The stem cell conference where even the smartest people learn something

A packed house for the opening keynote address at ISSCR 2019

At first glance, a scientific conference is not the place you would think about going to learn about how to run a political or any other kind of campaign. But then the ISSCR Annual Meeting is not your average conference. And that’s why CIRM is there and has been going to these events for as long as we have been around.

For those who don’t know, ISSCR is the International Society for Stem Cell Research. It’s the global industry representative for the field of stem cell research. It’s where all the leading figures in the field get together every year to chart the progress in research.

But it’s more than just the science that gets discussed. One of the panels kicking off this year’s conference was on ‘Why is it Important to Communicate with Policy Makers, the Media and the Public?” It was a wide-ranging discussion on the importance of learning the best ways for the scientific community to explain what it is they do, why they do it, and why people should care.

Sean Morrison

Sean Morrison, a former President of ISSCR, talked about his experience trying to pass a bill in Michigan that would enable scientists to do embryonic stem cell research. At the time CIRM was spending millions of dollars funding scientists in California to create new lines of embryonic stem cells; in Michigan anyone doing the same could be sent to prison for a year. He said the opposition ran a fear-based campaign, lying about the impact the bill would have, that it would enable scientists to create half man-half cow creatures (no, really) or human clones. Learning to counter those without descending to their level was challenging, but ultimately Morrison was successful in overcoming opposition and getting the bill passed.

Sally Temple

Sally Temple, of the Neural Stem Cell Institute, talked about testifying to a Congressional committee about the importance of fetal tissue research and faced a barrage of hostile questions that misrepresented the science and distorted her views. In contrast Republicans on the committee had invited a group that opposed all fetal tissue research and fed them a bunch of softball questions; the answers the group gave not only had no scientific validity, they were just plain wrong. Fortunately, Temple says she had done a lot of preparation (including watching two hours Congressional hearings on C-SPAN to understand how these hearings worked) and had her answers ready. Even so she said one of the big lessons she stressed is the need to listen to what others are saying and respond in ways that address their fears and don’t just dismiss them.

Other presenters talked about their struggles with different issues and different audiences but similar experiences; how do you communicate clearly and effectively. The answer is actually pretty simple. You talk to people in a way they understand with language they understand. Not with dense scientific jargon. Not with reams of data. Just by telling simple stories that illustrate what you did and who it helped or might help.

The power of ISSCR is that it can bring together a roomful of brilliant scientists from all over the world who want to learn about these things, who want to be better communicators. They know that much of the money for scientific research comes from governments or state agencies, that this is public money, and that if the public is going to continue to support this research it needs to know how that money is being spent.

That’s a message CIRM has been promoting for years. We know that communicating with the public is not an option, it’s a responsibility. That’s why, at a time when the very notion of science sometimes seems to be under attack, and the idea of public funding for that science is certainly under threat, having meetings like this that brings researchers together and gives them access to new tools is vital. The tools they can “get” at ISSCR are ones they might never learn in the lab, but they are tools that might just mean they get the money needed to do the work they want to.