Storytelling and Science: Who Owns the Narrative?

I am a storyteller. It’s what I do. I help organizations create better stories. I am a story nerd – visible from the space station! We’ve been up to our eyeballs in analyses about political narrative in the wake of this past election.

What about storytelling and science? This matters because as the political landscape has changed, so too, has the narrative being defined around science by a whole new administration.

“Can science afford to get too political?” many scientists are asking in the wake of a new administration where changing policies will affect research and science education. And many are worried about participating in the upcoming March for Science. This question is not new.

The truth: science is already highly politicized. It has been for some time. From climate change and cancer research to early detection of asteroids and the effect of zero-gravity environments on plants, and even animals – and everything in between – science and politics have been uncomfortable bedfellows at times.

Some scientists will be taking up the political placards in the Science March in Washington on Earth Day, April 22nd. And others in the community fear that science itself will take a backseat in the agenda as politics of inclusion in the science community takes front stage.

Science and Storytelling: March for Science

Who Controls the Narrative of Public Science?

The truth is a lot is changing, and scientists, particularly those that depend on federal funding, have a lot to consider. Yes, to a degree, science funding and education is being threatened.

And it’s deeper than that. Science relies on data to get its message out – and yet what science needs more than ever now is storytelling. Data matters, and yet science must tell the story behind the data. It must tell the story of the people being helped, the potential for changing lives. It must elevate the role of science by creating better, more relevant narratives. Because for many organizations, the narrative of science has been defined by politics – who gets funded and why is often at the mercy of politicians telling the story.

And many of these scientific endeavors rely to a large degree on federal funding. Sure, some research is done by the private sector, but a tremendous amount relies on federal tax dollars. And that makes science and its future discoveries public goods for public consumption.

Storytelling and Science: What Does the Public Know?

Here is the disconnect: much of the public is not aware of how science affects their daily lives today and how research will shape their tomorrow. Some of this is because the scientific community has not owned, stepped up and elevated the narrative of its work. It simply hasn’t told the right stories in the right way. Can you name with organizations are working on cancer research? The human genome? Do you know what projects outside of manned space flight NASA works on and which projects have been commercialized and are used by industry today?

The problem is many Americans can’t and many legislators cannot either. That leaves a dangerous storytelling vacuum to be filled by people outside the community who may lack deep knowledge about its applications and relevance to everyday Americans.

My husband (full disclosure) works with NASA – an organization that has not always told the full story of all its innovations – and how technologies like weather prediction algorithms, air control software and systems for early detection for asteroids (being worked on right now) – are helping to aid people at home and abroad. And asteroids – talk about saving humanity and not being hyperbolic about it! Wow. And there are so many other organizations doing amazing work that people don’t know about.

Science Needs to Step Up its Storytelling Game

While the situation is a bit precarious, it is also a huge opportunity for science to step up its storytelling and discussion among Americans about the role of science in our lives outside of computer technology. Exactly how does science continue to elevate humanity? Science-based (publicly funded) organizations must tell this narrative across organizations, to the public and to legislators who way too often legislate on issues they are not versed in.

There are Great Models Out There

In the last few years, we have seen a few examples of great storytelling including some coming from the Mars Rover Team at NASA, for example. The social media team has won awards for breathing life and stirring public fascination about space and technology together. They have breathed life into unmanned space research by anthropomorphizing the Rover’s first person narratives. And it can go even further by explaining how that research might benefit humanity tomorrow.

Science and Storytelling: Mars Rover

Mars Rover: Source is NASA

Taking a Cue from the Private Sector – Enter IBM’s Watson

IBM has done a fabulous job recently of telling stories across all media about how its work has been apart of our American identity for decades even when we didn’t know it. Take the movie Hidden Figures about three amazing African American women who calculated the math needed to successfully get John Glenn to space and back home safely again. Now that story has only recently been told. In this movie, we see the intersection of these phenomenal women, NASA and the space program, and IBM technology. We see in this movie and related media how this technology played a critical role in the space race – an endeavor that advanced America’s scientific role In the world and was a source of national pride. It shaped our concept of what was possible – so much so that generations of kids wanted to be astronauts.

IBM’s Cognitive Era, Storytelling and Science…and Humanity

And look at the way IBM uses storytelling around artificial intelligence and cognitive science to talk about how AI is being used to fight fraud, combat pollution, even reduce food spoilage in areas where hunger is a humanitarian crisis. These are big human issues. IBM has been doing a series of video interviews between Watson and creative thinkers, directors and visionaries (such as Stephen King, Ridley Scott), and Watson even did a stint as a contestant on Jeopardy. These stories demonstrate how cognitive science is evolving and changing the way we work, play, research, etc.

Screenshot: YouTube

Granted the information constraints around publicly funded science programs as well as marketing budgets are different from private sector endeavors – yet it’s time for science to get more creative about its narratives (the stories it can tell) and view the public – not just government – as investors and stakeholders.

From Lab to Everyday Life

Making science relatable to the taxpayer is critical when federal funding is involved. Scientific discoveries that elevate humanity abound even if the benefits have not been fully commercialized. The research is an investment in our future – from solving climate issues to aiding in the race to cure cancer. And yet too few Americans are aware of the work being done with federal funding and that makes science far too isolated and distant a concern for the average person. It also makes science more dependent than ever on a government that can reduce investment at any time with less outcry from the public. And it certainly puts science on the defensive when politics defines the narratives.

While scientists and organizations doing amazing work can’t control everything, reliance on federal funding and federal agencies to tell the story of scientific advancement is doubly dangerous. The biggest challenge has been letting politics define the narrative of science. Instead, the scientific community must take the lead as storytellers telling human stories behind the numbers, the research, the data. How is science helping and how will its discoveries change lives, help the environment, and enrich education, for example?

That’s where publicly funded science – commercialized, non-commercialized, still in the development stage – could do better. Science needs to aim storytelling  at the public (and yes, at legislators, too). They’re investors, after all. And science that depends on government funding can become a victim of political narratives that define the box it lives in.

Storytelling and science: your thoughts

What do you think about science and storytelling and where the narrative needs to go? What could science do better with storytelling? I’d love to know. Let me know in the comments below.


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By | 2017-03-27T18:18:27+00:00 March 26, 2017|2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Gloria Miele June 5, 2017 at 6:05 pm - Reply

    As someone who has worked in science for most of my career, I couldn’t agree more. Did you know Alan Alda has a new book out on this topic!? You’ll love it!

    • Kathy Klotz-Guest June 24, 2017 at 8:31 pm - Reply

      I haven’t seen his book. I have heard of it and I will check it out. Thanks for your comment! Best.

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