Are You Ready for Some Outreach?

OK, yea, I agree. Regardless of how catchy the tune might be to you and me, I think it is unlikely that Hank Williams Jr and “all his rowdy friends” will be belting out “Are you ready for some science outreach?” any time soon. But the thing is, I like fall sports the best of any of them, and I really like science – and I can see a connection between the two. You may think it’s a stretch, but give me a chance to explain…

Just like football fans preparing for tail gating, or choosing their fantasy team, science fans need to prepare their game plan to talk science to the general public. Unless you are just a natural-born conversant – and one or two of the scientists that I have met aren’t, including yours truly -  science doesn’t stream from your lips in a way that is interesting and compelling to “Joe the plumber”. Or even your mom, or mother-in-law, or any number of other interested-but-not-entrenched-in-science persons. On any given day you may hear a statement that would be a perfect segue into a science outreach chat, if only you had the perfect entrance story or anecdote to share with them. As the saying goes – one anecdote really can be so much more engaging to the public than a plethora of data points.

One example of game-planning outreach is what we do here at OpenHelix everyday – we’ve got years of training experience & we’ve done NHGRI-funded research on effective training mechanisms. We know where to make a tutorial script conversational, and where to keep it tight in order to maintain our audiences’ attention. When we develop a tutorial on a bioscience resource, we learn that resource and then carefully plan out how to show things and explain things in a way that eases our users over the “concept speed bumps” that really slowed our understanding of the tool.

So what’s there to plan for science outreach? Considered properly, there are a million science subjects that come up in everyday discussions – future jobs, the economy of going green, climate change & evolution, astrobiology, homeopathy, etc. And if you plan ahead you can collect compelling stories associated with each that show the value of science. The thing that got me thinking about all this was reading a letter in Science shortly after having a conversation with someone who could not get a certain blood pressure prescription filled due to limited national drug supplies. The letter is entitled “Manufacturing Decline Yields Drug Shortages“, which  was written in response to the Science News & Analysis article “Shortages of Cancer Drugs Put Patients, Trials at Risk” by Jocelyn Kaiser.  For full disclosure the letter was written by two people at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, so they may not be 100% unbiased, but what they said made sense to me. They suggest that one of the causes for drug shortages is the neglect of high-tech manufacturing capabilities within the United States. They feel that the business model of domestic innovation and foreign production is a flawed approach, because it not only encourages innovation to follow production going forwards, it also renders US citizens at risk of drug shortages today.

Almost everyday I hear about the importance of high-tech manufacturing in America because of my husband’s work, and read all sorts of articles on drug developments, etc. When I did a blog post on pedigree drawing software a while back I got to learn all about “drug pedigrees“, which are production tracking data that documents who has handled a drug at every moment of every step of its existence from initial production until it reaches a consumer hands. This is to reduce the chance of consumers getting dangerous counterfeit pharmaceuticals. In spite of this,  I hadn’t made the connection between drug shortages and the government’s support of high-tech manufacturing in the USA. I’m not sure  many people in the general public make the connection either.

OK, so now I might be ready for that discussion, but I’ve still got a lot of other subjects to plan out. How about you? Are YOU ready for some science outreach?

PS, I’ve posted links below to a few outreach efforts that I think are cool. Feel free to add your favorites through the comments!

Rock Stars of Science – http://www.rockstarsofscience.org/

Science Cheerleader – http://www.sciencecheerleader.com

NHGRI on You Tube (some of this is for the public, other is ‘geeks only’ stuff) – http://www.youtube.com/genometv

FoldIt, protein folding game – http://fold.it/portal/

EDIT: I have bumped this to the top in celebration of the return of MNF :)