Thursday, November 19, 2009

All over the news...

Well, occasionally when I think we are about to publish something that might be of interest to the public I will write a short paragraph and send it to the ORNL and/or UT press officers for their perusal. This has led to several press releases in the last few years, including this and this. However, the recent work on mercury, a pollutant in streams such as the one above, turned out particularly contagious, perambulating around onto several other outlets, including the local newspaper and television and various specialised national sources. So why all the (relative) fuss?
Well, the previous releases that were direct to the press (as opposed to web pages erected by ORNL or UT entities, which are less likely to be scanned by journalists) concerned protein folding, neutron scattering and protein interactions. Although, in my opinion, the interest to the public of work in these fields is as great as the mercury studies, (e.g., knowing how to fold proteins would revolutionize medicine) it probably doesn't trigger the immediate spark in the minds of readers that 'mercury' does: any news piece that requires even the slightest little bit of intellectual effort from the reader before interest is stimulated is less likely to be read - it's only natural. And with protein folding and interactions the reader is initially in unsure, foreign territory.
Also interesting is that, although our work, based on calculations by Jerry Parks, is solid and published in a good journal, it is only incremental and is built on a large amount of existing knowledge generated by established researchers in the field such as Anne Summers (UGA), Sue Miller (UCSF) and Tamar Barkay (Rutgers). In other words the work on mer operon function over the last 20 years or so was all just as newsworthy as ours, if not more. More generally, the field work, geochemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology underway in the mercury Science Focus Area at ORNL is of intense general interest. So there's clearly a disconnect here as only a small fraction of genuinely interesting scientific results end up in the general news. There's a lot one could say about this and information flow and filtering in general. However, we, as scientists, need to think when we are about to publish, whether the public might be interested in some aspect of our results. We need to learn how to express our work in concise layman's language, and to constantly disseminate. The public that feeds us needs feedback.

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