CAB Minutes: March 2009

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Society For Ethical Culture, 2 W. 64th Street, Manhattan

Moderator: Ellen Horne, executive producer, Radio Lab
Panelists: Joe Bonner, Director of Communications & Public Affairs, Rockefeller University, Adrienne Klein, Co-Director of Science and the Arts at the Grad Center at CUNY, Bruce McEwen, Alfred E. Mirsky Professor Harold & Margaret Milliken Hatch Lab of Neuroendocrinology, Rockefeller University, Robert Pollack, Professor, Columbia University, Director, CSSR, Ellis Rubenstein, President, New York Academy of Sciences

The meeting, which was in the form of a panel discussion, ran from approximately 7PM-9PM. The topic was "Science and the Media: A Panel Discussion." Biographies of the panelists were available in the form of handouts. Approximately 32 people were in attendance, including 2 WNYC staff members, 8 current CAB members, and 2 former CAB members. I have noted the major points made by each panelist below, along with some of the audience Q & A. As these comments have been consolidated, they are not presented in exact chronological order.

The panelists began by introducing themselves. All except RP made statements at that time.

AK: Science, as does radio, costs money. The station will need to address that if anything is suggested. Is the general public interested in science? Absolutely. For example, look at the rise of science cafes. "But to the average person on the street, science might as well be magic. This is not good for democracy." Radio can democratize knowledge. I think WNYC does a pretty good job with science, between Science Friday and Radio Lab and the news coverage. There is a science & technology tab on the website. How popular are WNYC programs and segments? Are any used in education? What does WNYC see as its mission regarding science? What are the demographics of the podcast listeners?

BM: I have a strong interest in the communication of science to the public. It's vital not only for research, but also for public education, for example to shift the emphasis from treatment of disease to prevention, as the Obama administration is trying to do.

JB: My office communicates the research of Rockefeller University to the public. My particular interest, especially with regard to WNYC, is that we've seen what's happening to's pretty bleak. There are decreasing opportunities to spread news. WNYC is a good medium for this.

ER: I've never done radio, but I was a journalist. Who is the audience, and what do they want? This is the great time to be having this conversation, given that we have a new president who respects science, and we are also marking both the Darwin anniversary as well as the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow's famous Two Cultures lecture at Oxford. I would like to frame the conversation by looking at the [WNYC] website. It's nice that it shows science & tech along with news etc. But there aren't many stories there, and often they're not real science stories, or they're miscategorized. In the past 6 months, they list 20 stories on biology, 5 in physics, and none in chemistry. Why are they so constrained?

EH: Perhaps the stories on Brian Lehrer, RadioLab, etc. are not indexed there. We [Radiolab] certainly cover bio, chemistry, neurology, etc. We [WNYC] just started carrying Science Friday. And The Takeaway has a commitment to science—15 minutes per day is the goal, though they don't always hit it. I had been in coral reef preservation & I left because it was impossible to get coverage unless there was a disaster. I wanted to make science available to a wider audience. Robert [Krulwich] likes to do "this always is," not "this just in." Last month we had 1 million downloads and last year we won an award, money from NSF and other organizations. So to answer Adrienne's question, we've been extremely successful, beyond our expectations.

RP: Science is necessary for the survival of the species. I've been on Lopate twice and I'm a member of WNYC. Of all the programs I've heard, Radio Lab does it best. It must be remembered that the process is never final; the station can't deliver discoveries as if they were final truths. And policy should not be discussed in the language of science because there is no right or wrong in science. No scientist wants to tell you what to do with his or her discovery.

EH: Why is it important to cultivate a science-literate audience?

RP: For self-defense. If you don't understand science, it will be used on you.

ER: Science is no different than any other topic, in that it's important to be understood. But it is different in that it has an impact on people's lives. At NYA we are trying to advance science literacy. We have a website with our events, and podcasts.

EH: We have a marked change in the current administration with respect to science. Does anyone want to comment on the state of funding?

BP: I think peer-review will be modulated by the government as government seeks solutions to the financial crisis. Getting money is not sufficient. Scientists must be free to conduct free inquiry.

BM: Funding needs to be sustained. You need more than an initial influx.

BP then brought up the recent lifting of restrictions on stem cell research, which led to a bit of a dicussion, including audience questions, regarding stem cell research. Ellen Horne turned the discussion back to WNYC & media:

EH: Where do we see opportunities that WNYC has missed?

(Switching to transcription)
ER: I don't get to hear all the shows. We have the greatest group of life scientists in the world here in NYC. People from outside NY are seeing it - I don't think New Yorkers are. We should cover events and people here in NY. We're thought of as the financial and arts/entertainment capital of the world, but not so much science. There is very little coverage in the NY media.

BP: We're missing a story. NY is the capital of immigration. Science is a global enterprise. Foreign input is the lifeblood of science here. What is the experience like of being on a research visa? There is very little security. We're not maintaining our commitment because of xenophobic politics.

EH to JB: Are NY media outlets receptive?

JB: There are no real hometown papers. They're looking more globally.

ER: I have an anecdote. For 3 years, we were the only city with an alliance with the Nobel Foundation. High school students wrote essays for the Nobel contest. The winners got trips to the Nobel ceremony, 9 kids, and not a single media story except in the Daily News. Look at the New York Times; the science section is in the National section.

AK: But the flip side is that there is so much talent here. They benefit from that. There is a big pool of people (with whom they can communicate?)

Carl from the Botanical Gardens: I'm a PR guy. I know Joe. Many of us have websites. Perhaps we could put together a coalition to explore collaboration with WNYC, a portal called "Science In the City." We could feed stories.

EH: Very interesting.

Ann Marie Cunningham from Talking Science: Why not air the second hour of Science Friday? It usually includes an author and could highlight NY as a publishing capital.

Anne Bennett from Coast to Coast: Codex is going to be passed at the end of 2009. We won't be able to get supplements. (Content abbreviated.) Codex is a horror story. Also, the flu is all over Europe (abbreviated). Why isn't this on WNYC.

Phil Henshaw (unclear...something about communication)

BP: I don't think people are dumb or that scientists are unable to communicate. I think it's too scary. People aren't hearing; it's not that they are failing to understand. Journalists need to dissapate fear, to let the info penetrate.

EH: Examples of great science coverage?

BM: The Dana Science Alliance.

BP: This American Life does a beautiful job. I would welcome scientists in that model. I love TAL.

AK: Given that only a small amount of time is allocated, how about Earth & Sky, and Stardate. The site is wonderful.

JB: In a slightly different direction, I've become an evangelist for social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc). Science American is doing a great job of engaging readers that way. You can Twitter feed, dialog with people. It drives traffic to the site & engages people. This morning I heard Tara Parker Pope speak. She's always thinking about how she can start a conversation. It's a great way to cover science.

BM: Why not a Speaking of Science show with a great moderator?

BP: I'm a big fan of Speaking of Faith, I totally agree.

EH: "Science" is a broad description. What fields are over exposed and which are under?

ER: Problem-driven research could use more discussion. More examination of the risk/benefit. For example, after Three Mile Island. The New York Times has been spectacular on Africa but who else cares about developing countries?

BM: Too often medicine focuses on magic bullets. Most diseases are polygenetic and multifactorial. Integrative medicine brings together many aspects of health and medicine. 75% of our health care costs are related to lifestyle. This needs to be explained. There will be a (govt?) report in the fall. We could begin the discussion now.

BP: There is the additional concept of regulation. In general, health is gene regulation. We understand other examples of poor regulation, e.g. re the climate, the economy. "We need to find a way to discuss regulation without being termed socialist."

Male member of audience: To EH's last question: There is a bias toward money-making science. Money systems, economics, have the most extreme effect on scientists, for example climate scientists.

Shavonne (CAB member): Have you gotten feedback re: Radio Lab in schools?

EH: We've gotten tons of feedback from teachers. I'm in touch with about 35 teachers. We're seeking funding from the NSF to develop. At this point, we're focused on making radio, but we're considering & exploring. It's also a way to reach a younger & more diverse audience. It's used from elementary to graduate school.

AK: You say Radio Lab doesn't market, but people who listen want to get together. You had an event that seated 200 and more than 600 showed up, a listening party.

BP: I remember when radio was a social medium. That intensity, of imagination, belongs to radio.

Ed Sawchuk: Engineers have been diminished more than any other science. We live in the infrastructure capital of the world, and it's vital to the city, but there is no coverage. Doesn't it behoove the scientific community to also look at the population issue? Stress points are already starting to show, e.g. with respect to water. When will scientists begin to advocate? Our infrastructure is crumbling. How many more bridges need to collapse? We need to put in tide gates. If a category 5 and a high tide were to hit the city, significant portions of the city would be flooded. We can't even build another subway line!

Kate, graduate student: I'm interested in the democratization of science. Do you have any comments or suggestions re: how media can move discourse forward, beyond diffusion?

BP: You can't tell people what's best for them. The best way is to listen to people tell you what they need. For example, the Millenium Villages. It turns out, every village needs women's education. Not sterilization, birth control, etc. My colleagues at the Earth Institute are setting up terminals in churches in the Upper West Side so members of the community can learn what they need to know about their community.

John DeWitt: There are only 24 hours in a day. Isn't it incumbent upon the station to figure out how to get the story across in a way that's meaningful to as many people as possible in a realistic time frame? Radio is linear. Ellen, what do you think the radio station can do with the internet to have an impact on their audience?

EH: Podcasting, social media, online discussion. No one's doing its part...well, WNYC is not doing its part well. Much of what's on is topical, what's happening TODAY.

BM: Ellis brought up coordination of resources...

EH: We don't really want to be a megaphone for another media outlet. That's hard to sell in a newsroom.

Carl from Botanic Gardens: We have a cultural events calendar—why not one for science events?

ER: We have one. They won't use it! Other media orgs do partner, especially if financial resources aren't available. We have the media potential to create something more exciting. Why are there cultural ads on the science page [of the WNYC website]? Why not ads from like Nova?

Shira Rosenhaft: The ads shift.

ER: They're also cultural ads.

Male audience member: I've been in academic science for over 40 years. In recent years, I've started writing a column for papers in Greenwich Village & Nova Scotia. Am I unique? You mentioned scientists reporting. Scientists should be encouraged, if they can write, to communicate.

Male audience member: Regarding alternate media to cover science, live radio is also a form of community, especially if you're engaged with the message board at the same time. I would like to see the core of the entity remain around broadcasting. It's ok to go away, to explore the podcast etc, but then to come back to the community.

EH: I'd like to thank everyone for coming.