Communicating Science Through Storytelling: A Double-Edged Sword?

wastebook_screenshotIn this series of posts, I’m talking about pitfalls in framing a science message for a non-specialist audience. In the last post, I described a study that showed an association between university press releases that make exaggerated claims about biomedical research and related news stories that also misrepresented the science. I also discussed why workshops designed to teach scientists to “sell their research” should include caveats regarding exaggeration of research findings. In this post, I want to explore one unintended outcome of having one’s research described in the popular press.

When research is described by the media with eye-catching titles, it may attract the attention of anti-science political groups. In the US, scientific research is a popular target of politicians seeking to highlight wasteful government spending. Scientific research projects funded by U.S. Federal grants and described as “Mountain Lions on a Treadmill”, “Synchronized Swimming for Sea Monkeys” or “Watching Grass Grow” sound like a joke at best and a waste of taxpayer money at worst. The latter is what U.S. Senator, Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-Oklahoma), would like Americans to believe. Coburn publishes an annual Wastebook, which purports to reveal wasteful spending by government officials (e.g., “Bureaucrats Gone Wild”), programs (e.g., “State Department Tweets @ Terrorists”), and scientific researchers (e.g., see titles above).

I heard about Coburn’s Wastebook recently in podcasts produced by Science Friday, which talked about attacks on science and scientists and why scientists should push back when it happens.

Science Gone Wrong?

The 2014 Wastebook highlights several research projects funded by Federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and gives them funny-sounding titles designed to bamboozle the taxpayer into believing that these studies are worthless wastes of time and money. Those of you who remember Senator William Proxmire and his Golden Fleece awards (1975-1988) will recognize the simplistic and often incorrect or incomplete characterizations of research projects that are targeted for ridicule. The research singled out by waste-busting efforts like this usually turn out to be far from wasteful. If you read the descriptions of scientific research in the Wastebook report and then google the research grant for the bigger picture, it quickly becomes clear that these awards misrepresent the science and offer no legitimate reason why they should not have been funded:


Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Public Domain)

1. The so-called “Mountain Lions on a Treadmill” project is actually aimed at promoting conservation of large predators by developing a new tool to track them. The NSF awarded $855,758 for the four-year, multi-investigator study that investigated energy use, hunting behavior, and spatial movements of mountain lions. For part of the study, the lions were indeed trained to use a treadmill so that researchers could test and calibrate a new wildlife collar to track predator movements in the wild (contrary to the Wastebook claim, however, the NSF funds were apparently not used for the treadmill work, according to one Principal Investigator (PI)). Why is the research important? Better tracking data could lead, for example, to better ways to predict and therefore avoid contacts between wild predators and human communities—saving people, pets, livestock, and the predators themselves.

The Wastebook questioned the expenditure, saying that “…scarce resources should be used to pay down the debt or on higher priorities, such as emerging biological threats that could pounce on anyone of us.” On the surface, this statement sounds reasonable—if the choice were really between the mountain lion study and the suggested alternatives. However, this argument is based on a false dichotomy and plays on the ignorance of the taxpayer about how research funds are allocated.

You can hear what one of the lead investigators, Terrie Williams, has to say about attacks on her project and on science in general in this podcast at Science Friday. Read her op-ed in the LA Times.

2. Another research project that made Coburn’s 2014 Wastebook list was entitled

Image Credit: © Hans Hillewaert / , via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: © Hans Hillewaert / , via Wikimedia Commons

“Synchronized Swimming for Sea Monkeys”, a name that conjures up frivolous images unrelated to the actual purpose of the 4-year study, funded by NSF, Office of Naval Research, and US-Israel Binational Science Foundation ($307,524). The principal investigator is John Dabiri, a Caltech professor of aeronautics and bioengineering. The objective of the project is to investigate the role of swimming zooplankton in affecting ocean circulation. Forces influencing ocean mixing and circulation are important to understand because they are used in model simulations to study climate change. The scientists used lasers to simulate ocean conditions in an experimental tank, tricking brine shrimp (commonly called sea monkeys) into swimming; they were then able to measure how much water was moved by the swirling shrimp. They chose this laboratory approach to avoid the exorbitant costs of an ocean-going study, something the Wastebook failed to mention. Instead, the Wastebook description trivialized the research by suggesting to the reader: “With kits available online and many toy stores, you can try to train your own team of synchronized swimming Sea Monkeys for as little as $12”.

You can hear a podcast by Dabiri giving his response to the Wastebook claim that his research is wasteful spending of government funds at Science Friday.

3. “Watching Grass Grow” targets a research project designed to determine how best toFLspart harvest a salt marsh plant (Spartina alterniflora) used widely in coastal restoration projects so that the donor marsh is not damaged in the process. This one caught my eye because I’ve conducted research on this plant myself. The Wastebook refers to this cordgrass study as “just another weed of government waste” and fails to mention the important role this plant plays in our nation’s coastal zone. Salt marshes dominated by this species are important stabilizers of shorelines, buffers against storms, and nursery grounds supporting fisheries, to name a few values. The plant is being removed from its natural habitat for transplantation to other areas to reduce erosion or to create or restore marsh, but this activity may damage the donor marsh in the process, which is obviously counterproductive. The investigators will determine what percentage of the donor marsh can be removed and still recover. The $10,000 provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is an extremely modest expenditure to figure out how to avoid damage to an important natural resource.

Those are just three examples of research projects featured in Coburn’s report, but they serve to illustrate the nature of this type of attack on science. These false claims of waste were propagated by the media…many news outlets repeated the material in the Wastebook without bothering to determine if these were truly examples of wasteful government spending. There may be legitimate reasons not to fund a particular research project, but such reasons are not offered in the Wastebook. Instead, the research is caricatured and compared to more worthy-sounding, but totally unrelated, causes. And without an explanation of the vetting process that research projects go through, the taxpayer is left to assume that these funding decisions were wrong-headed, based on esoteric rather than meritorious criteria, or made carelessly. Of course, most of the research targeted by the Wastebook went through a rigorous review process in which scientific peers and expert panelists scrutinized the proposed project and the  PI’s qualifications. Given the intense scrutiny that research proposals are put through and the low percentage that end up being funded, it’s unlikely that a truly unworthy study would be funded—and certainly not the number listed in the Wastebook.

How to Avoid Having Your Research Featured in the 2015 Wastebook

You may wonder, as I did, how did Coburn and staff become aware of these research projects and why were they selected for inclusion in the 2014 Wastebook? Well, they may have started with the list of Federally-funded projects at You can search all awards and find the names of the PIs and other information. But it’s more likely that Coburn’s office became aware of these particular research projects because they were mentioned in online media. The descriptions in the Wastebook contain information, particularly quotes from specific sources, that are identical to those found in online news articles and press releases. And particularly telling is how these news items are titled.

For example, the “Synchronized Swimming for Sea Monkeys” description in the Wastebook contains several quotes originally published in the following online articles or press releases:

Williams-Hedges, Deborah. “Swimming Sea-Monkeys Reveal How Zooplankton May Help Drive Ocean Circulation | Caltech” The California Institute of Technology. Press Release. 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

Boyle, Alan. “Laser-Guided Sea-Monkeys Reveal How Critters Boost Ocean’s Waves.” NBC News. 30 September 2014.

Lee, Jane J. “Laser-Guided Sea-Monkeys Show That Tiny Animals Can Move Mountains of Seawater.” National Geographic Society. 30 September 2014.

Geggel, Laura. “Tiny Sea Monkeys Create Giant Ocean Currents.” Purch. 30 September 2014.

So there’s no mystery to how Coburn’s staff came to use the term, sea monkey, or where they got some of the verbiage used in preparing the 2014 Wastebook. For example, the Wastebook repeated critical comments made by another researcher about Dabiri’s project in the National Geographic article —which helped to call into question the validity of the research: “Christian Noss, an environmental physicist at the University of Koblenz-Landau in Germany, says that he’s not convinced the effect would scale up from the laboratory to the ocean.” That was a legitimate comment in the original article, but it was used out of context in the Wastebook description. The Wastbook further trivialized the research by suggesting that taxpayers could grow and train their own sea monkeys. Where did they get that idea? The Caltech press release said, “Brine shrimp (specifically Artemia salina) can be found in toy stores, as part of kits that allow you to raise a colony at home.”

“Mountain Lions on a Treadmill” opens with this quote: ““People just didn’t believe you could get a mountain lion on a treadmill, and it took me three years to find a facility that was willing to try,” exclaimed Terrie Williams, a University of California-Santa Cruz professor.” This quote can also be found in a news story prepared by the scientist’s university press office: Tim Stephens, “Study of mountain lion energetics shows the power of the pounce,” University of California-Santa Cruz News Center, October 2, 2014.

The “Watching Grass Grow” title and main message can also be traced to an article in an online newspaper (Patterson, Steve. “In Guana Marsh, Research Sheds New Light On Old Florida Environment.” The Florida Times-Union. 11 August 2014.). The news article’s first sentence states: “To some folks, watching grass grow could seem sort of tedious, especially if they just planted it.” The first sentence in the Wastebook description states: “The Federal government is literally paying people to watch grass grow.”


What this all boils down to, it seems to me, is that how these research projects were characterized in press releases and later by popular press articles provided fodder for Coburn’s Wastebook—and may have put it on the senator’s radar in the first place.

In an attempt to make the research palatable to the general public, the authors of these press releases and news articles used terminology that unfortunately handed Coburn a weapon that could be turned against the science and its funders. John Dabiri, in his podcast for Science Friday said that explaining science is a “two-edged sword”. On the one hand, it’s important to show that research is not an esoteric endeavor conducted in an ivory tower. To do this requires describing research in easy-to-understand terms. However, in making the research understandable, it’s easy to create caricatures that can be later misused by people with political agendas.

The lesson for scientists is to get involved in sharing your research with the public so that you have some control over how it is described in the popular media. Think carefully about how to characterize your research before an interview by a news outlet or your institution’s press office. Although anyone’s words can be twisted and used against them, some preparation can help you avoid saying something you later regret. If you don’t feel comfortable with a particular interview question, politely decline to answer or offer something else more relevant: “That’s really outside my area of expertise; however, I can describe how that works in my field of study.”

If your institutional press office is planning to write a press release about your work, insist that you be involved in the writing or at least to see a copy prior to release. Too few scientists bother to do this, perhaps thinking it’s not their job. My view is that it is the scientist’s job to ensure that their research is described accurately to the public and not exaggerated in an attempt to make it sound more interesting or relevant. Let me hasten to add here that I’ve not always been successful in controlling the message in such interactions—so I realize that the scientist is not always to blame for what ends up in a press release or news story. However, most press officers and journalists are interested in accuracy and will appreciate the scientist’s input.

The best way to control the message is to take the lead in explaining your research to the general public. You might write a popular article, prepare a fact sheet, or shoot a video. In doing so, of course, you want to take care in characterizing your topic and methods and in explaining why your research is important to society. Avoid making any unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims about your research. Especially avoid using titillating, lascivious, or silly words to describe your research in an attempt to attract more attention to your topic. You might get more than you bargained for.