Cheerleading with an agenda: how the press covers science
By Yarden Katz.
In 1894, science fiction writer, journalist and eugenics proponent H.G. Wells, writing in Nature magazine, called on scientists to “popularize” science. Wells argued that when research costs rise and the state becomes science’s chief patron, scientists can no longer afford to ignore public perceptions: “maintenance of an intelligent exterior interest in current investigation becomes of almost vital importance.” If the public didn’t care about science, then there would not only be “the danger of supplies being cut off,” but also the danger of the public endorsing inquiries “of doubtful value” (ironic, given Wells’ enthusiasm for eugenics).
Major efforts to bring science to the American public were launched in the early twentieth century. The mission of the news agency Science Service, which was founded in 1921, was to get science coverage into mainstream media and “to create,” as historian Cynthia Bennet has put it, “a constituency who would value, demand, and protect science research.” These efforts were partly about funding, but were also framed as being about creating an informed, science-savvy citizenry who could meaningfully participate in American democracy. Wells’ call had indeed been taken up: science became part of the news cycle, where it remains today. But even from the start, the values touted by the free press were all but absent in science reporting.
Although faith in the ideal has crumbled, journalism in a democratic society is said to be about “speaking truth to power.” Journalist Glenn Greenwald points out that in politics, mainstream journalists often “identify with institutional authority” and become its servants. Such critical attention has been focused on media coverage of politics, but in a society molded by science—from surveillance to biotechnology—science coverage is essential to public interests. While it’s clear that outright suspicion of scientific research, such as climate change denial, can have catastrophic outcomes, this shouldn’t give the scientific enterprise (still largely subsidized by the state) a free pass from scrutiny.
As it turns out, a surprising amount of science coverage could be described as little more than marketing for elite research centers. A few commentators have acknowledged part of the problem; Nature magazine, for instance, expressed concern that journalists act as “cheerleaders” who perform a “public-relations service” for scientists, and so the magazine called on scientists to help the press “cast a fair but skeptical eye” over the scientific enterprise.
But this proposal willfully ignores important changes in the way academic scientists, and universities more broadly, operate. Increasingly corporate-minded universities trade in flashy stories that boost visibility and generate funds. This means scientists aren’t likely to help journalism break its bad habits. As a result, matters of public interest concerning the scientific enterprise, like the troubling trend to privatize academic science, are lost to press cheerleading.
Origins of the science press
Despite its lofty aspirations, even early science journalism shared much of its outlook with the public relations industry, which also made rhetorical appeals to democracy. One of the industry’s gurus was Edward Bernays, who defined the principles behind public relations in his book Propaganda (1928).1 His argument was simple: democracy can be dangerous, so public opinion has to be tuned by “invisible governors,” who “pull the wires which control the public mind.” Bernays’ work on the political and corporate sector is well known, but he also targeted science: since big business benefits from (and funds) basic research, it followed that big business must also “assume the responsibility of interpreting its meaning to the public.” Propaganda was seen as essential for “accustoming the public to change and progress.” This view would define the science press.
Journalist Boyce Rensberger called the decades that followed the “‘Gee-Whiz Age’ of science reporting,” where journalism focused “on the wonders of science and respect for scientists.” He noted the case of The New York Times’ science reporter William Laurence, who was so taken by the science of the atomic bomb that the Truman administration hired him to write press releases about it. Laurence was an eyewitness to the Nagasaki bombing, and in his report, he gushed over the “man-made meteor”—“a thing of beauty to behold”—and the “millions of man-hours of what is without doubt the most concentrated intellectual effort in history.” His Pulitzer Prize winning reporting promoted the science (and the government’s agenda), but neglected its devastating effects on society.
Public relations permeated the internal discourse of scientists. A 1953 piece in Science magazine put it plainly: “Science needs outstandingly good public relations” and that it’s “a matter of simple self-interest” for scientists to lobby for it. And yet there were dissenters even then. The chemist Anthony Standen wrote Science is a Sacred Cow (1950), a title that speaks for itself. While Standen got a lot wrong about the science he criticized, his description of society’s attitude toward science still rings true. He wrote of a world “divided into Scientists, who practice the art of infallibility, and non-scientists, sometimes contemptuously called ‘laymen,’ who are taken in by it. The laymen see the prodigious things that science has done, and they are impressed and overawed.”
Even the most venerated science journalists of the twentieth century saw it as their mission to awe the public. Horace F. Judson, journalist and author of the classic history of molecular biology, The Eighth Day of Creation (1979), wanted to bring basic science, which he thought “offers the highest sort of human satisfaction … a unique and sublime pleasure,” to readers. Judson can’t be expected to provide critical insight; he’s retelling the stories of men that he admired. Still, he worried that the academia-industry alliance of his day would compromise the basic research he celebrated in his book by changing the “goals and overall nature of the [research] enterprise.”2 He was right.
By the 1980s, biomedical research had become noticeably commodified. Universities started patenting research even when the scientists who produced it felt that it wasn’t useful and viewed patenting as “a rather odd thing to do” (as in the case of Columbia University’s so-called “Axel patents”), while new legislation and court rulings allowed universities to patent even publicly funded research, including genetically modified organisms. Meanwhile, government spending on basic research declined in both the US and UK, encouraging scientists to look elsewhere, including private industry, for funding. Journalists like Judson, it seemed, were no longer adequate marketers of science.
In 1985, the Royal Society’s Committee on the Public Understanding of Science issued a report that urged research institutions to get serious about public relations. The report had a whiff of Bernays, urging institutes to work on “improving their public relations” and provide “briefings for journalists.” It also set clear media targets: “feature articles are particularly valuable,” and “biographical and dramatic approaches help to show science as a human activity.”
Institutional narrative wars and intellectual property
Today, powerful research institutes wield significant influence on press coverage (as the Royal society might have hoped). This corrosive effect becomes most obvious when these institutes are embroiled in conflict. The push for universities to partner with private industry and patent academic research has naturally created fertile ground for legal battles. As economic historian Philip Mirowski explained in his book, Science Mart: Privatizing American Science (2011), “the enduring presence of legal counsel in scientific research programs is one major defining attribute of the modern regime of science funding and management.” University administrators encourage research labs to aggressively patent their work, especially in competitive fields. As a result, millions can hinge on narratives of discovery, and in a war of narratives, favorable press coverage is key.
Perhaps the fiercest narrative war has been over CRISPR. According to Wired, CRISPR, a genome-editing system, could “eliminate disease,” “solve world hunger,” and “provide unlimited clean energy.” The CRISPR patent is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars—not surprisingly, universities have been fighting tooth and nail for it.
CRISPR is a bacterial immune system that recognizes foreign DNA (e.g., of viruses that enter bacteria) and targets it for destruction. After determining how it works in bacteria, scientists developed ways to use CRISPR to alter DNA inside animal cells, which can be used to delete disease-causing mutations. The widely-covered dispute is about who deserves the credit for this leap. If one believes in CRISPR’s potential to “remake the world,” in Wired’s words, then this project has been derailed by what is fundamentally a branding skirmish.
The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, a high-powered center for genomic research, filed a patent over CRISPR-based genome-editing and claimed that its own scientist, Feng Zhang, deserved the credit. UC Berkeley appealed the patent, arguing that Zhang’s work only extended research by UC Berkeley scientist Jennifer Doudna. In 2014, the Broad was granted the patent, which it licensed exclusively for therapeutic use to Zhang’s company, Editas. (Doudna, meanwhile, started other companies based on CRISPR.)
The two rivals have taken their fight to the media. The director of MIT’s McGovern Institute criticized The Economist for not giving Zhang enough credit for CRISPR. On social media, the McGovern Institute attacked Thomson-Reuters for neglecting to predict that Zhang would win the Nobel Prize (a forecast that is based on citation counts). Over on the West Coast, UC Berkeley press releases refer to Doudna as “the inventor of CRISPR,” omitting other scientists’ contributions.
Cheerleading with an agenda: the press gets recruited to the CRISPR patent skirmish
Universities are known to exaggerate the importance of their own researchers’ work, but the way journalists have covered CRISPR reveals some of the science press’ unspoken ideology.
STAT, a new science magazine published by Red Sox owner John Henry, covers CRISPR extensively. STAT has been able to draw publicity and big name science writers like Carl Zimmer of The New York Times. It turns out, though, that STAT mostly serves as the public relations wing of MIT and Harvard. At the height of the patent dispute, it published Sharon Begley’s gushing profile of Feng Zhang, which makes the case for Zhang’s claim to CRISPR3 by repeating MIT’s official narrative. She showers Zhang with praise, compares him to Einstein, and relies on testimony from MIT scientists who are institutionally invested in Zhang’s battle. She makes no attempt to critically investigate the patent dispute or its implications for the public.4 After the piece appeared, Begley took to social media to thank the Broad Institute, as well as Zhang and “his amazing lab for showing me how they’re forging a new genetics revolution.” (Elsewhere in STAT, scientists are referred to as “star geneticists” and “gene-editing superstars,” and their vested interests are often overlooked; Zhang, for one, is separated from discussions of his company’s interests.)
On the other hand, there are times UC Berkeley’s narrative is favored. The Times presented Jennifer Doudna, not Zhang, as the true CRISPR maverick, and painted the Broad in a negative light. A BBC report on CRISPR is also all about Doudna, giving only a nod to “a group based in Boston, Massachusetts.”
Of course, the favored narrative isn’t randomly chosen. As in the political press, top science journalists cultivate relationships with, and cater to, the powerful institutes that they cover. In the so-called “Genome War” of the nineties, the National Institutes of Health-backed effort to sequence the human genome was rivaled by a private one led by Craig Venter, creating a rift between Venter and leaders of the NIH project, like Eric Lander, now the director of the Broad Institute. At STAT, Carl Zimmer wrote a critical piece on Venter’s new project offering personalized health tests. According to Zimmer, the initiative is “drawing deep suspicion,” while some “question whether Venter’s existing tests can tell patients anything meaningful at all.” Venter, Zimmer wrote, also had a “black belt in media savvy.” It’s hard to imagine STAT directing the same level of scrutiny at certain Boston-based labs.
Research institutes naturally recognize the value of these press alliances. The New Yorker’s Richard Preston5, for example, was appointed “writer-in-residence” at the Broad Institute to write a book featuring one of the institute’s scientists. In a lecture as writer-in-residence, Preston advertised that his coverage of a scientist translates into large sums of money for the scientist. Michael Specter, also of The New Yorker, became another Broad writer-in-residence to work on a book about CRISPR—after he wrote a piece highlighting Feng Zhang’s work.
With battle lines drawn in this way, another important issue is entirely overlooked: in reality, many labs contributed to our understanding of CRISPR. According to MIT-owned Technology Review: “it’s no surprise there’s a fight over who really invented it. On one side is the University of California, Berkeley, where biologist Jennifer Doudna and colleagues from Europe say it’s their invention. On the other is Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who says no, he hit on the idea first.” The press has largely adopted the language of the patent dispute, which leaves only two choices about who deserves the credit.
It’s the commercialization of academic science—not the petty credit war—that is the public interest issue here. Biomedical patents, like the CRISPR patent, hijack the publicly funded work of a collective and are then licensed, sometimes exclusively, without public oversight. The red tape of IP law associated with these patents limits research progress and subsequently delays potential health applications. The costs are exorbitant: the Broad Institute’s legal fees for the CRISPR battle thus far cost Editas, which received an exclusive license to CRISPR-based therapeutics from Broad, over ten million dollars.
The press, however, is too overtaken with enthusiasm for the ever-tightening link between academia and private companies to cover these topics. STAT celebrated this link by praising MIT professors who “take the plunge” to industry “without leaving the ivory tower” and by lauding students who network with biotech companies. Journalists do sometimes raise social and ethical questions about biomedical research, but these questions rarely interfere in academia-industry partnerships. They may, for instance, ask whether making “designer babies” with CRISPR is ethical, but it’s the less abstract questions about ownership of publicly funded work that are avoided. Even conservative business outlets like The Economist and Fortune have raised concerns in the past about patenting university research, yet these issues have barely penetrated mainstream science coverage.
But this reflective stance, even as a facade, seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Many top science writers, like Yong, think that their function is to “popularize” or “communicate” science to the public.6 Programs that train science journalists, like UC Santa Cruz’s, are called “Science Communication” programs. The program’s brochure claims that “the women and men who popularize science enjoy a career that satisfies their intellectual restlessness”—not exactly the adversarial image traditionally associated with journalism.
Storytelling: narratives that bind scientific institutions and the press
Science cheerleading favors elite institutes whose work appears in the so-called science “glamour magazines,” like Nature, Science and Cell. Yong, for example, wrote five articles featuring science from the Broad Institute in September through December of 2015 alone (his coverage is nearly indistinguishable from the institute’s own press releases). Zimmer also repeatedly profiles the same group of scientists whose work appears in Nature and Science. While it’s been recognized that getting published in the glamour journals is a process prone to manipulation, journalists often treat it like a stamp of scientific insight. This formulaic coverage gives an easy answer to what Begley said was the key question for journalists: “How can you separate findings that are likely to be true from those destined for the dustbin of science?” According to the epistemology of science that many journalists have adopted, the answer is: “true” science can be spotted in real-time, if we listen to experts at the elite institutes whose papers appear in the right journals.
It’s hard to fault only the press for this when scientific institutions have largely internalized the same attitude. High-profile scientific journals rely on attention-grabbing stories, and scientists cater to these journals, often at the price of distorting the content. The scientific paper has always been, as Peter Medawar said in 1963, a kind of “fraud”: a contortion of the scientific process to fit journal editors’ expectation.
It’s not surprising then that in biomedical science, which is perhaps most ruled by glamour publishing, a cottage industry of “expert storytellers” has emerged to help scientists “communicate.” The experts claim that storytelling is inevitable, given the way our brains are wired. (Apparently, storytelling “affects more areas of the brain than rational, data-driven messages.”) Storytelling presents itself as a communications technique, a way to write better and produce more attractive graphs. It replaces the stale talk of arguments, evidence and competing models, which fails in our age of “distraction.”
But scientific storytelling isn’t a bunch of benign communication tips—it’s an ideology about what science should look like; what is and isn’t a desirable result. When scientists play the game of finding “great stories,” it’s usually to appeal to science’s glamour journals. Biologist Randy Schekman pointed out how the fixation on glamour publishing creates “bubbles in fashionable fields where researchers can make the bold claims these journals want, while discouraging other important work.” Storytelling is really about clicks and citations. Books like The Art of Scientific Storytelling promise a “step-by-step formula” for scientists to maximize their citation counts—the book was even used in a Harvard Medical School course. Another storytelling guidebook champions the idea that “Hollywood has a lot to teach scientists about how to tell a story”—it’s easy to imagine how that might pan out.
In practice, storytelling codifies the neoliberal logic by which universities increasingly evaluate research. In her book Undoing the Demos (2015), political theorist Wendy Brown described how under this logic, academics are made “not into teachers and thinkers, but into human capitals who learn to attract investors, game their Google Scholar counts and ‘impact factors,’ and above all, follow the money and the rankings.” This logic has been internalized by many scientists and granting agencies. The NIH’s deputy director recently proposed “Citations per Dollar” as a metric to rank scientists, giving another enticement for academics to story-tell their way into the glamour journals. Some scientists protested “storytelling” culture by starting an alternative journal meant for science that isn’t just “the science that sells a story.” But visibility through the press and glamour journals begets more funds, so breaking the mold of scientific storytelling is not an easy feat.
The fact is that scientists backed by the most effective public relations machinery get disproportionate influence over the press. The shift to see universities as businesses—with students as consumers and researchers as entrepreneurs—is crucial to understanding how we got here. When inquiry is judged in the imagined “marketplace of ideas,” it’s logical for universities to expand their public relations efforts alongside technology transfer offices that tie up research in webs of “intellectual property.” Mainstream media uses these PR efforts, rather than critical thinking, to navigate the complex interface of science and society.
Some may object that science journalists lack the scientific background to cover science critically. However, what is often missing isn’t technical mastery of science, but rather the watchdog attitude that journalists have traditionally paid lip service to. The press instead leads with a public relations agenda according to which, as media analyst Mark Crispin Miller wrote, the public is “guided imperceptibly” by “benign rational manipulators.” The goal appears to be to cater to powerful research institutes, while raising support for science from a public treated as docile spectators. The result is neither benign—since it erases inquiries of public interest, as we’ve seen—nor rational. In a less hollow version of itself, the science press would seriously engage people’s innate curiosity about the world and the scientific enterprise that seeks to explain it, while aiming to be part of the fourth estate.
1. In the book, Bernays, who served in Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information (CPI) during WWI, attempted to rid the term “propaganda” of its “unpleasant connotation” as a manipulative German tactic (a notion that the CPI itself cultivated).
2. In the epilogue to The Eighth Day, Judson lamented, “Are molecular biologists doomed forever to be arguing the practical benefits of their research? Must you forever be selling cures?”
3. And along the way, Zhang is also assigned credit to another contested technique, “optogenetics,” used in neuroscience.
4. Begley briefly considers the objection that Zhang’s work extended prior research from UC Berkeley, and then leaves readers with Zhang’s faulty response: that if his work was just an “obvious” extension of Doudna’s, “then why would our paper be published in Science?”
5. Known for his bestseller The Hot Zone (1994).
6. When asked about his vision of science journalism, Yong wrote: “I try to pitch my writing at someone who was last exposed to science when they were in secondary/high school. They’re intelligent, thoughtful, and curious about the world. They’re also time-starved and distractible. My goal is to feed their curiosity and keep their attention, to not overestimate their knowledge but not underestimate their intelligence. I just want them to read and enjoy the experience … I want them to keep coming back for more, not because I’ve unlocked some sort of mystical interest in science that some communicators assume just exists in everyone and is waiting to be unleashed (hint: no), but because they just like the writing.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yarden Katz is a departmental fellow in Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School and a fellow of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He received his PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from MIT in 2014.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 25th, 2016.