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Science  20 Dec 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6165, pp. 1464-1466
DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6165.1464

20 December 2013

Edited by Kathy Wren


Science Communication Requires Time, Trust, and Twitter

A penetrating image.

A recent study about how ticks burrow into skin using a mouthpart called a hypostome offered ample opportunity to capture the public's attention with striking visuals, according to James Gorman, who covered the story for The New York Times.


News Editor Robin Lloyd's "daily diet" of information includes more than 200 e-mails, thousands of tweets, and 70 or more stories in progress at Scientific American. With this schedule, she is not too happy when she receives press pitches that are not targeted to her publication.

Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) need strong social media savvy in the era of 24-hour news cycles, but positive working relationships and an eye for real news value remain essential, Lloyd and others said at a recent National Press Club seminar organized by EurekAlert!, the science-news service of AAAS.

At the seminar, "Communicating Science Across Online and Social Media," 175 PIOs and other attendees from across the country listened to a panel of top journalists describe the changing ecosystem for science communication, particularly on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other social platforms.

"Twitter has become basically another major newspaper for me," said Lloyd. "A lot of science writers are on it, so it's a really great place to develop relationships and see what's going on in our field. Don't let anyone dismiss Twitter to you for that reason. For our goal as science communicators, it's massively important."

Panel moderator Robert Lee Hotz, science writer for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out that social media offer "a spectacular opportunity" for anyone to communicate science news broadly. In 2012, for example, the landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars generated 1.2 billion Twitter messages, 17.4 million Facebook hits, and 36.4 million webcast streams. During the actual seven-minute landing, 3.2 million viewers watched the event on UStream TV. The mission's Web site received 127 million page views, and the Twitter message announcing the landing was retweeted 72,000 times. "That's not bad for seven minutes' work," Hotz quipped.

Inundated by new reports and story possibilities every day, science journalists value each of those minutes. Elizabeth Landau, a writer and producer for, urged PIOs to learn more about reporters' interests by checking the Twitter lists they follow. "This is a way for you to see what ‘beats' journalists find important," she explained. "Please don't call me. We just don't have the time."

Landau also stressed that images and video go a long way toward selling a science story. "It's almost as important as the headline, sometimes even more so," she noted, saying that a good photo can sometimes win coverage for one story over another.

Today, researchers routinely capture video of animal behavior or brain cells firing, or they create animations to illustrate key phenomena, said James Gorman, a science reporter for The New York Times. All of those materials can be turned into compelling videos that avoid boring "talking head" interviews and might help to raise public awareness of the importance of the work.

"Cute videos work well, but gruesome videos work even better," Gorman said, eliciting squirms from attendees with a one-minute video of a wood tick chewing into the ear of a hairless mouse.

Playful videos and tantalizing tweets aside, the panelists agreed that delivering solid news from trustworthy sources and building personal relationships at venues like the AAAS Annual Meeting are still important for PIOs. Journalists and PIOs are increasingly working together to create stories on social media, said Brandon Keim, a freelance journalist at "The journalist isn't necessarily the center of information distribution anymore. It's much more egalitarian than that."

As science communication becomes more social and speedy, there will be more pressure on PIOs to get the facts straight and to avoid hyperbole, Hotz said. "You are starting to have to follow some of the same kinds of journalistic values that we do because your Twitter message may get directly retweeted without any intervening filter, and if you make things up, that becomes news—that becomes entertaining. And if you exaggerate, all in a good cause, of course, you can find yourself in the middle of a very big, boiling pot of Twitter-hashtag soup."


On-Call Scientists Celebrate 5 Years

When Human Rights Watch asked Keith B. Ward to assist with a major report about the Ghouta chemical attack in Syria this August, the retired government scientist began analyzing the grim images and medical reports coming out of that country to confirm that chemical weapons had been used.

"Viewing, and actually having to study in some detail, the large number of photos and videos of suffering, dying, and dead victims was indeed distressing," Ward said. "But my previous training with the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI had prepared me to focus on the task at hand even in the face of emotionally charged situations."

Ward is one of nearly 800 scientists, engineers, and health professionals who have volunteered their time and expertise to the On-call Scientists program, launched in October 2008 by AAAS's Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program. On-call volunteers work with human rights organizations on a variety of projects, from documenting discrimination and torture to studying the impacts of child labor and environmental degradation.

At a 5 December reception held at AAAS headquarters, Senior Program Associate Theresa Harris joined others in celebrating International Human Rights Day with the debut of a video series about the On-call partnerships.

The series helps to highlight the critical needs of human rights organizations that tackle scientific issues but may lack dedicated scientific staff. Five years after the program's launch, "there is now a depth and breadth of experience that allows us to build multidisciplinary teams and advisory panels for human rights organizations, in addition to the referrals for one-time projects," said Harris.

On-call volunteer Georgene Mortimer, an expert in the investigation and remediation of petroleum-contaminated sites, is assisting the Environmental Defender Law Center (EDLC) with two lawsuits in Africa and North America against major oil companies. Her technical analyses of pollution and its potential health impacts have been invaluable to the EDLC's work, said the organization's director, Lewis Gordon.

"When I can say to groups in developing countries, ‘I've got a pro bono scientist for you with years and years of training and experience,' it's like a gift from heaven," Gordon noted.

Mortimer found the program when she was searching for a way to get involved with the human rights community, but she said others might choose to join "just to feel the personal satisfaction of having your work improve the lives of others."

The impact of these volunteers can be immediate and rewarding, agreed Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's director of emergencies. Bouckaert worked with Ward on the Ghouta report.

"Keith's collaboration with Human Rights Watch resulted in a groundbreaking report on Syria's chemical weapon use and ultimately helped put in motion Syria's accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention," he said. "It is a collaboration that helped save countless lives—what more satisfaction could any scientist wish for in a collaboration?"


AAAS 2014 Annual Meeting

Investments in science and technology are major drivers of economic growth in many countries, making them a crucial piece of the recovering global economy. In February 2014, thousands of scientists, journalists, students, and others will convene in Chicago to share innovative ideas that encourage economic growth and offer solutions to the world's challenges in food, fuel, climate, health care, and much more. Visit the 2014 Annual Meeting Web site at to see the full program of scientific symposia, lectures, career workshops, and free public events.

AAAS Building Earns LEED Platinum Rating


AAAS has earned one of the highest marks awarded to existing green buildings: a LEED Platinum EB rating from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. The rating system provides an internationally recognized, independent verification of a building's performance with regard to energy savings, water efficiency, carbon emission reduction, and other measures of environmental impact. The AAAS building is one of the few previously existing structures in Washington, D.C., to earn the platinum rating.


PEPFAR: A Triumph of Medical Diplomacy

Progress and disparity.

Death rates in PEPFAR-supported African countries have fallen since the program's inception. The AIDS epidemic in Africa is far from over, however. Maps reflecting the global distribution of working physicians (top), HIV infections (middle), and AIDS-related deaths (bottom) in 2002 to 2004 show the disease's outsized burden compared to available medical care.


Many Americans are unfamiliar with the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and would be surprised to learn how successful it has been, according to Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute. Writing in the AAAS quarterly Science & Diplomacy, Varmus noted that the program had supplied an estimated 5 million patients in the developing world with antiretroviral drugs by 2012—up from 1.7 million in 2008—while protecting nearly 1 million infants from maternally transmitted HIV and testing nearly 50 million people for infection.

The numbers are only part of the story, however. By achieving solid bilateral partnerships with African countries, PEPFAR built and strengthened U.S. ties in that region, Varmus wrote in his 1 December essay.

Those who aren't aware of PEPFAR's success would likely be further "astounded to learn that it was invented, in a remarkably direct way, by President George W. Bush, whose reputation in international affairs is dominated by his war on terrorism, military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the antagonism he displayed to the United Nations and to several of our traditional partners," according to Varmus.

In fact, President Bush was deeply involved strategically at every stage of the project. Drawing from interviews of people who were critical to PEPFAR's planning and implementation, Varmus concluded that much of the program's effectiveness was due to its founders' emphasis on careful planning, bilateral relationships, objectives that were measurable and likely to be achieved, mandated evaluations, and advice from appropriate experts. Such advice proved critical in response to initial concerns that the $15 billion project, which was planned "under a blanket of strict secrecy" to avoid interagency strife, would be difficult to finance and impossible to achieve, thus exposing Bush to criticism and failure.

The president's staff therefore asked Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who along with his colleagues at NIAID had created the blueprints for PEPFAR, to invite several prominent physicians to speak with skeptics and critics from the Office of Management and Budget and other parts of the White House. The four invited physicians sensed the importance of the request and assembled rapidly from as far away as Rwanda and Uganda upon receiving Fauci's call.

The evidence from these experts who had worked in the field was crucial to convincing the president's representatives that the program should go forward, a decision reached just in time to be announced in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address. Funding was secured soon after, and the program went on to improve life expectancy substantially in Africa.

"The PEPFAR history that Varmus has pieced together shows the power of science and medicine in diplomacy when they are used to promote humanitarian goals, even when projects are extremely complex and ambitious," said Vaughan Turekian, who is Science & Diplomacy's editor-in-chief and the director of AAAS's Center for Science Diplomacy.

Science & Diplomacy's December edition closes a second successful year for the online publication, which features a mix of perspectives and research articles by science and diplomacy practitioners and thinkers. The quarterly has published over 40 articles, on topics such as national approaches to science diplomacy, international research infrastructures, relationship building, and transboundary issues.

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