Actor, writer and science-buff Alan Alda’s call to action for scientists

Alan Alda

Who knew that movie star, actor and writer Alan Alda and I had so much in common! Well, one thing in common at least – an appreciation of the importance of scientists also being good communicators.

Alda is best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series “M*A*S*H” but he’s also a huge fan of science and was the host of the PBS TV series “Scientific American Frontiers”. He is now the founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

In an interview in the New York Times Alda talks at length about his fascination with science and his desire to solve one of the biggest problems the scientific community faces, namely the challenge of communicating with the rest of us:

 “scientists often don’t speak to the rest of us the way they would if we were standing there full of curiosity. They sometimes spray information at us without making that contact that I think is crucial. If a scientist doesn’t have someone next to them, drawing them out, they can easily go into lecture mode. There can be a lot of insider’s jargon.

If they can’t make clear what their work involves, the public will resist advances. They won’t fund science. How are scientists going to get money from policy makers if our leaders and legislators can’t understand what they do?” 

It’s an important point, and one we try to make when we work with the researchers we fund: this is taxpayer money that is helping them do the work they love, but for the public to continue to support this work they need to know what it is and how it affects them.

Last year we held our ‘CIRM Grantee Elevator Pitch Challenge’ where we asked researchers to videotape an Elevator Pitch, where they explained their work and why it’s important to the public in around 30 seconds. Some researchers did a good job, some did a great job, and some were, well, works in progress.

The point we were trying to make to them, is the point Alan Alda does such a great job of articulating in this New York Times interview, that science matters to all of us, it shapes the world around us today, and it’s shaping the world we’ll face tomorrow. And it’s exciting stuff. And the better job they do of sharing that excitement with the rest of us, the more likely the public will support the research.

“Every experiment is a great story. Every scientist’s life is a heroic story. There’s an attempt to achieve something of value, there’s the thrill of knowing the unknown against obstacles, and the ultimate outcome is a great payoff — if it can be achieved. Now, this is drama!”

kevin mccormack

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