will.i.am, of the Black Eyed Peas, was one of the original stars featured in the 2009 Rock Stars of Science campaign.
During the SuperBowl halftime on Sunday, meanwhile, he added lyrics to a song so as to extol President Obama’s new science education push:
In America we need to get things straight/
Obama, let’s get these kids educated/
Create jobs so the country stays stimulated.
I get the sense that will.i.am gets it.
And why wouldn’t he: He’s also “director of creative innovation” for Intel.
I’ve got an oped with Meryl Comer, founder of the Rock Stars of Science campaign, in the Los Angeles Times today. It’s about why in bad economic times we need to fund research more than ever:
Without ramping up our investments in science and research — a matter barely on the public’s radar in a country where 65% of the citizens can’t name a living scientist and another 18% try but get it wrong — we’ll be hobbled in trying to fix our long-term economic problems. That’s because science creates jobs, and it can also reduce healthcare costs related to the aging of the population.
That’s the central argument, though there’s also much elaboration; you can read the full piece here.
People have been been blogging up and down, left and right about the Rock Stars of Science campaign. Click on all of those links to begin to see the extent of it. They barely scratch the surface, but clearly, everybody has an opinion.
That’s a very good thing.
Here’s the story: Go to the Rock Stars website and scroll down. You will see, on the right, a pair of speakers like these. They’re MUJI speakers–light weight, collapsible, portable. You can fold them up and place them in a pouch.
GQ is randomly selecting 1,000 people to receive free speakers–if they enter their names on the website by Dec 20. (Further details and official contest rules here).
So I suggest you click over and enter your name if you want these dudes. It is not like it takes a lot of effort. And while I don’t know how many people have entered their names yet, a giveaway of 1,000 suggests your odds may not be that bad.
* There’s an interesting and thoughtful post at It’s Okay to Be Smart, occasioned by the Mooney-Robbins brouhaha. I don’t agree with all of it, and liked the ending best for obvious reasons: “Mooney is right that Robbins can’t claim science’s divine right to cool. Robbins is right that the message is lost, and could have been done in a better way. But since he called Chris names, and doesn’t even celebrate Thanksgiving, Mooney gets the drumstick!”
* Jamie Vernon also reflects on the argument: “I’m not here to complain about the campaign. I’m here to complain about the complaining.”
* All this has also unearthed for me a post I missed before, from Lab Spaces with tons of comments, taking the basic Martin Robbins line on the campaign.
* PZ Myers doesn’t like the campaign either. He writes that “Marty Robbins has exposed a similar campaign on behalf of scientists that can similarly only harm…” Now we’re causing only harm? Now we need to be exposed? Jeez.
* The latest polarization opens a vast middle ground, and John Pavlus drives up and parks there:
People. Wake the f*ck up… Read More
The award has now come in for the most off base and, frankly, elitist response to the Rock S.O.S.™ campaign. It goes to science blogger Martin Robbins of the Guardian, who doesn’t even understand what the campaign is, and so acts as if everything he objects to is something done by GQ magazine rather than by the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back® Rock Stars of Science™ campaign, which ran a PSA in GQ.
Robbins isn’t merely unaware of what he’s criticizing; he’s also apparently clueless about the U.S. public and how it regards science. His basic argument seems to be that people should already know that scientists, not rock stars, are the really cool ones. (Even though many Americans can’t even name a scientist.) Rock stars should kneel at the feet of scientists, rather than vice versa. And if you don’t get it…well, just look at this picture of science from the archives that Robbins has to show you!
It’s a NASA moonscape shot. More specifically, it’s billed as “Pete Conrad inspects Surveyor 3. Conrad’s own spaceship, the Intrepid, can be seen 200 yards away in the background.” Yes, it’s very cool; no, it’s not currently running in GQ’s “Men of the Year” issue. Magazines like new photos, not photos from the bygone days when Americans actually paid attention to science. Robbins adds this gloss:
This is a picture of two spacecraft on the moon at the same time, taken by astronauts who have walked from one to the other. If you don’t understand why this is one of the coolest things you will ever see, then you really aren’t cool, in fact you’re the opposite of cool. You are to cool what Dan Brown is to literature.
To which the American public responds “!#$@^ you, I liked The Da Vinci Code” and returns to watching Dancing With the Stars.
In general, most Americans don’t think science is cool. It isn’t even on the radar. You can tell them they’re wrong, and that they’re the ones who don’t understand cool–but in this case you’re a British blogger occupying a media niche that few Americans will find themselves visiting. Meanwhile, you’re bashing a campaign that has a far better chance of reaching them.
You also won’t reach them by…making fun of hip-hop artists like B.O.B., whom Robbins calls “a child rapper named Bob”:
‘Bob’ is apparently notable for his breakout hit Haterz Everywhere, which is clearly a clever satire on conspicuous consumption, making a powerful statement about the ability of successful capitalists to act above the law and oppress the common man…
Much of the time Robbins is at least a funny writer. Not here. Not remotely.
It’s a kitchen sink attack, so Robbins also criticizes some overly technical language on the Rock Stars website (not GQ’s website), which admittedly could have been better written. The funny thing about this critique, though, is that Robbins starts off his first sentence by denouncing the “isochronal cavalcade” of the Rock Stars campaign. Clearly, here’s a man who understands the pitfalls of jargon.
…here’s a picture of the Sun. Taken at night. Through the Earth (explanation here).
Yes science can do many marvelous things. But you’ll notice that Robbins’ image requires…an explanation. As it happens, it involves neutrinos, which–I’m quite certain–most Americans do not know about or understand.
Now compare the image below, and decide which the American public is more likely to respond to:
Like this from Martin Robbins, pretty much ripping the campaign over at The Guardian because, didn’t you already know that scientists are way cooler than rock stars?
No, Martin, I am America and I didn’t know that.
I may have more to say about this.
Meanwhile, over at the website of Gibson–the guitar maker–the campaign draws attention because of the inclusion of Brett Michaels. That’s kind of the point, Martin. The people who buy Gibson guitars don’t necessarily know already, in the way that you do, how intensely cool science is.
The campaign is also covered in print in the Washington Post today, in the “Science Scan” column. “Kudos to the campaign for including women and minorities in this year’s crop,” says Rachel Saslow.
Here’s a post that epitomizes a common response we’re getting: “Rock Stars of Science Has No Physicist.” The blogger has a very good articulation of the point:
…there seemed to be an over-emphasis on medicine and medical research! Who do they think made many of the instruments, equipment, and understood the physics of those things, that these medical researchers use?
That’s a great argument for why you need to support all branches of science–and believe me, we don’t disagree. The focus on medical scientists springs from the campaign’s history and origins, it’s not meant as a slight to other branches of science.
At ScienceCheerleader, David Wescott includes Rock Stars in a roundup, writing: “A lot of bloggers are talking about a new campaign called Rock Stars of Science that is rolling out in GQ Magazine; it brings top scientists and top musicians together for some glam photo shoots. While I don’t think people work toward a Nobel Prize so they have the opportunity to meet Bret Michaels or Jay Sean, it does sound kinda fun.”
The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (yes, they have a blog, good for them) also discusses the campaign with a focus on Catriona Jamieson, one of their funded researchers (pictured at left with numerous others and rapper Jay Sean). The post also emphasizes the central theme of the importance of science communication. Tell me about it. I’m pleased to learn something I didn’t know before, which is that CIRM is part of the new wave of sci comm emphasis out there today:
CIRM held a media training at our annual grantee meeting last year in an effort to help grantees talk about their work. With all the misinformation about stem cells — regarding their origins and their therapeutic power — we need as many scientists as possible able to talk effectively about their findings.
Those rock stars of science communication might never have the name or image recognition as Debbie Harry or Bret Michaels, but we do hope they can be part of an effort to help people understand the power of science to create new therapies or technologies that improve our world and our lives. And to explain that science is just plain cool.
Out of all of this, though, by far the most enriching post comes from Kevin Zelnio of Deep Sea News. Zelnio uses the campaign and the recent popular Science Cheerleaders video as a springboard for delving deeply into what science outreach is all about, and how you quantify its effectiveness (it’s hard!). In the process, he also delivers a pretty strong rebuttal to the kind of thinking epitomized by Martin Robbins:
There is much discussion on the internet about the value of this initiative [Rock Stars]. Who is the audience? Why are they posed awkwardly? Does the image portrayed reflect upon the cult nature of science? The list goes on and there is much support for it too, just google Rockstars of Science. I just want you to recognize that it is there and follow the links for good discussions on the initiative.
What Science Cheerleaders and Rockstars of Science do share however is their marketing to a specific niche. In each case there are naysayers who grumble and supporters who defend. They are each attempting to display the field and its cultists to a crowd that would have little exposure to it in the first place. While disagreement can be instructive as long as it’s constructive, flat out rejecting each initiative fails to recognize that is may be worthwhile, just not to you personally. The little girl at the end of the Science Cheerleader’s promo above was very clearly stoked about it and wants to be doctor. That is a win in my book! Even if she is 1 in 1000 affected by the program, that is at least 3,000 inspired children in the USA. Likewise for Rockstars of Science, which probably reaches another sector of the public unaffected by Science Cheerleaders. I think a couple tens of thousands of inspired youth is worth the time and effort of these initiatives. Now, what if we consider other initiatives that aren’t in the science blogger’s eye? There are hundreds of after-school programs, community efforts, individuals acting alone, small scale local efforts, large scale national efforts and much more. I don’t have the data, but I would be willing to opine the combined effort has great potential.
Read Kevin’s whole post (and by the way, he’s a musician!). More from me soon on all the discussion the campaign has generated….
I missed a lot of links yesterday. I admitted that was just the beginning. So here come a lot more:
* Tara Smith at Aetiology does a very thoughtful post about the campaign, touching on the inclusion of diversity (a plus) and critiquing the inclusion of Dr. Mehmet Oz. “I know, this is quite a lot of complaining (isn’t that what bloggers *do*?),” she writes, “but I’m sincere in hoping that this campaign does raise awareness.” Yes, that’s what bloggers do–and we love you for it. Thanks so much for a thoughtful post.
* Princess Ojiaku of Science With Moxie also chimes in and celebrates the campaign’s diversity, commenting, “The list of scientists includes four women and two African Americans, which is a good showing that science isn’t just for old white guys. In addition, five of the scientists listed also happen to play music!”
* The Women’s Media Center celebrates the inclusion of Rear Admiral Dr. Susan Blumenthal, former Assistant U.S. Surgeon General, in the campaign.
* Stanford University’s “The Dish” applauds the inclusion of one of their docs, Frank Longo, pictured here with Brett Michaels.
* Oregon Expat memorably comments: “There is a lot of genius in this world, regularly displayed by people who operate in general obscurity while learning, inventing, creating, and advancing both our understanding and knowledge. These stars rarely get any credit outside their own field, and unless their research is of interest to governments or corporations, they rarely get much in the way of funding, either. I will happily support any campaign which attempts to shine a little light on these “rock docs,” as RSOS calls them.”
* Slanted Science does a pretty funny take on the whole thing, showing other “cases” of scientists posing with rock stars.
* Talking Science, the blog of the Science Friday Initiative, also flags the campaign and focuses on the photo here and Stanford neurologist Dr. Frank Longo.
Post any links I’ve missed below….
The new campaign went public yesterday, and there was much commentary. It kicked off with a piece by Dan Vergano in USA Today, in which Vergano quoted the campaign’s leading rocker Debby Harry of “Blondie”: “All these people are doing great things. We have to get the word out.”
Well, it has gotten out:
Here’s a report at The Scientist by Amy Maxmen, debating whether the campaign will work to address scientific literacy. (I will have more to say on this point.)
Here’s a report at Science magazine, also asking whether the campaign can “cut through the noise.” (Well, if anything can….)
Here’s Phil Plait, who doesn’t hold anything back: “I am insanely jealous. I love Heart, and had a bit of a crush on both Ann and Nancy Wilson when I was in high school. And, um, maybe I still do, a little. But c’mon! Barracuda! Crazy On You! Magic Man! Awesome sauce.”
Here’s my blog piece at New Scientist, entitled “Scientists and Musicians: Separated at Birth?”
Here’s Eva Amsen at The Node, who writes: “Jealous? Keep up the research, and maybe one day it will be you rubbing shoulders with musicians in a glossy photo shoot.”
Here’s James Hrynyshyn, very reasonably asking, where are the rock stars of climate science? (I agree, they deserve acclaim as well.)
Here’s Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles, who writes: “I like the fact that some people who know stuff about selling glamor are getting involved with science. We could use more of this kind of thing.”
Here’s Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist: “The goal is to get people excited about scientists — you can be the judge of whether that will happen.” (It is happening as we speak.)
Here’s SciCurious at Neurotic Physiology: “I am personally thrilled that they have made an effort to include more women and minorities in this years spread, and that they got some leather jackets in the mix.”
This is just a sampling of links, compiled quickly before I had to race back out for the second day of the NSF training. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot. I’ll update this post as I come across more links–and don’t hesitate to send them to me!
As the countdown to the Rock Stars of Science™ release proceeds, I’ve done a piece at Huffington Post about why it matters so much that we value our scientists–because, well, the economic fate of the country is at stake:
…it’s myopia in the extreme to ignore the aging of our population right now, and the economic consequences if biomedical research doesn’t keep pace with demographics. According to philanthropist George Vradenburg, formerly a senior media executive at AOL, Fox, and CBS and now chairman of US Against Alzheimer’s, a recent report by Standard & Poors entitled “Global Aging 2010: An Irreversible Truth” says it all.
“There’s a decline in investment in research in the aging demographic at the same time that it may become the criteria on which sovereign debt is rated,” says Vradenburg, citing the report. If countries aren’t able to afford caring for their ever-older populations in the future, their entire financial picture could be clouded or undermined.
In this context, it’s vitally important to make science more glamorous, admired, respected. But the investments must follow the fame. It’s about much more than ensuring that our researchers have successful careers–it’s about whether their successes will be enough to save us from an aging-related boom in healthcare costs that could make our current, bitter debates seem mild in comparison.
You can read the full Huffington Post item here.
This is a special feature-length post in anticipation of the coming roll-out of the new Rock Stars of Science™ campaign in GQ magazine’s December “Men of the Year” issue. For more information, visit Rock S.O.S. on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
Being a doctor or scientist has a high status–within the profession, at least. But that’s not good enough these days, with pay-line cuts across the National Institutes of Health. Disease by disease, scientists have woken up to the external politics that drive funding for research.
So what are they doing about it? A case study of how dire things have become is what 11 intrepid researchers–the “Founding Fathers” or, if you prefer, “Founding Lab Rats” of the Rock Stars of Science™ campaign–went through (and survived) last year in the name of branding science as “cool.”
Was it an absolute requirement for them to carry on like this (see right) to make their point?
Unfortunately yes—if they were to break through to a public besotted by “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars.”
“Scientists must venture outside their comfort zones to show the public how cool – and how important – their work really is,” opines Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, and one of the 2009 Rock S.O.S.™ founding fathers. “I’m thrilled to see all of these big-name musicians using their star power to shine a spotlight on science. However, it is only the beginning. I urge every scientist get into the act by telling friends, neighbors, community leaders, and elected officials about his or her research and what it means for our nation’s health. Imagine how powerful that would be.”
Rock Stars of Science™ was created and funded by the philanthropic arm of the designer menswear brand, Geoffrey Beene, which dedicates 100 % of its net profits to charitable causes. The first campaign launched in GQ magazine in the summer of 2009, and in a few short days, a new one will appear in GQ’s blockbuster “Men of the Year” issue—going beyond the 2009 all male scientist spread by including four female scientists this time around—and two Nobel Laureates.
The new set of names—8 musicians, 19 researchers—will become public soon enough. But meanwhile, for the 11 scientists who’ve already served as lab rats to the stars, a funny thing happened on the way to fame and notoriety. They weren’t shunned by their colleagues, mocked, or ostracized—if anything, they were widely embraced. And the memories they made in the process can only be called enviable.
So here, as we await more rock star news emerging later this week, let’s examine their stories.
For the Mount Sinai Medical Center neurologist and Alzheimer’s researcher Sam Gandy, participating in the 2009 Rock S.O.S.™ photo shoot is something he won’t soon live down. For the spread’s third photo in GQ, Gandy was paired with two other biomedical researchers and will.i.am, the frontman of the Black Eyed Peas. They’re all wearing bowties, poised as if in a barbershop quartet—and though it’s over a year later now, someone mentions it to Gandy once every few weeks at least.
“One of the most amusing,” he relates, “was one of the Mount Sinai deans, who was relaxing on a cruise up the Inside Passage to Alaska, trying to zone out, far away from Mount Sinai.” That’s when the dean picked up a copy of GQ that had been left out on the deck. “There I was glaring back at her, snapping her mind right back to work!” Gandy relates. (Actually, he wasn’t glaring in the picture. He was snapping, however–to a rhythm).
It’s just one example of how the 2009 Rock S.O.S.™ campaign has reverberated in the lives of the eleven “rock docs” who participated. And it’s a taste of what the next round of scientists can expect when the second Rock S.O.S.™ spread appears in GQ.
The “founding father” scientists say that while being photographed with rock stars and fitted by fashionistas certainly represented an extreme novelty in their research lives, their colleagues’ reactions have generally been quite positive. Granted, they’ve had to endure the occasional ribbing. David Agus, a cancer researcher at the USC Keck School of Medicine, relates that every time he’s introduced to do a talk, somebody flashes up a PowerPoint slide of the GQ image featuring himself, Scripps Translational Science Institute researcher Eric Topol, and Seal.
“We’re not used to being shown in that limelight,” says Agus. “We’re geeks, and geeks are not usually doing photo shoots.” As it happens, Agus met fellow geek Eric Topol for the very first time at the 2009 Rock S.O.S. photo shoot–when they were both in the dressing room in their underwear, getting fitted.
“It was a strange way to meet another scientist,” Agus says.
Weirdness aside, Agus says the most memorable aspect of the whole experience came when his young kids saw the final images in GQ. They were proud and excited by it—a perfect example of how the campaign generates enthusiasm for science in the next generation.
“My kids also noticed that I’m about a foot and a half shorter than Seal, but that goes with the territory,” says Agus.
Needless to say, the fashion benefits of being a “rock doc” are also substantial. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was pictured in GQ with former NIH director Harold Varmus and Sheryl Crow. “My most vivid recollection,” he says, “besides joking around with will.i.am and singing with Sheryl Crow, was the amazing talent of the tailor who fitted me perfectly with a Geoffrey Beene suit in about 15 minutes.
“It takes 10 days to have this done at a regular tailor.”
And then there’s the Harvard Alzheimer’s researcher Rudy Tanzi, pictured in the opening shot with current NIH director Francis Collins and Aerosmith lead guitarist Joe Perry. Tanzi is himself a piano player and has been an Aerosmith fan since 8th grade; at the Rock S.O.S.™ shoot, he finally got the chance to meet one of his idols.
“When I had a chance to speak with Joe after the shoot,” says Tanzi, “I told him that I still hear his guitar riffs and solos in my head just about every day, especially when I am trying to think creatively about a scientific question. So, we started talking about the similarities of playing music and doing science.”
The conversation went on for an hour and included Francis Collins. It eventually led to the three performing together at an event on Capitol Hill (singing, among other tunes, “The Times They Are a Changin’”), and Tanzi and Perry became personal friends.
“We enjoy sharing what’s going on in my lab and his bands, and often go to each other for advice,” says Tanzi. “When I was a kid I played in many different bands and probably played over a dozen different Aerosmith songs over those days. I always dreamed of playing with Joe Perry. Who knew that I had to become a scientist to finally get that opportunity!”
No doubt next group of Rock S.O.S. “rock docs” have generated a similar set of memories. (Well, maybe not that good.)
As soon as their names are unveiled–along with those of the rock stars joining them—stand by for more tales of researchers going well outside their comfort zones in the quest to explain to nonscientists why it all really matters.
Chris Mooney is co-author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future and a partner to the Rock Stars of Science™ campaign.