What Alien Bacteria Can Teach Us About Health PR

Posted by: in Healthcare Insights, Public Relations Practice on December 16, 2010

Unless you’ve been living on one of Jupiter’s moons, you’re probably at least vaguely aware that, two weeks ago, the journal Science published an intriguing piece of research on bacteria that had the ability to live under extraordinary conditions: a laboratory environment in which one of the building blocks of life, phosphorus, had been replaced by arsenic.

But the paper itself was overshadowed by what happened in the week before and the week after its publication. In the week before, speculation about the embargoed announcement (the research was done by NASA scientists) centered around whether the space agency would announce they’d found life in outer space. And in the week since, there has been a dull, steady roar in the scientific community as researchers and science writers have taken aim at both the unwarranted hype given to the paper as well as the findings themselves.

Though the arsenic soap opera isn’t over — and won’t be for some time — it does illustrate five trends in health and science communication that are likely to grow even more pronounced over time:

  • The Media Lifespan for Research Has Been Extended: It used to be that a news event — particularly a piece of new scientific or medical research — was only a hot topic for a brief period: right after the information was released. But now, that’s only the starting gun. The arsenic bacteria piece played out over days, as scientists looked harder and harder at the data, revising and sharpening their initial reactions. In turn, those new critiques generate more — and, often, more critical — media; PR pros ignore those aftershocks at their peril.
  • Commentary Isn’t Restricted to Specific Channels: NASA has taken a great deal of flack from the science-writing community for not coming out and directly addressing concerns about the paper. Instead, the agency and the authors have claimed that the only responsible way to discuss the science is the slow back-and-forth process of letters and papers in peer-reviewed scientific publications. That might have worked 50 years ago, but, this month, Twitter and the blogosphere was abuzz with discussion. Failing to monitor and engage through those channels is now public relations malpractice for researchers as much as corporations. (See Nature for more commentary on this.)
  • Upstream” Stories Are Becoming More Attractive: Earlier this year, I wrote a piece arguing that the future of medical/science journalism lies, in part, with more stories that are focused less on final results — which are never as definitive as they seem — and more about the process by which researchers do their work. The arsenic story, with its disputed conclusions, illustrates the risk of looking only at results, rather than the broader context of the overall research.
  • Embargoes Will Be Questioned More Often: The embargo system, in which reporters get advanced access to information in return for a promise not to publish early, helps reporters do their job. But it also helps journals and institutions build interest in a topic. In the NASA case, the embargo period allowed the excitement to exceed the scientific value of the news. The arsenic bacteria paper will be a reminder that embargoed information needs to be considered with care to ensure that context isn’t lost.
  • Trust in “Gatekeepers” Will Take a Hit: Most journalists assume that the peer review process, especially at top-tier publications such as Science or the New England Journal of Medicine, means that the results are pretty close to ironclad. But when a major piece of research is questioned, as it was this week, it makes reporters more cautious and more suspicious of hype. This effect, in the past, has been temporary (journalists, after all, have a limited ability to repeat the kind of aggressive peer review that the journals can conduct). But it’s possible, with the instant-feedback-loop of Twitter and blogs, that reporters can and will tap the experts now using new media as a quick-and-dirty tool to assess the significance of any given piece of research.

(If you haven’t been following every last blow-by-blow details, there are a few excellent places to catch up quick: check out David Dobbs’ coverage at Neuron Culture, Carl Zimmer’s Slate takedown on the holes in the paper, Ed Yong’s roundup at his Discover blog and, for the implications for the embargo system, you’ll naturally want to read Ivan Oransky at EmbargoWatch.)

What Alien Bacteria Can Teach Us About Health PR

Unless you’ve been living on one of Jupiter’s moons, you’re probably at least vaguely aware that, two weeks ago, the journal Science published an intriguing piece of research on bacteria that had the ability to live under extraordinary conditions: an laboratory environment in which one of the building blocks of life, phosphorus, had been replaced by arsenic.

But the paper itself was overshadowed by what happened in the week before and the after its publication. In the week before, speculation about the embargoed announcement (the research was done by NASA scientists) centered around whether the space agency would announce they’d found life in outer space. And in the week since, there has been a dull, steady roar in the scientific community as researchers and science writers have taken aim at both the unwarranted hype given to the paper as well as the conclusions itself.

Though the soap opera isn’t over — and won’t be for some time — it does illustrate five trends in health and science communication that are likely to grow even more pronounced over time:

* The Media Lifespan for Research has Been Extended: It used to be that a news event — particularly a piece of new scientific or medical research — was only a hot topic for a brief period: right after the information was released. But now, that’s only the starting gun. The arsenac bacteria piece played out over days, as scientists looked harder and harder at the data, revising and sharpening their initial reactions. In turn, those new critiques generate more — and, often, more critical — media; PR pros ignore those aftershocks at their peril.

* Commentary Isn’t Restricted to Specific Channels: NASA has taken a great deal of flack from the science-writing community for not coming out and directly addressing concerns about the paper. Instead, the agency and the authors have claimed that the only responsible way to discuss the science is the slow back-and-forth process of letters and papers in peer-reviewed scientific publications. That might have worked 50 years ago, but, this month, Twitter and the blogosphere was abuzz with discussion. Failing to monitor and engage through those channels is now public relations malpractice for researchers as much as corporations.

* “Upstream” Stories Are Becoming More Attractive: Earlier this year, I wrote a piece arguing that the future of medical/science journalism lies, in part, with more stories that are focused less on final results — which are never as definitive as they seem — and more about the process by which researchers do their work. The arsenic story, with its allegely flawed conclusions, illustrates the risk of looking only at results, rather than the broader context of the overall research.

* Embargoes Will Be Questioned More Often: The embargo system, in which reporters get advanced access to information in return for a promise not to publish early, helps reporters do their job. But it also helps journals and institutions build interest in a topic. In the NASA case, the embargo period allowed the excitement to exceed the scientific value of the news. The arsenic bacteria paper will be a reminder that embargoed information needs to be considered with care to ensure that context isn’t lost.

* Trust in “Gatekeepers” Is Waning: Most journalists assume that the peer review process, especially at top-tier publications such as Science or the New England Journal of Medicine, means that the results can be trusted. But when a major piece of research is questioned, as it was this week, it makes reporters more cautious and more suspicious of hype. This effect, in the past, has been temporary (journalists, after all, have a limited ability to repeat the kind of agressive peer review that the journals can conduct). But it’s possible, with the instant-feedback-loop of Twitter and blogs, that reporters can and will tap the experts now using new media as a quick-and-dirty tool to assess the significance of any given piece of research.

(If you haven’t been following every last blow-by-blow, there are a couple of excellent places to catch up: check out David Dobbs’ coverage at Neuron Culture, and Ed Yong has an excellent post over at his Discover blog.)

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a director at WCG in the product group, where he specializes in media. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Arsenic Bacteria link-dump | A Blog Around The Clock linked to this post on December 16, 2010

    [...] arsenic post I never wrote and What Alien Bacteria Can Teach Us About Health PR and Response to Questions Concerning the Science Article, A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using [...]

  2. The Too-Quiet Debate Over Whether Obesity is Socially Contageous | Common Sense linked to this post on June 23, 2011

    [...] December, I wrote about the brouhaha that was started when the journal Science published a paper suggesting that specific [...]

  3. A Funny Arsenic Smell Upstream — What questions is it fair to ask about squishy science? | David Dobbs's NEURON CULTURE linked to this post on June 8, 2013

    [...] a quick post-mortem yesterday on the Lake Mono bacterium, Brian Reid neatly ticks off how the “arsenic soap opera,” as he put it, “illustrates five [...]

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