You Don’t Have to be a Star to Shed New Light
A Guide for Telling the Addiction Research Story to the Public
John T. O’Neill, L.C.D.C. and Carlton Erickson, Ph.D.
An African Folk Tale
A long ago African chief resolved to host a feast designed to unify his far-flung kingdom. He sent runners out to all the villages instructing them to send a representative to a great feast. Each representative was to bring a container full of the finest wine from his village.
One village had no wine. Their representative came up with a clever solution and departed for the feast. At the most solemn moment of the gathering each representative came forward and poured
his wine into a large cask in front of the chief’s throne. The great chief then came forward and stirred the wine to symbolize the unity of his kingdom.
He took a decorated gourd, reached in and drank from the cask. His face turned from surprise to anger to sadness. It was all water.
If not you, who?
If not now, when?
Scientific research is driven by curiosity, knowledge, and intelligence but it is fueled by money. Without sufficient funding, great ideas are of little value. Most research in the United States is supported by the government with decisions about the amount and priorities subject to politics. In this country political decisions are powerfully influenced by public advocacy. The loudest voice gets the most dollars. Consequently, research funding is often not prioritized according to need but rather by the potency of public clamor for progress.
Public advocacy is critically missing in the addiction field. With other public health problems, the victims and their loved-ones are the core of advocacy. In the case of addictive disease, most of the victims are in denial that they have the illness, and their loved-ones are so traumatized by the painful dynamics of their situation that they do not speak out. This means that researchers themselves must become more visible advocates for the value of their own work. For the most part this has not been the case, so funding for alcohol and drug research has been insufficient, tentative, and vulnerable to the economic winds. Ironically, the economic, social, and public health and safety case for aggressive, far sighted, and sustained support of addiction research is far stronger than for many, much better supported health research activities. The proof is there, what is lacking is the voice. That voice must emanate from the science community itself.
Speaking about science to the general public presents certain barriers. The most formidable is that scientists have not been inclined to do so. Their education and training has neither motivated nor prepared them for this mission. A recently-completed multi-year effort to provide public speaking and media skills training to NIAAA and NIDA funded agencies was met with limited enthusiasm. The most usual comment was, “I have more important things to do with my time”. The obvious rebuttal is that if they don’t get their grants funded they will have plenty of time. It has been estimated that if every addiction scientist spent 30 minutes a month telling a member of the public about research, the general public’s understanding of addiction would be greatly increased over a period of five years.
A second barrier is the limited scientific literacy in the general population. While skill and knowledge, especially in the information technology field, have increased, basic science knowledge has decreased. It is entirely possible to graduate from high school today with only a limited science education and from college with little more. Yet these graduates represent the future voting population of our nation and some will even be elected to positions affecting public policy and research funding. Unless the message is more widely heard, scientific research in general, and addiction research in particular, will continue to be very low on their intellectual horizons.
Advertising people use the term “dumbing down” to describe the challenge they face in communicating with the average listener/viewer. It is somewhat derogatory but the term is reflective of the difficulty of reaching people in this age of information overload and sound bite mentality. Talking about addiction research to lay audiences requires clear, concise, easily-understood language delivered by a competent communicator. But as the title says, “You don’t have to be a star to shed new light”. Certainly Carl Sagan, Jacob Bronowski, or Stephen Hawking would not be cast as network anchors yet each has been a high impact spokesperson for their scientific area.