IS ALL PUBLICITY GOOD? by J.L.Greger
IS ALL PUBLICITY GOOD?
Scientists are required to submit a full disclosure of their biases when they submit a manuscript for review. Their disclosures are brief. Here’s mine: My novel Coming Flu (published in July 2012 by Oak Tree Press) is a medical thriller; it is also an example of a new sub-genre: science in fiction or Lab Lit. I was a professor in biology for more than thirty years.
Besides brief disclosures (I’m afraid the tag lines for many writers exceed three or four lines.), what can writers learn from scientists? Maybe a little bit about creating a public image - or at least what not to do.
Most writers would agree with Oscar Wilde. “There is only thing worse in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” (The Picture of Dorian Gray). Many scientists probably would not.
Scientists have seen the effect of free publicity in books and movies, like Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dr. Strangelove. This publicity has generated an unpleasant image for scientists: aging, un-athletic, males with anti-social tendencies - maybe even a little weird.
Why do scientists care about their image? They know a good image is essential to gain the support of the electorate and policy makers for continued funding of scientific research through federal agencies. Their image has hindered recruitment of bright students, especially women and minorities, to careers in science.
What have scientists done to change their image?
Scientific organizations have sponsored hundreds of briefings on scientific issues for the press and Congress. The National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other government agencies have tried to encourage the brightest students, especially women and minorities, to select careers in science and engineering. Most of the $829 million, which Congress gave to NSF for training in 2012, will be used to support training of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows at universities. However, some of these funds will support science education for children (K-12). NIH invests about $24 million annually in two programs that promote science education for the public, particularly children.
Gee, thats’ a lot of money!
Let’s put it in perspective. The budget for the 2011 movie Contagion, probably the most realistic view of science filmed by a large studio, was $60 million; it grossed $130 million in theatres. Each episode of the average network TV series cost $1.5 - $2 million to make. Currently three popular TV series – CSI, Bones, and NCIS - are projecting positive (albeit unrealistic sometimes) images for scientists. All three have attractive men and women, who care about others, playing scientists. Granted very few scientists are as sexy as Catherine Willows and Nick Stokes in CSI.
Have these efforts paid off?
NSF offers results from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. Since 1973, they have noted no consistent change in Americans’ opinions about scientists; 35 to 45% of those surveyed expressed confidence in scientists. During the same period of time, confidence in educators steadily fell from 37% to 26%, in physicians fell from 54% to 41%, and in Congress dropped from 23% to 10%.
Do these survey results reflect the lobbying efforts of scientific agencies or of popular TV shows? It’s impossible to assess. But the producers of Contagion took advice from scientific agencies to increase the accuracy of the science portrayed in the film. More women and minorities are entering careers in science and engineering.
Why do I care?
Scientific discoveries offer great ideas for novels, plays, and short stories. Tidbits of science can add a sense of reality to a novel.
Scientists, like police, are sometimes willing to share information with authors. Agencies like NIH, have put “non-scientist friendly” descriptions of cutting-edge science on the web. Start with http://heallth.nih.gov. Many universities publish ezines, press release, and brochures, which are great sources of information on innovative science. They’re also often written in a catchy manner that may spark your imagination. There is a helpful website devoted to science in fiction called http://www.lablit.com.
Finally, learn form the scientists. The effects of bad publicity can linger for a long time.
The link to my page on Amazon is www.amazon.com/Coming-Flu-J-L-Greger/dp/1610090985. My website is http://www.jlgreger.com. It links to my sale page on Amazon.
About Coming Flu:: A new flu strain – the Philippine flu – kills more than two hundred in less than a week in the small walled community near the Rio Grande. The rest face a bleak future under quarantine. One of the residents Sara Almquist, as a medical epidemiologist, pries into every aspect of her neighbors’ lives looking for ways to stop the spread of the flu. She finds promising clues – maybe too many?
Bio:: J.L. Greger has been a scientist, professor, textbook writer, and university administrator. Now she is a writer of fiction, who also inserts glimpses of scientific breakthroughs and tidbits about universities into her medical thrillers. The inspiration for the Japanese Chin Bug in Coming Flu is her real dog, Bug. She and Bug live in the American Southwest.