Engineering in the Media

For the public, the most important sources for information are the media – television, radio, newspapers, magazines and the Web. Many scientists and engineers, however, are uncomfortable about publicizing their research. Avoiding popularizing one's work has been a long-standing part of the traditional research culture. Scientists such as Carl Sagan were chided by their technical peers despite impressive peer-reviewed publication records.

For decades "Publish or Perish" was the rule to live by for the aspiring researcher. These days a new mantra can be heard — "Publicize or Perish." More and more, researchers and research institutions are being judged not just for their peer-reviewed publication record, but also for their visibility with the national media and the public.

Polls show that for the most part, the public consistently expresses support for science. The broad and enduring popularity of science fiction in film and literature demonstrates people's fascination with science. When asked, however, many are more familiar with the workings of the starship Enterprise from the Star Trek TV series than with our nation's own space program.

This kind of confusion is a sign that the public, in general, is not adequately informed about real science and technology. Put another way, the scientific community has not been successful in keeping lay public connected to the meaning and importance of its research. That anonymous group called the lay public, however, includes voters, congressmen, educators, future scientists and research partners, and our research peers.

In a May 2000 APS News editorial, American Physical Society President James Langer told researchers to recognize that public dialog is irrevocably a part of science and urges them to become more media-savvy. He makes a sober appeal for stronger media outreach programs.

"Why must we inform the public about our work? Because popular backing can, literally, mean life and death to scientific pursuits. The public needs to understand, not the particulars, but the broad significance of our work—its relation to technological progress, the quality of life, and an enriched understanding of our world. This is how science, whether funded by government or private enterprise, gets the resources that it needs to survive," said Langer.

Media coverage of research leads to public interest, and that stimulates interest in technical careers; technology commercialization; and federal, philanthropic and industry support in the form of financial backing. Technical societies are actively using science and technology information as a communication tool — particularly for building congressional support. For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) sponsors a myriad of science outreach programs and congressional fellowships. The American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) actively encourages its members to play a role in public policy and publishes a yearly reference guide for communicating with Members of Congress. Additionally, the National Science Foundation now requires an outreach component for all grants.

"Pratt researchers are strongly encouraged to become more aware of opportunities to communicate their work and to participate in research communication activities," said Pratt Communications Director Deborah Hill. "Peer-reviewed journal articles, new technology, books and conference presentations are all news pegs—triggers for the science media to cover a body of research.

"News releases, news conferences, fact sheets, brochures, and our new Web site are different mechanisms to help us get the word out."