APS News

President's Corner

Media Outreach Programs Address Key Challenge

James Langer, APS President

Among the many new challenges facing the US physics community is the need to convince the public, and the Congress, of the excitement and importance of what we're doing. Physics no longer sells itself, nor can we count entirely on others such as teachers and journalists to build our image for us these days. It's our responsibility to make sure that young people understand how rewarding careers in science can be. And, like every other special interest group in our complex society, we now must make our own case for an adequate share of our country's resources. We make that case most directly by political advocacy in Washington, but our arguments cannot be convincing without the understanding and support of the voting public.

The APS has a strong record of public advocacy for physics. Bob Park, working out of our Washington office, has been outstandingly successful in publishing commentaries in major national newspapers and in television and radio interviews. His famous weekly email column, "What's New," is read with glee - and often chagrin - by scientists, politicians and bureaucrats throughout the country. More recently, the APS has hired Randy Atkins as a media-relations coordinator working in close collaboration with the AIP at our College Park headquarters. Randy's responsibility is to serve as a resource for newspaper and television reporters, directing their inquiries to knowledgeable scientists and alerting them about important developments in physics. He has been with APS for less than a year but already is having a major impact.

I realize that not all APS members feel comfortable about this new style of media-relations activity. Serious concerns were expressed, for example, at the APS Units Convocation in College Park last January. Some participants were worried that the media will get the physics wrong and make them look bad in the eyes of their colleagues. Or they fear that, even if the media do get it right and make them look good, their colleagues will accuse them of seeking personal publicity, publishing in the newspaper instead of going through the refereed journals. Many even fear that this peer-criticism will damage prospects for research funding.

Atkins tells me that he recently asked about the funding problem in a conversation with Bob Eisenstein, NSF Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. According to Bob, the fear that funding opportunities will be hurt by popularizing research is "not only wrong, but politically obtuse. We need to have an informed public that can make responsible judgements. At NSF, it's considered vitally important to get scientific information to the public. We would not penalize people who did this. On the contrary, we might give them a medal for it."

Why must we inform the public about our work? Because popular backing can, literally, mean life or death to scientific pursuits. The public needs to understand, not the particulars, but the broad significance of our work-its relation to technological progress, the quality of life, and an enriched understanding of our world. This is how science, whether funded by government or private enterprise, gets the resources that it needs to survive. Beyond funding, science must be made more accessible to the young people who will guide our future, and their parents who will guide them. Image may not be everything, but it sure helps with kids.

None of this is to say that it's OK to sacrifice scientific accuracy in talking to reporters or making public presentations. So how do we assure that that doesn't happen? One strategy is to ask journalists to allow us to check their stories for technical accuracy before publication, while assuring them that we won't get in the way of their editorial control. Let them know that we don't want to change wording-after all, they are the professional writers-we simply want to check for mistakes. Journalists don't want to look stupid.

But we have to understand that journalism is largely entertainment. People generally read the paper and watch TV during their leisure hours, when they're looking for fun rather than intellectual effort. So journalistic storytelling will never be as thorough as scientific writing. Remember too that, for journalists, space and time are precious commodities, not elegant physical concepts. Journalists must work within extremely tight constraints.

Finally, we must give our peers the benefit of the doubt when a story is reported inaccurately. Misstatements very likely are the fault of sloppy journalists, not inept scientists.

Even with inevitable imperfections, communicating science to the public is vital, and the media provide our most efficient vehicle for doing this. Public dialog has become, quite simply, a part of our jobs as scientists. We need to communicate science in media-savvy ways, showing especially its human side. The APS public-affairs experts unabashedly hope that some of us will become media stars. Those that reach that status may be unusual characters, with wit and charisma, because that's what interests people. Not all of us have such gifts, but we must appreciate those who do. Our APS media relations office is ready to help us play these roles-whether we're charismatic or not. Don't hesitate to contact Randy Atkins (301-209-3238) for advice or comments.

Here, to conclude, is an excerpt from President Clinton's January 21 speech at Caltech:

"I have one other major mission here today. I want to take a step back, to acknowledge that we have not done a good enough job of helping all Americans understand why the enormous investments we are making in science and technology are so important. For far too many of our citizens, science is something done by men and women in white lab coats, behind closed doors-something that leads, somehow, to things like Dolly the sheep and satellite TV. It is our responsibility to help open the world of science to our citizens-to help them understand the great questions that science is seeking to answer, to help them see how those answers will directly affect their lives."


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Editor: Alan Chodos
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