I certainly agree with the point. I have been part of two communities, science and the military, that in defiance of public perception are filled with hilarious people who have great stories. But when the recorder comes on, it's often like talking to someone in marketing who hasn't been cleared for media by their boss. They clam up or give canned answers.
I want the stories, not some dry discourse about a narrow field of research. Yet most scientists don't want to be personal with the public that, if you are at a university, is probably being funded by taxpayers. They instead often seem to think the public has a knowledge deficit and they can fill it and journalists should want to quote them doing that. It's completely logical to think that. It's also completely wrong.
Spock was over 50 years ago - it's 2020
I have blamed the legacy of Mr. Spock for turning scientists from personalities in their own right into logical automatons. Leonard Nimoy created the role in the mid-1960s, the decade when the public believed cancer and most diseases would be cured by cold reason and data, while previous scientists had given us thalidomide, government eugenics, and atomiic bombs. Nimoy was an actor portraying the future scientist as what he thought society should want them to be.
Spock was wildly popular and so he became the demeanor scientists adopted for themselves, the same way nearly every airline pilot for two generations changed their voice to sound more like General Chuck Yeager when they got on the intercom to the passengers. Yet those are masks, and anyone who has met a celebrity they like and had them quote a line from their show in response to a question knows masks worn all of the time are a little weird.
The newest generation of scientists didn't grow up on Mr. Spock, they may never have seen the character outside recent J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" movies. Leave that facade to older people. talk to the public like you would if you were friends sitting in a bar.
The most personal way to make your work appealing is to write it yourself
I get pitches for articles all of the time, sometimes from scientists themselves, and my default response is 'write up a consumer level version of your work and we'll publish it.' We often get no answer after that. Many want to be written about, it gives they get the feels in their stomach at the prospect the way someone buying them a plane ticket to talk at a conference provides.
It misses something important. For every biologist like Sean Carroll of Howard Hughes Medical Institute, there are 50,000 others who want to get the media attention of Dr. Carroll without doing what he did and does; talk directly to the public and share great stories. It won't happen just by putting something on Twitter, that is gone in seconds. Articles last forever.
Fourteen years ago last month, our Scienceblogs site began. It was 15 blogs under one banner, something that hadn't been successful before, but that time it was wildly successful. Because scientists shared their lives, they were not just writing about roundworms.
We've now had over 300,000,000 readers since but what was once edgy and new is done by fewer scientists per capita than when it was considered too edgy and new for university tenure committees to want young scholars to spend time doing. But universities are pushing out 6X as many Ph.D.s as there are academic jobs, meaning far greater competition for government grants. Long-term post-docs are common.
Media engagement expertise is like being a star quarterback who works at homeless shelters on a college application when everyone else just has good grades. It sets people apart.
Write about your work - and answer email once you start getting questions from journalists
Having good research isn't enough when journalists are besieged by claims of endocrine disruptors in mice and new miracle foods bolstered by epidemiological correlation, and NASA routinely has press releases touting how a wobble in space has "implications for life on other planets." I joked about getting this paper from a PIO at a school, and there is nothing wrong with that, especially when PLOS ONE alone publishes 100 studies a day. But PIOs will be hit and miss. Yet if I get an email from a scientist who wants to talk about their work, there is a 100 percent chance of a response. Literally, 100 percent. Unless your paper is some arXiv thing about mathematical time travel or what you believe about the Kennedy assassination, we want to read it. It should never take more than an hour to write a consumer version of something you spent years on. If it does, you are over-thinking it.
If your paper is interesting and you get emails from journalists, answer them. One common complaint I hear from scientists is that media use the same voices over and over. We use the people who will respond. One time for a panel I spent weeks writing people to appear on it and finally a week before the event I wrote someone I already know, a legend, really, and she agreed to appear on short notice. On Twitter, thousands would be willing to say they are ready to appear - easy to say if you're in Illinois and the event is in Washington, DC - but in practice most won't even answer an email about their own research. Being engaged makes the difference. If an intriguing paper is coming off embargo, consumer interest will have the shelf life of egg salad because it will be in 20 places within an hour of release. Answering two weeks later is no help.
Some scientists absolutely believe answering questions is pointless. They are not reading this article. If you made it this far, it may be advice you didn't need.
Engagement creates authenticity
Bill Nye the Science Guy is a genuine science guy. I was doing research one time on a park bench in the Upper West Side of Manhattan near our office and he was walking by and was interested in someone clearly not a student doing research on a park bench and we talked about mitochondria. We'd met before but he didn't remember that, he just likes to talk to people. There is a reason he is more famous than 99.99 percent of scientists, and that reason is engagement.
Celebrities have different personalities on camera than they do in real life but they still come across as more authentic than someone who doesn't engage at all. And engagement humanizes you. Bill Nye was once overtly anti-GMO. I didn't quite understand it, but I assumed maybe his audience had a large chunk of the kind of people who are anti-GMO. He then went to Monsanto to learn about the science and he discovered Monsanto was made up of actual human beings. They go to church, they care about the environment, they recycle, and they are great scientists. They were not the malevolent "tinkerers" portrayed by organic food trade groups. He changed his mind about GMOs.
I once wanted to interview a Principal Scientist at a pesticide company, because of some questions I had about effects in aquatic life. I did not want to go through their marketing group because unless you are Tom Cruise, you don't get to have a handler in the room with me. I asked him the kind of questions the audience likes that I ask. He answered them all. That smacks of authenticity and he changed my mind.
It didn't matter to me that he worked at a pesticide company, to me that meant he was going to be more knowledgeable than someone who just talks about statistical correlation. What mattered was that he didn't try to hide anything and he often answered better questions than I was asking.
It doesn't matter to the public either. We don't ask philosophers about agriculture or politicians about climate change science, the public wants experts. And 70 percent of the time those experts will be in the private sector and unable to talk because of corporate policy. That means engagement is wide open for academics.
The recent study showed that. Though everyone recognizes money matters few would do unethical things just because it might benefit their employer. Yet numerous critics of science allege just that all of the time. Forget them. It's easy to focus on our detractors but the public is generally unwilling to believe scientists are shills, especially when they don't even work for a company.
But outreach should not be part of the job
I am not saying that you should write if you are terrible at it or hate it. If you are 95% great scientist and 10% great writer, stick with the science. There are lots of journalists told by their companies they need to engage on social media, and some are terrible at it and do more harm than good. How many fewer books does Nassim Taleb sell if people read his Twitter feed before they buy? It's unknown, but it may be a lot.
It's no different in science. A university shouldn't be mandating outreach now any more than they penalized it in 2006 (which they did) but people who are good at it are valuable, the same way a baseball player who can play infield and outfield has value. If you are one of those multi-tool personalities, tell your stories. We want to publish it, lots of other places do also, and 65 million people want to read you, in America alone.