Monday, October 09, 2006

Civic scientists ... the ability to tell a story

Assistant Editor Bethany Halford's feature on 1996 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner and Rice chemistry professor Richard E. Smalley in the current issue of Chemical & Engineering News is worth reading. Halford's take: He was one of the greatest communicators that the field of nanotech has had.

The article outlines at least are two interesting lessons for effective communication about emerging technologies, especially at the policy level. First, in order to be effective at the policy level, any description of the new technology has to be episodic, i.e., it has to link to a concrete case.
“When Smalley testified before the House of Representatives about establishing NNI in 1999, he had been fighting leukemia for over a year. "I sit before you today with very little hair on my head. It fell out a few weeks ago as a result of the chemotherapy I've been undergoing to treat a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma," Smalley told the representatives. "While I am very optimistic, this chemotherapy is a very blunt tool. It consists of small molecules which are toxic-they kill cells in my body. Although they are meant to kill only the cancer cells, they kill hair cells too, and cause all sorts of other havoc.

"Now, I'm not complaining. Twenty years ago, without even this crude chemotherapy, I would already be dead. But 20 years from now, I am confident we will no longer have to use this blunt tool. By then, nanotechnology will have given us specially engineered drugs, which are nanoscale cancer-seeking missiles, a molecular technology that specifically targets just the mutant cancer cells in the human body and leaves everything else blissfully alone. ... I may not live to see it. But, with your help, I am confident it will happen. Cancer-at least the type that I have-will be a thing of the past."”

The second interesting skill Halford highlights is Smalley’s ability to act as a “civic scientist, as Neal Lane, Clinton’s Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, puts it.
“The academics who are most effective in Washington—Lane calls them civic scientists—can "tell an interesting story in a succinct manner, where not only is it clear what the fundamental science and engineering aspects are, but also what the impact on society will be. And you have to do it in such a way that what you say sounds credible and not hyped," Lane says.”

(Click here for the full article.)


John Jett said...

This is a very nice synopsis of the article on Dr. Smalley. I hope you don't mind that I linked to it on my site.