Talking Loud and Saying … Mostly the Wrong Thing

It doesn’t take that much to give people the wrong impression. You can drop a few pertinent facts that would otherwise give people the chance to form a full opinion.  You can make sure to compare almost-like with almost-like and say they’re the same. The way you select what you’ll mention frames everything that follows.

The way you frame it is the same in reverse though. When you want to discuss a topic with and leave the “right impression” the things you highlight, the studies you choose to quote, and the way you present them to the next person who doesn’t have the time to go through every reference will be a big part of the message they take with them.

The obvious spot where this come into a PhD is in the thesis. Perhaps particularly in the literature review where the stage for everything that follows is dressed and lit. There’s an awful lot of time in the PhD spent obsessing over what the evidence says, where the balance lies and how to present that fairly. It matters.

What Can You Say?

This all came to mind this last week. Around these parts there’s a show which likes to tout itself as our the apex of all things science show. It’s called “Catalyst” (I’m going to let you speculate on what particular reactions it might speed up). This last week they chose to talk about the risks to your health posed by everything that includes “Wi” and “Fi” in its tech specifications.

This is a pretty legitimate thing to talk about. It touches on lots of interesting stuff about how you assess and communicate risk. Except this is the frame they built to hang their pretty picture:” … “no evidence of established health risk,” is not the same as saying it’s safe. Sadly, guaranteeing safety is something not even our safety authority is willing to do.”

This is a fundamental misrepresentation of how evidence can be applied to assess risk and it sets an impossibly high bar. When I chat about anaesthetic risk with patients or families I can’t promise zero risk for the healthiest kid that turns up starving, waiting for their operation. I can only ever say that the risk of bad things happening is very, very low. I can’t say that nothing has ever been shown to happen under anaesthesia.

But that’s what they were after with this program. A complete and total guarantee of safety. Not just a heavy preponderance of multiple studies suggesting no measurable change in risk. Not just a lack of reproducibility of those few studies suggesting we should worry. Not just a lack of a biologically plausible mechanism but some sort of guarantee etched in a rare element more precious than humanity itself.

Which awful consumer hell version of critical thought have we reached where that’s the only acceptable option? Next time you walk through the city you’d better take precautions you won’t be seriously injured by a falling baby hermit crab. Sure there’s no plausible evidence that it’s a risk to worry about, but no one’s given you a guarantee, right?

Looking Sideways

What followed was a sequence of failures. The reporting was clearly heavily influenced by a single researcher. It opened by suggesting the heart has activity just like a pacemaker. They seemed to make the difference between ionising radiation, which can definitely alter DNA, and radio frequency, which doesn’t, a bit murky. There were claims the industry was pushing back, just like when people tried to stop smoking on planes.

The suggestion was made that the flatlining rate of brain cancer was just a result of the long latency of the disease, that would extend many decades from here. Just look at the delay after the atomic bombs we were reminded.

Except that the evidence on that front was misrepresented, not mentioning the steady rise in cases until a peak, and that some of the original research excluded all the cases of cancer from the first 13 years after those events. Not much latency.

They referred heavily to a particular study, the Interphone study, which suggested a possible link in one type of cancer in those who reported heavy use. They could have made more of the fact that this study relied on self-reported mobile use up to a decade earlier, including in those already diagnosed with a malignancy. They could have made more of the fact that the conclusion of the study reads “Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.” It’s all about the frame you choose to hang.

When we got to the section of the program where the featured researcher, Dr Devra Davis, took us through the all important featured image of a child holding a mobile phone, then showed the terrifying colour bands, then realised it was a stock image available online with some added lurid bits and no real discussion of the quality of data, the whole thing was fairly cooked.

Capybara

Go ahead, put on a display. Don’t assume we’ll be impressed.

It was a fail. It was the sort of fail that would have had Fox Mulder slowly bleeding from an ear if he wasn’t busy having placebo-driven ‘magic mushroom’ trips to higher planes of consciousness so he could communicate in Arabic with brain injured coma patients (actual story line from the same week, no exaggeration).

Of course it’s also well established that the audience takes from any reportage the stuff they’re inclined to believe in the first place. Which means plenty of people would have been very persuaded by this coverage, rather than very persuaded by the holes.

The most distressing thing about all of this is that the biggest fail might not even be with that TV program. The biggest fail is possibly with the scientific groups who should be making themselves useful to people.

Tell Us About Risk

The International Agency for Research on Cancer are the ones who put out the information perceived as being all about risk that causes so much confusion. The really absurd bit is that everybody thinks it is about risk, but it’s not really about risk. It’s about how strong the evidence is.

This group is charged with looking at the evidence that any particular thing is related to cancer and break it up into any one of 5 groups: group 1 “carcinogenic to humans” meaning “we are pretty sure they have have the potential to cause cancer”. 2A gets “probably carcinogenic to humans” which in this case means “well there’s some evidence but we just can’t be sure”.

Group 3 is where you put all the substances that can’t be classified due to a lack of data and group 4 is for “probably not carcinogenic”. There’s one substance, caprolactam, in group 4.

So we come back to group 2B, which is for those things that are “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. This is somewhere between “there’s some evidence but we just don’t have enough to know where to put it” and “there’s not enough data to even guess”.

So it’s a dumping ground, a rubbish tip for over 250 things they’ve considered. Things like coffee. Or pickled vegetables. And that’s where WiFi comes in. About as dangerous as pickles.

To make it worse they’re not even mentioning the level of exposures that might be worth your time, or strength of associations in any of the groups. It’s really just about how much evidence is out there. Which means something with pretty much no evidence gets called a possible carcinogen. And everyone thinks quite reasonably that they’ve assessed risk, when they’ve really just assessed papers and words.

They just haven’t bothered to make an effort to communicate that properly.

Isn’t that an even bigger fail? Who are they trying to help or inform? What’s the point if the logic is inaccessible?

What’s the Conclusion?

The “flagship” science show failed every which way. The IARC fails to make things clear. Over and over after each deliberation, probably fuelled by “possibly carcinogenic” coffee. The show’s producers failed because of the way they framed everything they found. The other group failed because they don’t seem to bother even thinking about the frame.

In later responses, the ABC mentioned that a couple of experts who would have dismissed the links between cancer and WiFi were invited and declined to appear. They implied that they passed up an opportunity to have that alternative heard.

That might be true but the program ended up with a single voice presenting the view that more faithfully represents the consensus position. Not much effort there. It might just be that Catalyst, having previously had a program around statins and cardiovascular disease pulled offline for its lack of adequate representation of the evidence, has burned its credibility when reporting science. They’ve discouraged researchers from going on. A flagship, huh?

So what lessons do I take away when reflecting on how to present the evidence around a PhD? Perhaps the best advice comes from another science journalist.

Rose Eveleth writes and podcasts all over the joint. In this post at Last Word on Nothing, she describes a story that grabbed her interest on looting in archaeology. The author was very convincing on the subject. It seemed like time to pursue it.

Then she found someone else who flat out laughed at the idea. She disputed lots of the facts in a coherent fashion. She highlighted the complexity at looking in enough depth on the ground to actually represent the truth of the story. The story appealed, the evidence didn’t back it up. So the story got left behind.

Perhaps that’s the key. As it says in the final line of that post “always look for the person who will laugh at your story”.

If you can explore all the issues raised by that laughter and then communicate the research faithfully, that might be how you get there.

 

More Reading:

Here’s another one of the responses to the initial program.

The National Cancer Institute has an information page that seems pretty useful too.

Here’s a pretty useful thing on those IARC categories as well as a better way of showing the information, this time as it relates to meat.

That image was from the flickr Creative Commons area and is unaltered from the post by Heartlover1717.

Advertisements

Going Back to School for an Education

I have had some surprising invitations in my day. A traditional healer in Zimbabwe once invited me to try her herbal Viagra out. There have been invites to celebrations that required very specific dress codes that could probably only be satisfied by visiting dark corners of the internet. They were just about topped by an invite to hang out at Brooklyn Public School for their science fair.

Why so surprising? Well, I don’t really have any link to Brooklyn (even the Sydney one) beyond an under 10s game of cricket that went pretty well and getting engaged on a nearby river a while ago. On top of that, I don’t really count myself as much of a scientist. I’d like to be able to develop some researching skills, but there’s something about failing to get grants, generate much data or publish life changing papers that makes me think I have a way to go. But then you bug someone who is quite an impressive scientist (who you can find as @DrBrocktagon on Twitter) and someone else falls through and before you know it you’re a fallback option.

The Welcome Mat

The Welcome Mat

Having said yes to doing a presentation, I had a few things to face up to. Anyone will tell you not to work with kids and animals. I assume it’s fear of unpredictability that drives that saying, though I would usually laugh at such balderdash when armed with a large array of controlled substances. The great thing about tackling a different audience is it gives you a chance to re-examine how you communicate ideas. There have been other posts where I’ve mentioned some thoughts on presentations (like here and here and here) but I can’t think of a time when I’ve been able to chat to a bunch of kids. So while some stuff was the same, there were a few lessons that I think will probably make me PhD better.

1. Re-examining What You Do

A new audience gives the chance to view what you do through the eyes of another. When wrestling with the reluctant vagaries of data collection or sinking in the latest grant rejection, it’s easy to feel like the project that once excited you might not be that great. Figuring out which bit to talk about when you can say “actually we’re flying on helicopters to see what shining light into people’s brains might tell us” is a great way to re-engage with the cool stuff that got it all rolling.

 

2. Less is More

One of the reasons kids can be confronting is they so often hit us with honesty more than we are used to. There’s no agenda, they’ll just make it painfully obvious as they suck the oxygen from the room with yawning mouths that you are boring. The aim here was to cover three things – what is science/who is a scientist, stuff we do at work and how that involves sciencey stuff. Even that was kind of a bit. Maybe 3 ideas was even too much.

 

3. Kids are Naturals

Spend a day chatting about science stuff with kids and it’s really obvious that for lots of kids science is a natural fit. They have a natural curiosity that seeks ways to understand the world around them. Even more impressive was the rigour of their application of a methodology to answer their questions. Here’s an example – one pair wanted to see if shoe size was related to height. So they sat at a ferry stop and got about 60 people to shed their shoes and get measured. They recorded all the data, and displayed it in all its glory, as well as dividing height by foot length to see if there was a consistent relationship. Then of course there was the guy who did multiple tests of different-sized paper ninja stars to check their flight characteristics. Or the youngster who pursued behavioural testing in dogs. More than 50 dogs on a beach.

Data is so much of the story. Seriously inspiring.

That's a lot of smelly feet to get near.

That’s a lot of smelly feet to get near.

4. There Are Uses for Laser Pointers

It is not for pointing at screens. Really great for demonstrating the interaction of light with interfaces though. Plus lasers.

 

5. Flexibility is an Expectation

Not because you’ll find yourself competing in long forgotten schoolyard games in a winner takes all fashion. I hope. Let’s say though that you plan to use a toy to demonstrate helicopter flight. Then you end up in a  room with multiple fans directly over the heads of the kids. Probably best not to be too committed to anything.

 

6. Audience Testing

Beyond the usual practice, for a chat to kids I highly recommend testing the material out on kids in advance if you have some handy amenable to spending a few minutes (or amenable to a bribe to do that). I had an easy option in three gents aged 7, 5 and 2. The 7 year old was right into it. The 5 year old gave up a decent number of laughs. The 2 year old went and hid in a box. You can’t please everyone I guess.

 

7. The Unplanned Bit is the Best Bit

The talk was fun but by far the best bit was the questions afterwards. Partly because it showed some kids listened to the stuff I said and they came up with questions. But we also covered anaesthesia, pilots, who I like best on the helicopter, helmets, brain injuries, how incredibly old I am and the worst injuries I’ve come across. It was particularly excellent.

 

How did it go? Somewhere between having the kids so excited they mobbed me and squeezed so hard an eye popped out like an old stuffed toy and throwing small paper projectiles from boredom (although there were ninja stars handy). It was not just the best talk I’ve had the chance to be a part of any time I can remember, it genuinely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for my own project. A few years in to this part time PhD, that was a lesson I needed to revisit.

 

Scientists Precious? Indeed they are

At first I thought it might be some breakthrough. Possibly the phrase “precious petals” had been deployed by a minister with some of the responsibility for science as he described his excitement at some new bit of amazing research.

No. Of course not. He was taking another swipe at the very group he is alleged to be “passionate” about. It’s a passion we should trust because he is the “grandson and son of a scientist”. Maybe claiming scientific ancestors is the new equivalent to “some of my best friends are women”.

With these latest comments the minister who had insisted not having a Science Minister was not an issue, that everyone should judge the government by their actions and was now claiming that the criticism leveled at the government was “crap” made it abundantly clear that there is no genuine engagement in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Lots of examples are easily proffered to support this. Cuts to the CSIRO, ANSTO, and peak funding bodies such as the ARC and NHMRC are not the end of the story though. There are far deeper issues.

Science is not just a label to attach to an end product that looks like it involved some thinking. It’s an approach to reasoning out the miraculous things we observe around us. Sometimes it’s even about reasoning out the things we are still to confirm.

There is an alternative to this rational approach to life. It relies on the denial of observation of real phenomena to support blind faith and ideology. The issue with this government is not the simple totem of an absent Science Minister. It is the pervasive dismissal of evidence in all areas of policy.

This photo of sunflowers is a reminder that petals are actually pretty great. [via Vince Wingate, CC]

This photo of sunflowers is a reminder that petals are actually pretty great. [via Vince Wingate, CC]

 Recognising this casual relationship with evidence, no matter what level of evidence that is, seems to be the only way to make sense of so many decisions. Lip service is given to a belief in the science of climate change. Yet the removal of a carbon pricing regime working in the sector it was designed for was accompanied by a total absence of a ready alternative.

Despite evidence that rising health costs aren’t as catastrophic as initially claimed, the Health Minister seeks to justify a co-payment which will disproportionately affect the vulnerable, discourage engagement with primary and preventive health and not actually return significant money to the healthcare sector. It is coupled with steps to nobble useful public health bodies whose job is to prevent high cost diseases from driving up our spending.

Evidence is offered by an extensive review of education that significant benefits would accrue from addressing inequality in education. The government seeks an early opportunity to run away from pre-election commitments to support the recommendations.

You might assume such an approach would at least allow the recognition of eyewitness accounts as worth some kind of weight. Except that when faced with reports from eyewitnesses and experts of major health and child safety issues in offshore detention, the Minister simply insists all of those reports are inaccurate.

Inconvenient facts cause barely a pause. They are flicked away as irrelevant in the face of the lessons of careworn ideology. What a pity scientists haven’t made more effort bending their reasoning to suit those seeking to deny evidence.

So where to for those wanting to stand up for science? Engagement is still a requirement. Running away from the government isn’t going to improve things at all and there is a real and pressing need to deal with Australia’s poor performance commercialising promising research.

Well, the same minister gave us an insight not that long ago. He suggested that science had “allowed itself to get pushed out of the community awareness space. If you are feeling a little irrelevant in the community, make yourself relevant.” A charge of irrelevance from the government of knights and dames was bound to sting. Well, bionic vision can’t come soon enough because the Minister is blind to what’s around.

Otherwise he would surely have attended the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes the same day he was commenting on scientific flora. There he could have celebrated researchers delivering improved safety for helicopters in crashes, world first treatment for the Hendra virus, massive boosts in grain yields or two dollar microscopes for smartphones.

Maybe he could look at those undertaking crowdfunding to engage very directly with people both here and overseas. How does setting up such campaigns or even being part of organisations promoting science in this way sit with the accusation of irrelevance? He could have read the publicity regarding Australian teams from the CSIRO and universities in Melbourne stepping closer to delivering better solar cells. That can be printed onto plastic.

Maybe he could even pay attention to the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, as he delivers a comprehensive national science strategy to deliver broad benefits across the community for decades to come. There will always be room for scientists to communicate even more but researchers at all levels are taking up that challenge and making those steps. Right now it’s the government choosing to sink further into the ideological groove they’ve carved in their favourite stuffy armchair.

This is a government with a Prime Minister who thinks the media should be giving more credit, a treasurer complaining that business doesn’t show enough support and an environment minister taking public swings at renewable energy leaders. It’s not scientists that are being precious. They’re just speaking up as the whole sector weathers constant attacks, while still delivering amazing results.

Maybe he got the word precious right. Just with the wrong meaning.

 

This post was actually written for Croakey, and appears on that site right here

Can video make a PhD star?

Like many parents, I have a complicated relationship with kids’ television. There are times when I enjoy the pure joy in a song composed entirely of nonsensical whimsy. Then there are times when I would like to find an appropriate furnace to burn Thomas and all his shunting friends.

Like some parents, occasionally when I watch a kids’ performer pretending to be a bed-hopping monkey, I think to myself  “I could do that. And my monkey would have more mischievous glee too.”

The PhD – Delivering Reality Checks for Free

 Of all the unlikely vehicles to allow me to test my front of camera skills, I have this PhD project. When I embarked on it almost accidentally (pretty clumsy, right), I assumed it would mostly be me and a computer and lots and lots of data. One day it might be. What I didn’t expect was that 2 years in the surrounding bits would be such a major part of the process.

As I’ve said before here, it has become massively apparent that if you have an idea you believe in communicating is part of the job. Who else is going to talk up your thing if you won’t?

Coupled to this is the fact that I’m doing this within a charity organisation. Unsurprisingly, they also want to tell people about stuff they do. Of course, there’s not really any way I can think of getting funded that wouldn’t involve communicating what the work involves.

And so it is, that I ended up in front of a camera.

The Brief

To explain a bit about the research, we’ve created a short video pitched at the layperson. If you care to view it up front, you can look here (the link is at the bottom of the page).

The target we set was to try and answer a few questions in these 3 or so minutes:

  • Who we are and what we do.
  • Why do we give a damn about trauma and particularly traumatic brain injury?
  • What’s the problem we’re trying to address and what the hell is the monitor with the fancy name all about?
  • What are we actually doing about it?

We did this armed with a script from me, a volunteer called Cam on the camera, a bunch of black drapes in an office and 3 props. Now it’s out there for anyone to judge if we were successful.

What did I learn?

1.     Imagery is everything

One of the hardest elements to get across was the idea of how the monitoring might reveal stuff that’s going on in the brain. That’s where the balloon (and some textas plus a rather saintly wife) came in. This concept was developed in the preparation for the Bright Sparks PhD Pitch Night from earlier in the year and I still like it, although I’m always looking for a better one. A good image can demonstrate a concept way quicker than many, many words.

The search for a way of demonstrating this idea also led to a really clear focus on exactly what it is we’re doing and made me understand the complex stuff better. There are all sorts of benefits in communication.

2.     A Camera is a Strange and Unrelenting Prison

I can talk plenty in a small group. I can talk in a big room. I am seriously unnerved by a flashing red light (and no there’s no hidden associations with red lights and a long suppressed past).

Practice felt easy. In the dark room, with the light on I rediscovered the self-consciousness of a big-haired teenager. It’s truly strange how the unblinking glint of a camera lens makes it feel like you yourself are blinking way too much. It felt as if my eyelids were convinced they had a chance to live out their dream of stepping up to the big leagues and delivered a performance akin to wipers trying to clear dead bugs off a windscreen.

My hands, usually friends of mine, became massively oversized. They felt so big and everywhere I wondered if I’d forgotten the point earlier in the day where I washed my hands in a particularly angry hornets’ nest. My hand acting clearly followed the teaching of this serious actor.

So enough daydreaming. I can happily acknowledge now that there are reasons pros are pros. Which just means it’s time for practice.

3.     There’s Room to Improve

When I see it, I think it’s a start. There are things that I wish were more slick and professional looking. Actually, that’s mostly just my face I’m talking about. I am very impressed at the efforts of the CareFlight team in building on top of a little idea, supported only by 2 balloons and 3 takes.

It turns out a PhD delivers way more than just an experience in research, or the fascinating pain of literature reviews and revision. It takes you in unexpected directions. Although next time I watch Play School I’ll have to acknowledge the harsh reality that maybe I won’t be disputing the rider with Big Ted, Humpty and friends any time soon.

If you made it this far before checking it, here’s the direct link. I submit it to the court of public (well, not that public really) opinion. And if you’ve got the time, let me know what you think. How did we go? Is there a better option than the brain balloon or am I going to be popping those things for the next few years? Should there be more gags? Is it even easy to include jokes about brain injury in this sort of thing? I’m all virtual ears. After all, my future in research may well depend just as much on my communication as my stats.

No textas were harmed in the decoration of this balloon.

No textas were harmed in the decoration of this balloon.

The Ashes and Lessons for Science Advocacy

About the time I was watching Draco Malfoy stand his ground on a cricket pitch I was also looking at very different coverage. That reading was all about the failure of moves to introduce plain packaging in the UK, and the associated interest in Conservative advisers (yay, he’s an Aussie! Oops, sorry, misplaced patriotism).

Cricket often pretends to be played in some noble spirit not evident in other such pursuits. The place where the level playing field was first created. I call balderdash. From the moment WG Grace stood his ground, cricket has been the perfect example of rationalising anything you can as being “playing to the rules”.

If elite cricket teaches anything, it is that you do what you can get away with to get the result. It is only the naïve who seem to think that it is played in the spirit of “gentlemen”.

Villains everywhere can buy a "WWSBD?" bracelet for inspiration. That stands for "What Would Stuart Broad Do?" [Image from the Both Are Same blog]

Villains everywhere can buy a “WWSBD?” bracelet for inspiration. That stands for “What Would Stuart Broad Do?”
[Image from the Both Are Same blog]

The Naïve Science Advocate

There are times when it is painfully apparent that science advocacy operates under such illusions, or is forced to do so. Key to this is a couple of key features of the way scientists go about discussing ideas:

• Scientists tend to feel beholden by the need to express uncertainty.
• Scientists have open disclosure built into the way they go about things.

The result of these features is that those relying on communicating the scientific method are playing the game on a field not at all levelled by other interested public policy advocates.

The scientific exploration of an idea involves discussion of both the evidence for and against a position. So scientists discussing any topic are likely to at least mention alternate viewpoints. They also give credit to any points those of an alternate opinion make that are based in fact. Partisan commentators feel no such compulsion.

The second of these also demonstrates a stark contrast. When stumping up and publishing or quietly announcing things from the cloistered conference mountain top, scientists disclose all possible associations that could be seen to influence what they write or say. The requirements are well described by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.

It’s not quite to the point where you have to disclose that your thoughts on sugary food might have been influenced by the overly sweet cream buns forced down your throat by a particularly reviled grandmother, but it’s a fairly high bar.

 

Playing by Different Rules

If you work for any of the public think tanks out there throwing their opinions into the mix, there is no such requirement. Let’s take the example of the Institute of Public Affairs (and I’m not suggesting they are the only such group worldwide who you could examine in this fashion).

Within Australia, this group is certainly vocal. That’s on a range of issues, including the idea of abolishing plain packaging legislation for cigarettes (as outlined in their 75 suggestions for Tony Abbott). This piece is not about arguing the case for plain packaging (I see patients in hospitals, pretty fair guess you know what I’ll say). The advocacy around this policy is interesting though.

The IPA makes it a rule not to disclose the identities of supporters, which they argue is a response to threats made to those supporters in the past. So they feel no need to disclose the backing of British America Tobacco (amongst other cigarette manufacturers). They will happily argue loudly and vociferously with no qualification of those comments on the basis of their associations.

Such groups will argue the point without any shame whatsoever that their words might be tainted because they don’t tell us about any conflicts. They’ll stand their ground and won’t care what the video replay shows.

 

Getting Things On The Level

So what’s to be done? It’s untenable to abandon basic tenets of scientific integrity. Nor can you expect public advocacy groups to change how they’re doing things. They are the drinker at the pub who tips up the table while playing pool. Tried arguing with a drunk recently?

All it really means is that anyone wishing to apply their interest in science to advocate for evidence-based policy needs to speak up and speak well. Other advocates are going to keep popping up to make their case. Anyone else needs to be prepared to talk as often, as loudly and as effectively.

So do some training and get on the field. Everyone’s an expert watching from the couch. But how will you actually change the game?

Profiling Researchers

You must have met a scientist. They’re everywhere. They live among us. In fact, you probably saw a scientist today and you didn’t even know it.

Now, that opening isn’t my crack at writing the autocue script for a tabloid current affairs show. It wouldn’t be out of place though. That’s because despite all the scientists out there trying to engage, you sometimes get a feeling that each day a new angry mob dropped by the pitchfork shop to stock up for an anti-science march.

Science Under Attack

Maybe it’s because there’s cancer conspiracy theories suggesting the cure is already out there, but researchers are hiding it to make big bucks. Just look at all those cancer scientists buying tropical islands.

It could be the growing influence of industry-funded organisations attacking science making scientists feel a bit unloved. Maybe it’s the news of despotic regimes trying to limit public chatter from researchers about the stuff they find. Like the jackboot-wearing thugs from Canada, for example.

To launch attacks like this, it seems to me that you have to start with the assumption that scientists are some other species. A species that doesn’t recognise normal moral codes. A whole breed that would happily deny the world a cure for horrifying and deadly medical conditions or abandon any pretence at integrity and promote science they know isn’t true.

So maybe the first step is to start building up a public profile of what a researcher is. Well everyone goes nuts for those shows on TV where earnest suit-wearing people profile serial killers from the contents of their cereal bowl and the haircut they sported in their primary school photo. (Alright, maybe the serial killer reference isn’t helping me here.)

Profile of a Researcher

• My name is Andrew and I live in a city.
• I like sport. I even sit down and watch Test cricket.
• I find tea anticlimactic, particularly when compared to coffee.
• I am not particularly impressed by actors. It’s not that I don’t think what they do is cool, I just don’t think that being paid vast amounts of money to pretend to be someone who does stuff makes your opinion more valid than people who actually do that thing.
• I have never seen or read Game of Thrones.
• Despite this, I could have predicted that an episode called “Red Wedding” was probably not going to be a reference to a cultural practice of wearing red for good luck. What were you all expecting?
• I think ties serve no purpose. And bowties? No. Really, just no.
• I am also a drummer. This means that when I listen to music for the first time, I listen almost entirely to the drums and bass.
• I have a habit of singing along. Out loud. Wherever I am. My apologies.
• Hip hop has excellent rhythm. I am a middle class white guy. I have not been to “the hood”. I tend to sing out loud (see above). This makes hip hop awkward for me.
• I’d probably choose winter over summer, and the desert over the tropics.
• I’m also starting medical research on brain monitoring at accident scenes.

Yes, that is mine. Actually, I have heard that drummer joke. No, actually, I don't think my sides will be splitting.

Yes, that is mine.
Actually, I have heard that drummer joke.
No, actually, I don’t think my sides will be splitting.

The thing is, I could state the exact opposite of every one of these sentences and I’d still be describing a researcher.

So if that’s true, maybe the challenge is right there. Because it turns out that scientists are just people too. How do we get that message across?

The Bright Sparks Wrap Up

It is 5:45 p.m. I am with a group of PhD students. We are jumping up and down and forcing laughter through distorted faces by way of warm up and part of me is enjoying it. Part of me is looking for the fork I need to stab myself in the eye.

June 4 finally saw the Bright Sparks PhD Pitch Night come around. 18 PhD students given 150 seconds to pitch their projects to a room of mostly business types for fame, fortune and fun. There’s more on the set up for this back here. Anyway, as a quick refresher, as part of the Amplify Festival (put on by AMP), they’ve put on a spectacular competition for those undertaking a PhD. Engagement with fresh ideas, in a licensed venue (The Basement for this edition) as a way of bringing researchers into contact with the business world and media experts. Complete with media training and performance coaching (from James Valentine and the excellent Daniel Keogh (aka @ProfessorFunk)) and a brief to make it work without Powerpoint, it’s an impressive commitment from AMP, driven by Annalie Killian (@maverickwoman on Twitter) and delivered by the team at Wildwon (check out the work of Sally Hill and Yvonne Lee already have an impressive CV only 8 months into their existence).

As a researcher, any chance to work on science communication skills is now vital. As I said in that previous post, it’s fairly evident for researchers now that being able to communicate the idea you love will be vital to the future health of your research. Communication is not an optional extra any more, it’s part of the standard equipment list.

So it is that the last few weeks have seen me playing with lighting techniques, working on words, making jelly in brain moulds and searching for brain balloons in an attempt to present a 2 and a half minute synopsis of the part-time PhD that will take me about 6 years. And then it’s the night and I’m trying to figure out whether hitting the nachos prior to hopping on stage is a strong strategic move or poor risk management.

The mood amongst the candidates is pretty relaxed. Well, there’s a degree of nervous excitement, but most people are enjoying the ride, the free food and drink (no one has enough showbiz experience to have experienced a rider or anything like it before) and admiring the collection of koalas, robots, posters, costumes and more flesh and blood props strewn around the green room. I’m first up, and actually pacing a little. This is partly nervous energy and partly that I already have the pins I need to pop my prop stuck in my pocket and I’m a little wary of the risks of sitting down.

It’s not too long though before the room is full and the actual professional talent is working the crowd with Jared Jekyll (beatbox and sound vault extraordinaire) providing the soundtrack and Dan Ilic taking on the MC role with aplomb (seriously, if you’d like to question the value of an Arts degree, I give you Dan Ilic in rebuttal). Given how important that opening is, it’s just as well these guys know how to get it going (although, as I note  the good Mr Ilic has also recently done the Sydney Comedy Festival Nerd All-Star Comedy Gala, I can only gather he’s trying to corner the nerd market – the Billy Crystal of the geek performance landscape, if you will).

There’s only a few moments of staring at backstage posters, wall divots and anatomical reproductions before I’m out there delivering my bit, waiting for lighting cues to eventuate, pulling off illusions with the aid of my father-in-law and desecrating the brain balloon my wife worked so hard on. Then it’s done. In some ways being first up is a bit of a bugger, but I have the distinct advantage of getting to see the other guys strut their stuff. Given the breadth of projects and how much all these guys inspire me, it’s a pretty sweet gig.

Not only are they all great, but there’s some spectacularly good dramatic tricks deployed. Personal highlights for me were Kate McDonnell’s support dancers, the effort with the koala, the questionably edible sunflower who can help with Alzheimer’s, Alessandro’s magic outfit and Will Randall saving the poor teenagers, but they’re all pretty phenomenal. The intervening entertainment is likewise excellent (actually, Dan’s sharing stories about his Dad was the other peak for me). All in front of a crowd who were engaged, rowdy and supportive through all the rough bits. The reception for Kate when she is announced as the winner blows the roof off (and so it should, really).

So now we can reflect on things out the other end. The experience has been phenomenal. I remain convinced that there is not a research institution that shouldn’t be arranging media training for all those working with them. There’s not going to be any progress on ideas kept in the dark with the mushrooms. How fitting that the first thing I read after Mr 3 got me up at an hour that would make a kookaburra weep was this one, by the much more qualified Jai Ranganathan (and turning up on my Twitter feed via Scientific American), providing further context to the future needs for scientists to communicate.

I come out of it with a much better grasp of where I need to get to in terms of selling the project and distilling it to a few simple concepts. It’s been a most worthwhile experience on that front. If there’s any downer for me, it’s that I didn’t quite get there in terms of pulling that off this time. Not in terms of the prize on the night, but on the more important opportunity to generate interest and engagement for the project as a whole. At this stage there’s not much evidence I achieved that, which feels like a bit of a fail. Having said that, you’re not in research if you haven’t learnt to sort of embrace failures as a necessary but annoying evil to get you further down the track.

To make progress, it’s pretty clear I need to be able generate some buzz. The funny nature of this PhD, conducted at a charity but registered through a Uni, means that to date the project hasn’t been in a position to generate support directly from the University and there’s not the bigger institution to rely on (either for resources or track record) to put national competitive grants on the table. At the moment CareFlight is doing all the supporting so it’s a very distinct goal to start helping raise the funds we need. And with a project that offers the possibility of providing better care in brain injury so people aren’t left disabled, and an interim stage where we think we’ll get to redesign how we interact with patient monitors, it shouldn’t be a hard sell. Just have to do it better (and at least now I’m a massive step closer to having the skills to get that done). So lots of winning.

This was a fantastic night with a big ovation required (again) for AMP and Annalie Killian (plus sponsors Blackberry) for putting it out there (and a bit of excitement that Annalie has indicated she’s keen on setting up some crowdfunding to help support some of the other projects – that would be a spectacular outcome). If only more big companies were engaging on this level. It’s exciting just to know that there are people out there looking to support research and fresh ideas. There can’t have been a person there who wasn’t entertained and inspired by the range of projects.

I guess now all we need to do is generate a project involving the efficient harnessing of coal and solar power to energise the super programmed robot that will help construct the carbon nanotube space elevator to get us to the ergonomically designed space station on which future genetics and stem cell research can proceed to help cure diseases in humans and koalas, and we’ll be a dead certainty to engage the wider community.

Brain balloon

The Brain Balloon