chappell, Ph.D., director of the Office of Science and Research Communications; Dennis Hall, Ph.D., associate provost for Research; Lee Limbird, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor for Research at the Medical Center; and Larry Marnett, Ph.D., Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research.

Media panelists included Jim Hartz, former co-host of NBC’s “Today” show; Bill McGowan, executive vice president of Discovery Communications; and Kathy Sawyer, a science reporter for The Washington Post.

In 1998 Chappell and Hartz documented a large gap in understanding between scientists and members of the news media. Their report, titled “Worlds Apart” and published by the First Amendment Center, has spawned discussions and workshops across the country designed to improve communication between the two groups, Hartz said.

One of those workshops, involving several Vanderbilt science faculty, was held Tuesday by Chappell, Hartz and Woolley at the Sarratt Center.

Part of the difficulty in telling the story of science, Limbird said, is the relatively low science literacy of the general public. Even when journalists understand a scientist’s work, “they’ve got to take it down two or three notches so the people reading it can understand,” she said.

Efforts to improve the way science is communicated will have to be repeated “again and again and again, until we get a national education that considers science something that people should learn,” Limbird said.

In the meantime, Woolley said, scientists must do a better job educating Congress about the potential for stem cell research to improve treatment of diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s disease, and the difference between that research and efforts to “clone” a human being.

A bill in Congress would ban embryonic stem cell research. “Members of Congress are not hearing at this pivotal time from the science community,” Woolley said. “That’s a problem.”

“Most scientists really don’t feel qualified to comment in an expert way,” Marnett responded. “Secondly, there is no clear consensus in the scientific community about how the country ought to go.”

“I have a basic confidence in the process of inquiry,” Hall added, “that we will get through this correctly. This will sort itself out.”

In his speech, Klausner said science thrives in a society that prizes democracy, individual freedom, questioning authority and an open marketplace. “It implies freedom, the freedom to ask questions, to search,” he said.

“It is our technological society that, in many ways, has created our vulnerability to terrorist attacks — planes that were turned into weapons,” Klausner said. Yet it also is through science and technology that society must find ways of protecting itself from terrorism, he added.

Klausner chairs a committee of the National Academies that is developing an agenda for responding to biological, nuclear and other terrorist threats. The academies, which include the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, advise the federal government on science and technology.

Klausner cautioned that scientists have a big problem communicating uncertainty and tentativeness in a world that wants immediate answers. Science “is not about belief but about reaching conclusions based on an accumulation of evidence,” he said.

That is why scientists can’t tell members of Congress with absolute certainty whether mammography saves lives. “The ‘War on Cancer’ is not a very good metaphor,” Klausner said. “Our approach to cancer is not a war, it is much more that we’re solving a puzzle.”

“Science is about learning. The media expects us to be about knowing,” Chappell added. “It’s a process. It’s a detective story. If the media can begin to understand we’re about learning rather than knowing all the answers, it’s going to help a tremendous amount.”