Via FriendFeed, I came across an article by Deepak Singh on attention and science, which spins off a long rant by Kevin Kelly on the idea that Where ever attention flows, money will follow. Deepak writes:
Attention can be driven by many mechanisms, marketing being the most effective one. The key is gaining sufficient mindshare, which is often accompanies by a flow of capital. In science, the money follows topics of research that have mindshare. Similarly people fund companies in areas that generate mindshare for whatever reason.
The question I often ask myself, both from my time as a marketer and as someone interested in science communication, is how can we bring more mindshare to some of our efforts and science in general. What does money flow mean? Is it just research funding? Is it investment in such concepts as “bursty work”?
He also links back to an older post calling for more marketing of science.
It occurs to me that another good idea to cite here is the comment that comes up frequently in discussions of intellectual property that (paraphrased) the biggest concern of most authors and musicians is not piracy but obscurity. Whatever your line of work, getting the right kind of attention for good work is a Hard Problem.
So, should scientists be hiring marketing people?
Well, as a stop-gap measure, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. There are people out there who make their living by drawing attention to products and ideas, and you could do worse than to hire them.
But it may not be necessary to go outside the profession. If you’re a scientist, no matter what field you’re in, you can almost certainly think of some group or organization that gets a disproportionate amount of attention for what they do. Some of that is a matter of fortuitous choice of subject matter, but some of it is people. There are people in science– some of them PI’s, some of them grad students– who have a gift for selling their work. The easiest way to increase the profile of good science is just to hire those people, and encourage them to put their skills to work.
Of course, if you don’t want to throw money at the problem, imitation doesn’t cost anything. While it’s not necessarily easy to figure out what will work to sell a particular experiment, there are a few techniques that work pretty consistently, and if you’re a scientist trying to get attention, you might try to apply them to your own work:
- Pretty Pictures. The Hubble Space Telescope and NASA’s robot probe programs will never lack for public attention, because they consistently generate jaw-dropping images. You can’t beat close-up pictures of other worlds as an attention getter, but it works in other fields as well– talk to a biologist about “charismatic megafauna” sometime. If you want to see this done well, stop by a newsstand and grab a copy of Seed, because the Corporate Masters are without peer.
- The Shoulders of Giants. You’ll occasionally hear physicists gripe about the constant invocations of Einstein, but the fact is, it almost always works. If your latest experiment confirms or better yet refutes a prediction made by Einstein, that’s pure marketing gold. Relativity has a great hold on the popular imagination, and anything you can do to connect your work to it will bring extra eyeballs. The same is true of other scientists who have a towering position in the popular imagination– Hawking, Newton, Darwin, Freud.
- A Great Hook. I occasionally gripe about “slow light,” which is, for me, the canonical example of something that gets attention all out of proportion to the actual importance of the work. There’s no denying that it’s a great hook, though– the idea of slowing down the fastest stuff in the universe has a powerful popular appeal, even if it’s a distorted picture. This is a hard one to make use of– good hooks are hard to think up, and there are lots of things that you might think would work fall flat. If you can come up with an imagination-firing way to pitch your work, though, it’s worth a shot.
- Claims of Relevance. This is the easiest technique to use, but also the one most likely to cause grumblings about distortion. If your work has a possible connection to something people already care about for other reasons, play that up. If you’re looking at drug candidates, you’re going to cure cancer. If you’re looking at anything with the slightest connection to solar power, you’re going to end our dependence on oil. And so on.
- Ready Availability. One of the surest ways to get attention is to just keep pushing your stuff at journalists, in as easy-to-use a format as possible. It’s something of a shotgun approach, but if you make your stuff available with very little effort, you’ll eventually get picked up. MIT’s press office are the kings of this– EurekAlert is full of slick, well-written press releases about work done at MIT, and they get lots of mention as a result. The LHC is another good example– they have made a concerted effort to push stories about the LHC at anybody who will listen, and it’s paid off in a big way.
Doing any of these well takes a fair amount of skill, and some people will just naturally be better at it. Recognizing the need for marketing your work is the essential first step, though. You’re not going to succeed unless you put in the effort.