Experimental Biology Blogging: Ask both what your Society does for you, and what you do for your Society

So this will hopefully be one of the last of Sci's Experimental Biology Blogging posts. It's been a great experience, but OH MAN has it been tiring. But this will be the last, I think.

Sci got into blogging Experimental Biology through the interest and very kind advocacy of the communications officer of the American Physiological Society, Donna Krupa. Not only was she wonderful about getting me all the information I needed and getting me in touch with some really cool people (WOO!!! SCIENCE!!!), she also gave me access to the press room, which is a lovely little haven of glory, power outlets, and wireless. I only discovered it toward the end, but I definitely hammered out more than one of the Experimental Biology posts there.

And while I was in there powering up my laptop(s) (yup), and blogging away, I got to meet several of the people from the various societies represented at Experimental Biology: the American Society of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET), the American Association of Anatomists (AAA), the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), the American Physiological Society (APS), the American Society for Investigative Pathology (ASIP), and the American Society for Nutrition (ASN).

And when I met them, I realized...I had no idea what they DID. I mean, organize the meeting, sure...but, what else?! I don't know about other grad students/post-docs/hey, maybe you're TT by now, but societies have always been just...things. You know. Those THINGS you should be in because everyone tells you that you should, and it looks good on your CV and funding people like it and then of course you get discounts for meetings. You know, just BECAUSE.

But it's really far more than that. I dug around a little, and then got a chance to sit around and shoot the breeze with two lovely members of ASBMB, Ben Corb (director of public affairs), and Angela Hopp (communicator for ASBMB and managing editor for special projects at the Journal of Biological Chemistry). (For the record, you can follow them both on Twitter, Ben at @bwcorb and Angela at @angelahopp.) We had a great conversation about what it is that they do and, more importantly, what scientists can, and should, be doing through their societies, and I've got some of my impressions below the fold.

But first off, what do these societies DO?

If you look up the "about us" sections of any of the major societies (including ASBMB, APS, SFN, and other such acronyms), you'll usually see something like this:

(APS) is a nonprofit devoted to fostering education, scientific research, and dissemination of information in the physiological sciences.

(From APS)

The Society's purpose is to advance the science of biochemistry and molecular biology through publication of scientific and educational journals: the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Molecular & Cellular Proteomics, and the Journal of Lipid Research, organization of scientific meetings, advocacy for funding of basic research and education, support of science education at all levels, and promoting the diversity of individuals entering the scientific workforce.

(From ASBMB)

So basically, to educate and spread the word about SCIENCE. All this sounds good, but it also sounds like something that, well, their members don't really do a lot OF. We become members of these societies, sure, but then what? If you're like Sci, you pretty much ignore most of the emails unless it's something like "meeting coming up" or "registration due three months ago, you slacker."

So who DOES all the education and spreading the word about science? Well, these people do. Ben Corb is the director of public affairs for ASBMB. Although the entirety of his career has been working with people in scientific careers, his degree is in political science. But don't worry, his love of science runs deep.

Ben's job is, as he put it, to "translate geek to wonk." Since the majority of people in ASBMB receive funding through the National Institutes of Health, Ben's job involves a lot of understanding what is happening in Washington and translating this to scientists, letting them know what's going on in terms of policy and how this is going to affect their funding. He also works the other way, letting people in government know what scientists in the ASBMB are accomplishing, and WHY they need the funding that they do.

Ben noted to me that it's only recently that scientists have really begun to understand how much policy influences whether we have the funding to do our work. There's a lot of distrust of politicians (something that's probably the norm for the populace in general as opposed to scientists in particular). Not only that, many scientists feel that translating their work to people who haven't had biology or physics or chemistry since high school is just too difficult (and they aren't wrong, it's not easy!). But, he notes that there's also a certain feeling among many scientists that, well, of COURSE people should fund our stuff. I mean, they know that the results of our work help the health and well-being of individuals all over the world, finding life-saving treatments and improving the quality of life. Of course they know that, right? Right??

And of course the policy people understand that scientists’ work should be funded. But scientists aren't the only ones demanding funding. And if our work is so important that of course it should be funded...well there are fifty thousand other programs out there that feel the same way about THEIR work.

And so Ben told me that right now, sure, he can keep on talking to the policy people, and he can keep on talking to scientists, but what is really needed is for scientists to add their own voices. To write letters, to go to Washington themselves and talk with congresspeople, and to make our voices heard. The more of us there are pointing out that what we do is big, the more likely it is that funding will come our way. And wouldn't we all love to hear that funding was back up above, um...5% (or whatever dismally low number it's at now)?

I asked Ben for some tips on how to do this for the busy-minded scientist:
1) Contact your society and find out if it has a public policy person (like Ben!) who can do some of the legwork for you.
2) Read the newspaper (or its online equivalent), and try to understand what's going on with the political climate and the funding situation.
3) Have discussions with your friends and family. Getting research knowledge to the public can help policy indirectly by allowing people to realize how important science is and helping them think about how they vote on science issues.
4) Emphasize, to your congresspeople, to your friends, to everyone, how what you do can help the public good. How small steps in science can lead to great strides. How often things that seem to have no direct relation to medicine or engineering or drug development can result in huge changes and improvements.

Say, doesn't some of this sound familiar? It should! The net message is this: Scientists need to speak up. We can't always depend on funding and support being there while we toil away in obscurity. And Ben is a powerhouse of a guy, but he can only do so much on his own.

Next I got to speak with Angela Hopp, the managing editor at the Journal of Biological Chemistry and the public relations officer for ASBMB. She's also an amazing devotee of science, who this time comes to us via journalism. Angela mentioned to me that one of the things that she loves about her job is the opportunity to learn about science. She might not be a scientist, but, every time she writes up a story, she gets a crash course in the field. Today it's prions; tomorrow it's corneas. You never know.

Angela's job involves a lot of trying to translate some very archaic (to a nonscientist) language into something that laypeople can understand. She also has to work to make what we are doing seem relevant to the average consumer (and voter, and policymaker) on the street. She says the hardest thing to deal with is the clinical relevance. As scientists, we are coaxed very hard not to overpromise, not to tell people we are curing cancer when really we have found a protein that's involved in one of the pathways of tumor mutagenesis. And, of course, that's a very good thing in the scientific world. It keeps in mind that we have so far to go, and it emphasizes the small steps that are necessary to ensure a truthful scientific product, that reflects the world, the body, and how it changes.

Unfortunately, not overpromising isn't so great when trying to deal with the public, the media, and policymakers. After all, while we aren't willing to say we're curing cancer, there are many quacks out there perfectly willing to say so, and say so loudly. And if they say it loudly enough and in the right places, they will be the ones getting the funding.

Of course, Angela doesn't want scientists suddenly over promising. Far from it. What's important, she emphasized, is to relate what you are doing to potential clinical or engineering relevance and to TALK about what you're doing. To be willing to talk to the media, and not just for 5 minutes to provide a quote, but to break it down and explain what you do to the point where journalists can get the science you're serving. The more time you spend educating the media, the better results you can have, as the media reflects what you do more accurately and passes on accurate information to the public.

But what does this involve again? SPEAKING UP. Talking to policymakers, to the public, to the media. Talking to your friends and family until you think your grandmother DOES understand what you do, and then repeat what you said to her to the next journalist. Angela says there's a lot to be said for contacting the public information officers at your societies and at your universities, making sure the information that's getting out accurately reflects what's going on. And there's no question that it's better to make sure it's correct than to never speak out at all.

All of this makes Sci think very strongly about some of the great program suggestions for Science Online 2012. In particular, Media Training for Scientists (suggested by Ed Yong), and Scientist Whispering for Journalists (suggested by Miriam). Sure, we all know that scientists need to speak up, and now we've got some tips as to how (including some that take very little time and effort). I think now we come to a place where we've got to overcome our FEAR to speaking to the public and to the media and approach it (and teach it!) as a head-on learning experience. I'm hoping that the discussions at Science Online can help forward this, but I'm interested in hearing from other scientists. If it is as easy as contacting someone, explaining things to a journalist in detail and making sure he or she understands, getting your name added to a list, or forwarding a letter to your congressperson, why DON'T you do it? What is holding you back? I'd love to hear from people, and I bet many people who work for our societies would love to, as well!

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