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Supersize science

Science has a branding problem. What does this mean and why should we care? Let’s start with a definition. In corporate America, brands are the bedrock of business. McDonald’s might not make the best hamburgers in the universe (personally I love them) but their brand is rock solid. Want a hamburger? McDonald’s. On a road trip and need to stop somewhere? McDonald’s. Happy Meal? McDonald’s.

How does a company achieve this kind of iconic status? They carefully build their brand—which includes creating a quality product, carefully crafting a beloved corporate presence and image, honing just the right marketing messages, and much more—and then religiously, zealously protecting these assets, nourishing them, and adjusting them over the years to fit new customers and new audiences. Brand managers in corporate America are to major companies what agents are to Hollywood superstars: without carefully managing and scripting actions and appearances, these entities fall off their pedestals and become mere mortals. Or worse, they become yesterday’s news and are soon out of business.

So here’s why science has a branding problem: (1) science doesn’t have a brand manager, (2) science doesn’t have a marketing budget, and (3) science doesn’t control who can use its brand name. Let’s look at this last point first. Is medical research science? Yes. How about astronomy? Yes. Social science? Well, some is, although now we’re generally getting into murkier territory because social sciences (like psychology) aren’t as quantifiable as natural sciences. Lots of mitigating and confounding factors might attribute to the root causes of personality disorders, for example, which means there’s more room for conjecture, supposition, assumption, misrepresentation, and so on. The intent is noble, but the path of discovery is strewn with many unknown and often unmeasurable factors. The same is true for fields like economics, nutrition, political science, sports training and more—all fields that aspire to be science but will never be the same type of science as, say, biology.

So because there’s really no end to the disciplines that can tack math and research methodology onto their foundations and then call themselves “science,” should the “traditional” sciences be outraged and offended? No—hats off to everyone for trying to search for truth by using the tools of science, like precise measurements and carefully-designed studies. This is the essence of what makes science such an important part of modern society—not the discovery of truth, but the search for truth.

Still, this proliferation of sciences has led to a dilution of the science brand. The general public gets tired of hearing about one contradictory study after another about what to eat, or how kids learn, or what makes the economy work, and then they eventually lose faith in the ability of all science to find answers. The brand has been damaged because the general public puts hard science in the same category as softer science (even though scientists themselves don’t confuse these camps).  So when hard science speaks truths about climate change or evolution, for example, the public has been primed to think “there they go again—those scientists and their wacky theories.” By co-mingling hard science with soft science, science as a whole has a weaker brand.

Is this the only reason the science brand has been diluted? No—it’s just one of several. For instance, scientists can be seen as talking down to the general public, which is not a great way to build a fan base. Also, the general public often confuses the scientific method—discourse—with dissent. If scientists disagree, they must not have a clue about the real truth. But debate is the path that science takes to discovering truth. It’s not a sign of dissent over essential truths, but a way to challenge each other, firm up confidence and understanding, and separate truth from supposition.

So what’s a science enthusiast to do? Science needs a big tent—it needs to include natural and social sciences, math- and experiment-based approaches to discovery, direct observations and reasoned conjecture, and more. It needs to have smart people regardless of their communication skills. And it needs rigorous methods. But it can do a better job with brand management problems one and two—with managing its brand more effectively and establishing budgets for doing so.

Whose job is this? No one’s really. Not the National Science Foundation, not the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, not nSCI. The science brand is just too big for one organization to manage. Rather, the best solution for now is for science efforts and organizations to be aware of the perceptions and misperceptions that the general public has about science, to have achievable outreach and education goals, and to have the right tools, budgets and people at their disposal.

But change is coming. Science funding organizations have finally started to realize that better science communication is needed. Hopefully, the issue of brand management will also make it onto radar screens soon. Coming up with a workable plan for managing the science brand will be ambitious, but well worth it. Just ask McDonald’s.

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