Messages From the Director

Thoughts from the Director of the Huck Institutes

Andrew Read

October 2019

Communication is critical to Huck’s mission of collaborative, impactful discovery. Because, let’s face it: scientific discovery is nothing but self-gratification if stakeholders don’t know about it. That’s why we and our partners put a lot of effort into communicating science. But it’s obvious that we could all do better: there is immense scope for new ideas and experiments. So bring us your ideas. We’re up for taking risks.

I see two aspects of communication related to what we do at the Huck that are ripe for new advances. 

First, human behavior rarely changes of its own accord in response to scientific discoveries*. This is problematic, because overcoming most challenges facing humanity requires people to behave differently. The global challenge I am personally researching is the evolution and emergence of so-called superbugs, bacteria that can no longer be killed by previously effective antibiotics. By some estimates, these bugs will kill more people than cancer by 2050. A big part of the solution involves using antibiotics only when we need to, but that is easier said than done. For example, physicians know that prescribing antibiotics against viral infections is worse than useless, and the government keeps reminding them, but the problem persists at scale. Why? And if advice that simple is hard to follow, how will more complex solutions life scientists produce ever have impact?

I think communication science has a lot to offer. As a social science, it has the potential to uncover strategies that will lead to behavior change when scientifically-sound advice is not enough. In this month’s Symbiotic podcast <<<link to site page w/ audio & video versions>>, you can hear about my forays into this realm with Erina Macgeorge of the Department of Communication Arts and Science (CAS) in Penn State’s College of Liberal Arts. 

We at the Huck are so encouraged with what is possible that we want to further build our partnership with CAS. We already have two faculty co-hires and are closing in on a third with a fourth slated for 2020-21. Additionally, we are preparing to launch an NIH-funded graduate course melding life and communication science (leads: Steve Schaeffer, Biology, and Rachel Smith, CAS). Finally, we are partnering with CAS on the Communication, Science and Society Initiative (CSSI). This is an experiment aimed at bringing communication and life scientists to work together on some of the major challenges facing humanity. It is being led by CAS’s Jim Dillard. Do reach out to Jim or our lead, Huck associate director Connie Rogers, if you want to know more. In a future column, I’ll describe the exciting partnership we have with the Social Science Research Institute to expand the work still further.

The other aspect of communication ripe for advances is central to Huck’s raison d’etre. We expect major advances when traditional disciplinary boundaries are spanned – but the most obvious sign that this is actually happening is when the participants cannot understand each other. Yet when jargon, concepts, theories, methodologies and scientific cultures are foreign, intellectual dissonance can lead faculty to go back to their disciplinary comfort zones. As I learned with Erina, it takes time to build trust and to understand each other’s language and way of thinking. I really believe communication science can also help address this problem. 

Increasingly, people are talking of a science of science. A major part of that enterprise should be the study of scientist-to-scientist communication. Penn State is as good at peer-to-peer communication as any university and far better than most – but we have to get even better. Solutions to the world’s most serious challenges—from food security to neural basis of consciousness—require that truly transdisciplinary teams are unleashed. That requires superb peer-to-peer communication. The institutions that can do that best will change the world. 

- Andrew

*One of the few examples might be the lines of parents queuing for the polio vaccine in the 1950s, when polio epidemics maimed American kids.

Past Messages:

A curious thing about the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences is that no other university appears to have anything quite like it. Think about that. Demonstrably, we aren’t necessary.

I love that. It means we exist only to make a difference. Good things, often excellent things, will happen if we do nothing; clearly, Colleges and Departments can flourish on their own. That perspective underpins everything I am trying to do as director. “If we do X, what difference will it make?” Of course, that’s also the way our game-changing staff and faculty think: “What difference am I making?”

‘Difference’, I think, boils down to impact, a hugely slippery concept. Many university administrators measure impact in terms of grant income, or financial efficiency, but of course that’s nonsense: dollars are the input. Impact is an output. My colleague Matt Thomas goes further: we should care less about outputs and more about outcomes. Scientific papers are outputs, and they really can generate outcomes. But papers needn’t be our only outputs, and infuriatingly, outcomes, even from papers, are really hard to measure. Sometimes, outcomes can be captured by citation counts or altimetric scores. But not always. If you actually solve a real world problem, it is often soon forgotten. Failing to solve a problem in an interesting way can better generate social media metrics and citations.

I think a real measure of impact is the extent to which we change the beliefs and practices of a constituency. Huck’s target constituency is staggeringly diverse. Certainly it includes our global fellow academics - a very important and exciting audience. But our constituency could also be policy makers (EPA, WHO), or the commercial landscape (Google), or those charged with human well-being (e.g. physicians, farmers), or the lay public, striving to better understand themselves and their world.

In the years to come, I very much look forward to the struggle of trying to balance that portfolio, perhaps one of the toughest challenges in scientific leadership. Right now, Huck is working on all the impact-enhancing initiatives we can construct. Bring us more. We exist to make special things happen.

- Andrew