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
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….
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.
I wasn’t a very good blogger last week–for which I am very sorry.
However, I will be more than making up for it in the coming week (and giving Sheril a break), as I’m going to be unveiling a considerable amount of new and in some cases experimental content–all organized around the theme of communicating science to broader audiences.
First off, this is the week when the images from the new Rock Stars of Science™ campaign are going public in GQ magazine’s blockbuster “Men of the Year” issue. So stand by for a roll-out of that, starting with a retrospective on the scientists who participated in 2009 and what the experience was like for them.
And second, on Wednesday and Thursday I’m one of three trainers at this National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop on science communication at George Washington University. It’s entitled “Science: Becoming the Messenger,” and little do they know it yet, but I have a suspicion that you may hear from some workshop participants right here on the blog!
There may be other sci comm news as well…but already, that’s a lot. So stand by….
Yesterday I appeared on a panel at the 2010 National Association of Science Writers meeting, along with public opinion experts Jon Miller and Carolyn L. Funk. Two write ups of the panel appeared on the event blog subsequently–here and here. To describe the event, then, let me just quote:
If you had $1 to spend on improving science literacy in America, how would you spend it? That was the question posed by Rick Borchelt, an organizer of today’s Civics of science session, to panelists Carolyn L. Funk, Jon Miller, and Chris Mooney.
Miller proposed spending half his dollar on improving pre-college science education, with the remainder on adult learning, a small portion of which would be used for science journalism. Mooney suggested spending the whole dollar on creating jobs for science journalists and young scientists, building an army of people devoted to improving public science literacy. And Funk said most of her dollar would go into the education system, with spending divided on efforts to incorporate science standards into elementary and lower-level education and on adult learning and informal adult education, the area where mainstream science journalism has its greatest impact.
Although the session raised more questions than it provided answers, the Agronsky & Co. style discussion, as promised, led to some interesting debate about the place of science journalism in science literacy and education in the United States. Science journalism is concerned mainly with delivering information about the latest developments in scientific discovery, and today most science reporting operates within the “just-in-time” model of new media. The cultural importance of science, the future of which could hinge on fitting into the new media scene, was perhaps most entertainingly discussed within the context of music and Rock Stars, a topic introduced by Mooney. Whether science and science journalism would benefit from riding the coat-tails of mass media remains to be seen.
As you can see, I talked a lot about the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back® Rock Stars of Science™ campaign at the panel–my current attempt to contribute to part of the solution.
One central issue that arose yesterday was how to identify the most important measure of scientific “illiteracy”–and how to assess whether the decline of science journalism is affecting that measure. Here, I argued that we should focus on the public’s engagement with science, and on science’s cultural standing, rather than strictly considering citizens’ knowledge of scientific facts.
I think the former is what’s really critical, as well as more closely tied to how journalism and media are faring. And in this sense, I don’t doubt that using celebrities and rock stars to draw greater attention to science is a solution that’s going to work.
Thanks to Sean Schmidt, I’ve been introduced to yet another pro-science musician: country music star Brad Paisley. I didn’t follow country before, so I’d never heard of him, but wow–Paisley’s song “Wecome to the Future” is just about the most stirring paean to American technological ingenuity and progress that I’ve ever heard or seen. And the whole message comes wrapped in a stars-and-stripes packaging that even a Tea Partier could love.
Watching Paisley’s video, I don’t see how anyone can question the fundamental premise of the Rock Stars of Science™ campaign--that musicians are some of our most powerful allies in spreading the good word about science and its importance to our lives, health, and national future.
Watching this puts me in mind of something about tomorrow’s election, by the way, and I wonder if others would agree.
Seeing those images of windmills, and hearing kids talking about how they want to be scientists while country rock jangles in the background–it all makes me think that even if we do elect a crop of know-nothing climate deniers tomorrow, the message about clean energy and keeping America ahead in technology is not something that can ultimately be kept down. It’s simply too resonant, and too powerful. Too groovy, and too infectious.
That’s the reason clean energy and tech innovators are expected to soundly defeat dirty out-of-state oil interests in the Prop 23 showdown in California. The clean energy and tech guys have got a much better message, because a) no one can question their fundamental contribution to America’s prosperity; and b) they have the future (“Welcome to the Future”) on their side to boot.
We’re very lucky that’s the case. And we’re very lucky to have musicians like Brad Paisley singing the same tune.
We’re beginning to ramp up the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back® Rock Stars of Science™ campaign, as the new launch approaches in the December “Men of the Year” issue of GQ. With the new images still not public, though, it’s first worth going back over last year’s campaign and reminiscing, as well as reminding folks of what came before.
To that end, I really liked this video of Seal explaining why he got involved–saying very frankly that if his celebrity can help scientists gain more recognition and research funding, it will be “a day in my life well spent”:
What do folks think–does Seal’s message work for you, and work for science?
I’ve got a piece at Huffington Post today about scientific illiteracy and public disengagement–and some possible answers. An excerpt:
Take clean energy, the industry of the future. Globally, the clean energy economy is booming–and China is now its clear leader. The U.S. fell into a distant second place last year in clean energy investment and finance, as China spent $ 34.6 billion to our $18.6 billion.
A similar story emerges in the biomedical arena, where our research investments haven’t kept pace with national health priorities. For instance, Alzheimer’s disease is now the seventh leading cause of death in the US, and accounts for 34 percent of total Medicare spending. Yet in terms of research, it’s a stepchild: Funding through the National Institutes of Health is currently less than $ 500 million per year.
How do you make Americans more focused on the centrality of science to our future? It isn’t easy given the nature of our national conversation–with serious science news vanishing from the media–and our already limited attention constantly directed elsewhere, including debating whether to elect global warming denying candidates to Congress this November 2. Read More