My Plans for Science on Periscope in 2017

For a bit over 550 days, I’ve periodically talked about the brain live on Periscope.

Informal live-stream discussion of the brain

My goal has been to bring people closer to science, from its execution to what it’s like to engage in its work. The foundation of this has been performing literature reviews to prepare for unscripted conversations with whoever might pop into my live-stream for a few minutes. While this inevitably sacrifices topic depth, it enables folks who have little to no personal exposure to scientists to interact with one in training for a short period of time. And, if done right, enough substance is delivered on any given topic that we move towards a deeper understanding of a subject — or, at least, an appreciation for the complexity of the topic, which is a win in my book.

I’ve also occasionally live-streamed fluorescence microscopy with specimens that even I haven’t seen before. So, there’s a chance for failure (as is occasionally the case in my hands) — as well as the chance for observing authentic discovery and real-time interpretations of data.

Fluorescence microsopy of hypothalamic fibers in mice infused with AAV-ArchT-tdTomato.

This can be challenging. Explaining the images that viewers are seeing sufficiently, so that they understand why I’m interpreting the data the way I am, can require a level of depth that’s simply too great for a typical live-stream viewer to have enough patience to withstand. It’s not like these limits on patience are entirely unique to live-stream viewers; college students weren’t exactly riveted by discussions of receptor-mediated endocytosis of adeno-associated virus serotypes with particular tropisms. In fact, I’ve had over a hundred simultaneous viewers voluntarily endure such an explanation without departing. So, there does appear to be a desire for concise and jargon-lite explanations of topics in science.

Frankly, I’ve been surprised that live-stream viewers have been willing to stick with me while I try to walk the line between minimally sufficient and superfluous exposition. At least when it comes to science and the brain, there appears to be a desire to engage with the information, both in the US and internationally. So, the question I’m trying to answer is: how can I (and the other science-minded folks that live-stream3) successfully deliver substantive content while exploiting the live interaction afforded by a platform like Periscope? I’ve landed on two general goals that I hope to work towards accomplishing in 2017.

Advocate Fundamental Science

Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that folks outside of science are largely unfamiliar with how science is conducted, including both how and why experiments are designed and performed, to the day-to-day life of a scientist. A significant proportion of those with whom I interact have literally never met a scientist, perhaps excluding their teachers in primary education. Many struggle to name a living scientist, excluding perhaps Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. This was largely my experience until I was able to go to college, as I’d never personally met a scientist until then.

As a result, I’m hoping to help communicate how science benefits the lives of folks outside of science, and why publicly funded research is uniquely crucial for these benefits to be possible.

So, I intend to occasionally try to explain some of the cogs that comprise the machine of fundamental research in the United States. In particular, I want to try to explain how research priorities are determined, how funding levels are determined, and how this work translates to tangible outcomes for taxpayers.

Live-stream of science policy a few weeks before the vote on the 21st Century Cures Act. (https://www.periscope.tv/_Anthropoid/1ZkKznXPkQXKv?)

I made a list of all of the legislators that are on congressional committees with jurisdictions over grant-awarding agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). Then, I grouped them by state and district, and hosted an interactive map on my website. I did a short live-stream in November, explaining that I — as a recipient of NIH funding — am paid by their tax dollars. So, in a way, I work for them. I briefly tried to explain the difference between federally and privately funded research, and told them that if they want to support me — and scientists who are more capable than I am — they ought to contact their legislators to let them know that they support federally funded research. I’ve tried to simplify this by enabling them to click on their state to find their legislators specifically involved in sculpting science policy.

In the months since that stream, traffic to the website has been elevated.

Increase in website traffic to anthropoid.science/support-science following the stream of science policy above

While it’s not necessarily a major flood of traffic, and there’s no way for me to know how many of those folks were willing to pick up the phone, the fact that people appeared to be driven to visit the page at all following the introduction of this fairly obscure effort is encouraging. Ultimately, I suspect it’s going to be necessary to move away from sending general letters to party leadership. Instead, I expect that constituents contacting their own legislators, identifying fundamental science as a priority, will result in more efficient communication between constituents and representatives.

Finally, I’m hoping to make it clear that investing in basic science research is not only beneficial for our economy, but enriches our lives in ways that aren’t always apparent. For example, some of the stats communicated by Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the NIH, that are based on evaluations performed by the Milken Institute, indicate that there is an approximate 2:1 return on investment to the economy from federal funding to biomedical research [4]. However, beyond objective economics, I hope to communicate that the national pride associated with being the first nation to step foot on the Moon is derived from the same kind of national investment in research that’s funded by bodies like the NIH and NSF today. And that it’s these kinds of investments that are most likely to yield cures for Alzheimer’s & Parkinson’s diseases — as well as conditions like addiction, depression, and PTSD.

More Curated & Accurate Science Coverage

The number of discoveries being made weekly in neuroscience, let alone biology and science broadly, is fairly staggering. I’ve heard from more than a few grad students, PhD candidates, and Postdocs (and even a handful of Professors in some candid moments) that keeping up with the flow of publications can become challenging. Particularly when considering the time demands of writing grant proposals, training new students, writing publications, teaching classes, and actually performing experiments, keeping as up-to-date as possible is a non-trivial challenge that scientists face at all levels. As a result, the interpretation and communication of this work will sometimes fall to folks who may not be adequately skeptical of published findings. Phil Plait, using John Oliver’s segment on bad science as a springboard, nicely summarized the misaligned incentives and structural problems with science communication as it exists today — and, perhaps more importantly, the degradation of the perception of science by the public that results from this suboptimal relationship [1].

So, I’m planning to explore periodic coverage of specific neuroscience publications that blow me away or reach prominence in social media, and I’m going to do my best to accurately reflect both the interpretations by the scientists themselves — as well as provide my own perspective on what the data say (when appropriate). It’s going to be challenging to find the line that distinguishes excessively information-dense, and approachable, delivery to folks with little training in science. This is part of the reason that I started the podcast, Wired to be Weird, where a partner and I discuss a topic in neuroscience based on a literature review. Regardless, I’m certain it’s possible and worth the effort.

Finally, I’m going to explore the use of live 360˚ video streaming to bring people into both research settings and collections of rare and informative biological specimens. Given that not everyone throughout the U.S. (and world) has access to these settings and knowledge, I think platforms like Periscope are unique in their capacity to democratize knowledge in a way that’s more fundamentally human than other video-based platforms. If someone feels like they’ve been able to visit a laboratory via 360 live video, perhaps physical distance won’t be such an obstacle.

It’s impossible to predict what’s ultimately going to work, but it’s going to be exciting to see how these technologies influence social media and human interaction over the next year. Hopefully, using these new capabilities, science will evolve from being perceived as separate from, to directly involved in, the lives of people who benefit from its work and make it possible through taxpayer funding.

1.http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2016/05/10/john_oliver_science_and_the_media.html

2. http://www.vox.com/2016/7/14/12016710/science-challeges-research-funding-peer-review-process#6?utm_campaign=vox.social&utm_medium=social&utm_content=voxdotcom&utm_source=twitter

3. @feynwoman, @DCHooper91, @ttk_rwth, @sassephoto

4. https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/who-we-are/nih-director/driving-innovation-through-federal-investments#ftn3