Advice for Scientists on Engaging the Public: From the Archives

Researchers Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik and journalist Devin Powell recently ran an informal survey of scientists who had made an effort to popularize their research. You can guess the tenor of their results by the headline they ran under in Scientific American: “Scientists Should Speak Out More.” That story is behind a paywall, but an anecdotal list that goes with it, “How Scientists Can Engage the Public without Risking Their Careers,” is free to read.

We interviewed Martinez-Conde in 2014 on her outreach, including her talks featuring magicians and illusions and starting the annual “Best Illusion of the Year” contest. On the question of why do outreach now, she said:


In 2014, outgoing SfN President Carol Mason presented its Science Educator Award to Susana Martinez-Conde during the society’s annual meeting.

I think there’s a great need for female roles in science as well, and I have experienced myself, that there’s a difficulty, there’s a lack of female role models in the media. When I have an opportunity, I’m going to take it, because I know this is a major problem.

I was having lunch with an editor of a science magazine, and she mentioned that TV producers had come to them and asked them, “OK, let us know more about your male authors.” They were specifically looking for male authors of books to portray on TV as opposed to just any authors. I have had similar experiences.

I’ve been pretty shocked about it, but it’s still there. It’s very prominent in the media, this bias towards that. If your target audience is 30 to 50-year-old males, then the role models that you’re going to present are going to be in that demographic. That’s not necessarily the way that science is done, and it kind of becomes its own feedback loop that makes it very hard to break with the stereotypes. I do feel that these days I have a responsibility to serve when I can as a role model to young women who may be interested in getting into science but are facing some of these difficulties.

Our interview was tied to Martinez-Conde’s being awarded the 2014 Science Educator award by the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). Each year, SfN recognizes outstanding neuroscientists who have strongly added to public education and awareness about the field. The Dana Foundation sponsors these awards. Last year’s winners were Adam Gazzaley and E. Paul Zehr. This year’s winner will be announced at SfN’s annual meeting, in mid-November. Stay tuned!

– Nicky Penttila

One response

  1. We really need to stay clear of the “civil rights” and equality issues in science as it introduces one more avenue for science to become biased and compromised – as if we don’t already have enough challenges with financial relationships and related conflicts of interest. As for what we should focus our efforts on, is the unavailability today of true independent public health information, where so much has become compromised by governmental-foundations ties to industry seeking a specific outcome from research. On a personal note, I’ve undergone 12 CNS shunt operations over the last 24 years with many of these devices having experienced unreported safety issues, which in some cases neurosurgeons had knowledge of. No one wants to report these things anymore. And when I’ve brought them forward to FDA as a user patient, FDA doesn’t want to take action because of ties to industry. As a result, millions of Americans are harmed each year because of inaction by those we have come to count on. I think it would make for a great paper to have [anonymous] interviews of user surgeons, etc. on their views on this, and report on these practices and new ways to change this. As I write this, modernization of our FDA reporting system is stuck in congressional committees. These concerns have crept into debates on the safety of numerous drugs and vaccines in children.

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