Why I started "Science By Design"

 Image source: Flickr/ mecookie

Image source: Flickr/mecookie

“The Bruce Wayne of food policy” – a cool nickname that I can only dream of. It’s reserved for true leaders in food policy such as Kelly Brownell. Last fall, I heard Kelly give a keynote lecture at which he was introduced as “the Bruce Wayne of food policy” for his inspirational work using research to promote food policy change.

Using research to promote change. It’s a nice slogan that is often trumpeted but rarely achieved. In theory, science should always be used for change. But two years ago, I heard Kelly deliver another keynote in which he challenged scientists with the question:

“How good are we, really, at creating change?”

My answer – we stink. And science’s importance has diminished because of it.

Kelly compared scientists to the first leg of a relay team. Our mission is to generate evidence that, ideally, we pass on to communities, policy makers, and other stakeholders, who help make change happen. But we usually drop the baton by failing to pass evidence to others in the most effective, engaging way.

We simply publish a paper, add a line to our CV, and move on from there.

In the post-truth era, the truth is catching up that this approach doesn’t work. Science’s role in policymaking has shrunk because we don’t engage and communicate the importance of our work. This threatens our impact as well as future opportunities as scientific funding is cut. Some people mistakenly think science has only diminished recently, but the truth is that it has been slowly pushed to the margin for years.

I’ve witnessed it in my own research on food policy. Public debate over nutrition and food policy has been shaped by voices that aren’t always scientific but know how to connect with people.

With the right help, science can connect with people, too. My favorite memory as a scientist came in 2012, when I received an email from a mother in Arizona who wrote, “I just want to thank you for the work you’re doing.” She had seen my recent study on the effect of school nutrition standards on student weight gain. She had seen it because communications professionals had disseminated our science skillfully through various media channels. Our research had touched this woman because professionals knew how to tell our story.

Artists who tell stories through video, graphic design, and other media are often better at communicating information in a way that touches people. It can affect everyone from mothers in Arizona to policy makers nationwide.

I’ve worked with graphic designers as a Vice President of Research for a policy advocacy organization, where I saw how design can translate obscure scientific evidence into useful tools for advocates and policy makers. I’ve had experiences with video, podcasts, blogs, and other communications forums, and seen how effective these can be for science.

Many experts have said that creative storytelling should be part of a scientist’s toolkit. I wholeheartedly agree, but scientists are not trained for it. Nor should they be expected to when many of them are scrambling to keep their jobs as scientists.

The solution is partnering with creatives who bring years of training and experience in storytelling. An artist’s expertise can complement a scientist’s training to make research more engaging, entertaining, and effective. This was the thesis behind Science By Design. Science’s role in society can grow if scientists pass the baton to Science By Design, as we partner with creative professionals to tell the stories of discovery, challenge, and passion for science.