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Spinning out of control

Researchers should beware of ’public relations‘ screens that are anything but helpful to science communication.

Those who report on science should give constant thanks to those scientists who explain their work with generosity and patience. Cynics who argue that researchers just crave publicity should recognize that the enthusiasm with which such information is typically imparted belies any suspicion of self-serving motives.

Paradoxically, this willingness to engage with journalists is threatened by the idea in the scientific community of ‘public engagement’. Many companies and research institutes now have slick PR offices in which the ethos is informed not by the scientific tradition of exchange and interaction, but by a culture of marketing. It may be natural that organizations want to trumpet their achievements in triumphant press releases, and journalists are generally canny enough to decode the hype. And it is unsurprising that large companies often demand that their researchers be chaperoned in interviews by press officers.

It is more disturbing when government-funded research agencies, such as the US National Institutes of Health, erect PR screens between their scientists and the media, so that all correspondence is mediated via e-mail by a press officer. One result is that scientists might come to believe it sufficient to respond to enquiries about publicly funded research with chunks of management jargon.

A recent set of questions from a journalist was sifted by this mechanism to elicit the following response, doctored here to spare some blushes: “Based on past and current progress, the NIH believes that mouthwashology is a key enabling technology platform with the potential to transform the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of halitosis. NIH's recently announced Alliance for Halitosis is designed to facilitate and accelerate the progress of the twenty-first century research teams needed to realize the promise of these and future mouthwash technologies for halitosis sufferers.” A polite follow-up message from the reporter, tactfully refraining from pointing out that this statement was useless to any self-respecting journalist but suggesting that it failed to address any of the questions originally posed, met with stony silence.

It will be a sad day if scientists start to believe that this sort of bland and meaningless corporate-speak absolves them of the responsibility to tell people what they are actually doing.

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Spinning out of control. Nature 432, 657 (2004).

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