Correspondence | Published:

To sell science, find out what people want to buy

Naturevolume 417page787 (2002) | Download Citation



Elizabeth Tait in Correspondence (Nature 417, 221; 200210.1038/417221a) discusses ways in which scientists and science communicators can work together. I would like to add that the current political pressure on scientists to become more market-oriented is making them reposition themselves and learn about research marketing. To this end, science communicators are supposed to make the public aware of the value that basic science contributes to society.

But are these activities 'research marketing'? In his famous essay “Marketing myopia” (Harvard Business Review 38, 465–56; 1960), Theodore Levitt argued that an industry's primary aim should be to satisfy customers, not to sell goods. This proposition should hold especially true for a service industry — and basic science is ultimately no more than that.

Scientists can learn from Levitt to serve the needs of their customers, the public. According to Levitt, the difference between selling and marketing is that the former fulfils the needs of the seller and the latter the needs of the buyer. Academic scientists must stop trying to sell their achievements to the public, and instead market them by considering public needs right at the beginning of their endeavours.

However, scientists work on the not-quite-yet-possible, whereas public discussions of ethics and politics take place only when scientific results are just becoming possible. Hence there will be always a gap between scientific advances and societies' judgements about them. If scientists want to contribute to society, and also see the application of the knowledge they generate, they need to be less concerned with the 'public understanding of science' and more with scientists' understanding of the public.

To this end, market forces can contribute significantly to the understanding of what the public expects and desires from science. Therefore, scientists conducting basic science should expand their agreements, collaborations and partnerships with industrial sponsors and learn from them. Commercial companies can provide academic scientists not just with money, but with knowledge of what the market or, better, the public wants. Market forces will help to establish how much the public is willing to pay for advances in knowledge and technology.

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  1. PR&D – Public Relations for Research and Development, Margaretenstr. 70, Vienna, A1050, Austria

    • Till C. Jelitto


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