Spiders, silk and a transgenic goat – the complex art of science communication

by Andrew Maynard on November 2, 2010

Last week while at the NISE Net network-wide meeting, I was fortunate enough to see a preview of part of NOVA’s forthcoming series Making Stuff. The series focuses on the wonders of modern materials science. But rather than coming away enthralled by the ingenuity of scientists, I found myself breaking out in a cold sweat as I watched something that set my science-engagement alarm-bells ringing: New York Times tech reporter and host David Pogue enthusing about splicing spider genes into a goat so it produces silk protein-containing milk, then glibly drinking the milk while joking about transforming into Spider Man.

I was sitting there thinking, “You start with a spider – not everyone’s favorite creature.  And you genetically cross it with a goat – dangerous territory at the best of times.  Then you show a middle aged dude drinking the modified milk from a transgenic animal and having a laugh about it.  And all this without any hint of a question over the wisdom or ramifications of what’s going on?  Man, this is going to go down well!”

But then, after some reflection, I wondered whether I was over-reacting – maybe I’m just over-sensitized to the challenges of grappling with the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies.  There was also a chance that I had missed something in the delivery – some of the dialogue was admittedly missing in the preview.

So I decided to post last week’s poll on the spider-goat story, just to get a sense of how others might respond to this story line.

The results were surprising, and suggested that NOVA weren’t as far off the mark as I suspected.

Unfortunately, with only 67 votes and a self-selecting pool of respondents, the data are a bit iffy to say the least.  But they do suggest that a fair number of readers (28%) approved of the milk-drinking jocular approach to communicating this research.

However, the majority of the votes (54%) were for a balanced response.

Interestingly, only 2 people responded negatively to the story.

To be honest, this clip still disturbed me – although the producers emphasized to me that this wasn’t necessarily the final sequence that will be aired.  It seemed to hark back to an era of science communication that is more akin to science promotion, with little room for dialogue or engagement.  And to my over-sensitized perceptions, it came across as dismissive of concerns over the ramifications of emerging technologies.

But given people’s response to the question I asked last week, I’m willing to concede that NOVA and David Pogue might be doing a better job here than I initially judged of exploring materials science in this series in an accessible way.

The proof of the pudding of course will be in the eating – Making Stuff debuts on PBS in the US on January 19 2011.

[The goat-spiders silk story has been around for a decade or so by the way, but was given a new lease of life earlier this year through this piece from the NSF]

1 Hilary Sutcliffe November 3, 2010 at 5:01 am

No, I think you are dead right Andrew. Although humour is a great way to engage, I think it has to be used judiciously. This could really backfire because (a) it’s not that funny, it’s wierd and (b) it could be seen to trivialise people’s reasonable fears and concerns. It could easily be used against science/scientists to demo the mad scientist in action.

I think the spookier the tech the more social benefit has to be attached to its use. This needs to be a really good one, which I don’t quite see yet. In fact I always thought this story a bit of an urban myth!

2 Ruth Seeley November 3, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I’m with you and Hilary, Andrew. I was once shown a video that attempted to deal ‘head on’ with people’s fears about the effects of radiation and nuclear power generation. The opening sequence? A couple goes parking at the beach and a creature bearing a distinct resemblance to The Incredible Hulk crawls out of the lake. I was so horrified by the tastelessness and foolish of the opening scene I can’t really say whether the rest of the film effectively put people’s often irrational fears about radiation into perspective or not. I just quietly added the firm who’d made to the film to the list of folks who’d never be making videos for the nuclear generator for whom I worked at the time.

3 Chris Schmidt November 3, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Hi All

As the producer of the series and of this particular episode specifically I thought I should chime in. We are aiming these programs at a non-scientist audience, trying to promote excitement about science. In some cases, depending on the story, it is appropriate to discuss possible downsides of science and technology. In other stories, such as this one I believe, our job was to explain the work of a scientist in the most accessible and interesting way. To the extent that there is humor in the piece, it is a natural outgrowth of the unscripted interaction between the scientist and the host — we would never put either person in a situation that they didn’t own or feel completely comfortable in.

There’s always a question about the appropriate level of detail for the science and the amount of policy discussion to incorporate. This story was not a policy story — it was purely descriptive of one person’s research and the possible applications.

We always hope that viewers will be intrigued and excited by our work and that that will drive them to explore the topic much more fully on their own. And NOVA does a great job providing ancillary outreach and web support to aid in just that effort.

Please watch the shows, though, and judge for yourselves how well or poorly we’ve done.

4 Andrew Maynard November 3, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Thanks Chris for this. How to pitch this type of material always is a tough call I think, and I’m painfully aware of how frustrating it can be to get comments from people who aren’t the primary intended audience. Looking forward to the series with anticipation!

5 Troy Dassler November 3, 2010 at 11:12 pm

I do like the idea of putting out a controversial idea and allowing groups of people to discuss/debate the controversy. I only wish the program would foster the debate. I loved the segment with the spider silk milk (If silk was not already used commercially, it would be a great name for the spider silk milk). I am encouraged by the idea of looking to nature to meet our needs; but, a societal context and ethical ramifications need to be not just addressed, but encouraged. Otherwise, the support for deeper understandings of societal implications are not fostered but are superficially represented.

6 Maryse de la Giroday November 3, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Hi All! Here’s my two cents. My first exposure to this goat/spider thing was a few years ago at a nanotechnology conference. Very casually, Dr. Frank Ko mentioned how he managed to spin goats milk by adding a spider gene to the goat. (Btw, sorry for repeating an earlier comment but needs must) I was horrified both by the idea and the thoroughly casual way the comment was treated by the audience mostly composed of scientists. It has taken me a few years to be able to consider the idea without shrieking (silently to myself) that this is wrong, wrong, wrong. I’ve calmed somewhat on this issue but I’m still not comfortable. As far as I can tell, this is not an unusual response. For example, H. G. Wells’s “Island of Dr. Moreau” is a late 19th century exploration or horror science fiction story about a scientist who has crossed species boundaries to create half animal/half human creatures.

Plus, as Hilary notes, the bit about drinking spider/goat milk isn’t that funny. As Ruth, Andrew, and Hilary note, it seems insensitive to people’s very genuine fears.

I hope that the folks who are producing this show, Chris Schmidt and others, reconsider the approach as described by Andrew. Otherwise, they are likely to tap into something fairly primal if not with their PBS audiences then by the audience who’ll be watching this on Youtube.

7 Hilary Sutcliffe November 4, 2010 at 2:37 pm

That’s very good of you to comment Chris, so often people keep their heads down in these sorts of things!

However, without trying to sound overly heavy, I think the broadcaster has a duty to consider the implications of their presentation of the story in the way it is portrayed. I can totally see that this is a light-hearted way of illustrating the area, and it probably doesn’t look like your problem at all if the public takes against some sort of ‘ology’ or scientific breakthrough, but I think it really should be. This is one of the things I was discussing briefly with the BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh earlier this year, (excuse me while I pick up that name from the floor!). What is the responsibility of the broadcaster to represent issues in a way which is not:

(a) misleading to the public
(b) simply buying the over hyped/under critical views of the scientists themselves
(c) reflecting the reasonable potential concerns of viewers in the questioning or positioning?

Clearly it is the responsibility of the science communicator and the scientist to consider these things more carefully. (Let alone the issue of whether the science itself is worthwhile, but we won’t go there!). But this whole area of the responsibility of broadcasters in communicating issues of/in the public interest is very interesting, though of course without clear cut answers, don’t let me suggest I have it clear in my mind by any means.

Thanks for raising the discussion Andrew, good idea.

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