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March 4, 2008, 04:18 PM ET

Delusions on the Frontiers of Science

Can breaking into the news help propel a scientific career? I’ve often heard scientists say it can, though usually in disapproving reference to a colleague they regard as undeservingly successful via self-promotion. The subject, as far as I know, has not been systematically studied, and herewith is offered gratis to anyone interested in taking on the task.

That research organizations conspire to get into the news is a given of contemporary research. A lab without a PR office is relic of the dark ages. Promotion of the public understanding of science is a holy cause among the managers of science. Torrents of press releases about new scientific findings flow daily to news organizations and science writers. A major underlying assumption behind these efforts is that public knowledge of research somehow gets transmuted into public support of research. And, supposedly, career and grant prospects are enhanced for the researchers named in dispatches from the frontiers of science.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence linking public understanding of science with public support or government money for science. This reality may offend democratic theory, but it is so. Nanotechnology, for example, is a hot, booming field of research and industrial interest, ramped up to billions of dollars per year in just a short time—though few members of the public have ever heard of nanotechnology.

Individual scientists may relish the spotlight when their work is publicized. But it is quite possible that publicity can be hazardous to a scientific career. Most of the money for serious science is screened by peer reviewers, who—if they’re doing it right—judge on the basis of scientific merit rather than celebrity.

So, why in a time of dire money shortages for the conduct of important research are large sums devoted to publicizing research and researchers? Answer: The scientific enterprise, for all its claims of objectivity, dispassionate pursuit of truth, and dedication to the public interest, is not immune to delusions about how the world works.

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