The Intersection

NASA is to be commended for a new media policy easing up restrictions on scientist communications. Most importantly, scientists don’t have to have little PR minders on their phone calls any more. Bravo. See here to learn more about the policy.

NASA’s move is entirely positive–it represents progress. Still, it’s pretty scant progress in light of years and years of abuses against science perpetrated by the Bush administration, and the wide range of agencies where these problems have manifested. The great danger, now, is that NASA will be pointed to as a success story in order to neutralize further criticism, not unlike the president’s own “pro-science” initiative to improve science education and international scientific competitiveness.

But in fact, of course, we know that other agencies aren’t taking NASA’s lesson to heart. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, has stated that it will continue to screen all media requests for interviews with its scientists. We also know that the member of Congress who pushed NASA to respond positively to the James Hansen situation, House Committee on Science chairman Sherwood Boehlert, is set to step down from his post at the end of 2006. Who knows whether his replacement will demand similar responses from the administration.

The “integrity of science” issue, then, has finally gained some traction–but its advocates must remain nimble and ready to evolve. It’s easy to complain from the outside when the people you’re criticizing are ignoring you, especially when you’re winning big cheers from your own self-selecting audience. It’s much harder, though, to continue to push for change–and maintain focus and unity–having won a small victory.


  1. #1 Ed
    April 1, 2006

    G’day Chris.
    Good news – great news in fact. When a scientist does wish to speak – he or she should not only be allowed, but encouraged if not downright praised.

    I read with interested your article, ‘Learning to Speak “Science”‘. Nice answer, but I got the impression that the cognitive and communications research you referenced was put forward as a recent scientific development. If this was the intent, I am not sure I necessarily agree.

    I posted a comment recently about stepping back a bit following a broad consensus and allowing other ‘means and media’ to change the world. Then recommended (with some distain) the utilization of Market Researchers and PR firms – they probably call themselves communications firms as you site in the article. These guys have been around for a very long time and taken a social science to an almost artistic level. (again I am not one of them, but nearly married one if that may be counted as a credential – and oh, the debates we used to have about the redeeming value of her trade – ‘spawned from snake oil salesman’ used to peeve her the most.). They are masters at swaying public opinion, using focus groups, polls, telephone surveys, and other means to collect data on ‘how the brains are working today’. She used to lament for hours over the wording of the simplest questions. If hers wasn’t a scientific approach (albeit a dark side), I’m lost for what is. “Covering the World with a CO2 blanket” would be to them – merely ‘spin’.

    So, I guess from a big picture, I agree wholeheartedly with the article’s intent. ‘It is important to get the scientific message out, and there are refined scientifically developed skill-sets out there capable of providing assistance’. But who pays for these consultations? As I recall these guys don’t work cheaply and with resources limited for science as it is, how can they hope to enlist such support? Certainly, as you’ve demonstrated, the politicians in control of many budgets don’t want them running off at the mouth – not to mention in a more influential way. Universities maybe?

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