Broadcasting scientists

This post originally appeared on The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Newsletter

Google’s Hangouts on Air give public a seat at the table during scientific discussions

Science outreach is an extremely important aspect of being a scientist. However, it is an aspect that often is overlooked because of the daily pressures of a scientific career. By not engaging with the public, we fail to fulfill our obligation as humanity’s explorers and advisers, and we alienate the very people who fund us. This is the primary reason I engage in science outreach.

Television represents an enormously valuable means of reaching a wide public audience. Science documentaries such as the BBC’s “Horizon” or PBS’s “Nova” capture the public’s imagination, but popularizing science on television requires a significant production effort. This typically is the domain of an established television network, something to which the average scientist does not have easy access.

The social network Google+, meanwhile, has a platform for video broadcasts known as Hangouts on Air. HOAs allow video, with up to 10 presenters, to be broadcast live on the Internet. After the event, the video is archived on YouTube. HOAs come with Q&A capabilities, so that the audience can submit questions that can be answered live. This represents a paradigm shift in science outreach and has great potential for reaching millions of people. HOAs are gaining in popularity. Organizations that have used the platform include NASA, the Hubble Space Telescope, CERN, National Geographic, Scientific American and the SETI Institute, to name a handful. Even the White House is using HOAs to have conversations with the public.

I have been involved in many HOAs, co-hosting them with a variety of scientists in diverse fields – paleontology, string theory, virology, parasitology and more.

My co-host, Scott Lewis, and I also have performed demonstrations of science, the most notable being one with an electron microscope: We were able to image various objects live during the Hangout. People across the world were looking at the compound eye of an insect live on air, learning about the techniques involved and being awed.

We’ve hosted panel discussions covering topics such as the recent controversy surrounding the ENCODE project. We used that opportunity to explain some basic molecular biology. Recently, Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at the University of Stanford, hosted an HOA to discuss his review paper published in Science. He explained its findings and took questions from viewers about the data. The Science on Google+ community also has begun hosting Posterside HOAs, akin to conferences, during which scientists present their work in 10-minute talks and answer questions.

These example HOAs highlight the platform’s potential for science outreach. Although science itself is respected, we scientists have an image problem. The public perceives us as faceless, ethically challenged logic machines. Through Google+ HOAs, we are brought into everyone’s home. By being broadcasting scientists, we tear down the ivory tower.

If you have any questions about setting up your own HOA, please feel free to get in touch with me!

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