Co.Design

Why Science Depends On Good Branding

Buzz-phrases like "the god particle" may irritate researchers, but they provide a necessary foothold for the rest of us to get (and stay) interested in pushing science forward.

You may never have heard of Hubble’s constant, but everyone knows what "the big bang" theory is. (No, not the sitcom--the prevailing scientific model of our universe’s origin, which states that everything blasted into hot, dense, rapidly expanding existence approximately 13.7 billion years ago.) Fun fact, though: That impressively catchy phrase was originally intended by Fred Hoyle, the astrophysicist who coined it on a popular BBC radio show in 1949, as a scientific mega-diss. Talk about unintended consequences: His competing "steady state" theory, in addition to being wrong, probably sounded a hell of a lot less sexy to the audience of laymen he was addressing.

It’s true: The laws of the universe need effective branding, even when the scientists who discover them shudder at the thought. Sure, elegant reasoning and airtight empiricism should speak for themselves in the marketplace of ideas. But as an astute editorial in New Scientist argues, "science’s future lies in its power to inspire, and inspiration does not come from desiccated academic jargon." The contemporary analogue to Hoyle’s dismissive "big bang" is "the god particle," a nickname for the elusive Higgs boson that physicists loathe and the public loves. (This is the thing that the city-sized Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is supposed to uncover.) Let me get this straight: The entire world is actually fascinated, for once, by the search for an obscure-but-important theoretical element of the Standard Model of physics, and the scientists involved are annoyed over a catchy slogan? When even New Scientist is telling you to lighten up, seriously: lighten up.

Here’s why: Publicly funded science is in trouble--at least in the United States. As io9.com reports in its awareness-raising "Public Science Triumphs" campaign, Congress is about to slash $1.3 trillion from the U.S. budget, with agencies like the National Science Foundation, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Institutes of Health all lined up for the guillotine. When laypeople don’t know or care enough about what scientists are doing with that money, they don’t notice or care when scientists are suddenly prevented from doing it.

Yes, researchers are people too, with idiots and ass-coverers among them--and whether or not public funds are a good thing for science is a healthy debate to have. But in order to have healthy debate you must have attention. This isn’t the 1950s, when public support of scientific research could be drummed up at the drop of a hat by invoking "we gotta beat dem Commies, gosh durnit!" Our enemies now are slow-motion catastrophes like climate change and epidemiologic threats from countries no one in the West could find on a map. And for inspiration, we can’t just look to shiny rockets aimed at the man in the moon--we have to interpret indistinct blobs of false-color spectrometry. It’s not that the public is incapable of caring about these problems or finding these discoveries fascinating. They--we--just need some help.

If I asked you to hum the "I’m lovin’ it" jingle for McDonald’s, you could do it in a second. Why shouldn’t science’s "brands" be able to command similar brain-stickiness? Why do research institutions have to wait for megabrands like Google to take the lead on devising creative mainstream media outreach campaigns? (Heck, I’ll go one further--if Google understands the brand value of a world-class Creative Lab dedicated to promoting its research and tools to the public in innovative ways, why can’t scientific institutions do the same?) If scientists and science communicators think phrases like "the god particle" and "the axis of evil" are dopey, fine: Do better. But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth while we’re at it.

[Read the New Scientist editorial | io9.com’s Public Science Triumphs series]

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23 Comments

  • Justin Knecht

    The UK Design Council is taking a related stab at this with their Innovate for Universities programme by partnering designers with technology transfer offices at leading UK universities. There are already case studies around successfully funding research for projects simply by describing them better in pitch presentations.

    http://www.designcouncil.org.u...

    This is hardly mass-market brand positioning, but taking design into consideration at the earliest stages of product development is proving to have a big impact on making sure research is more successfully commercialised.

  • Michael Merrifield

    While the possibility for such symbiotic relationships exists, Atley, reliance on it would surely mean that society loses out.  Take by far the greatest revolution in entertainment over the last quarter century, the world-wide web.  This didn't arise from scientists sitting down around a table with people from Sony or Sky, trying to thrash out a new entertainment medium: if they had pitched the WWW, the corporate folk would have backed quietly away from something far too radical to be practical. 

    Instead, the WWW was developed using government money at CERN, as a mechanism to transfer data and documents between researchers studying the fundamental properties of nature.   The benefit to society of the revolution spawned by this "messing about" must surely have paid back government investment many thousands of times over.  In fact, since the US is not a member of CERN, you got it for free.

    And there are many many examples of this kind of true innovation that comes from the type of publicly-funded research that companies will always shy away from as having too low a probability of return to satisfy their shareholders.  For example, if one of the big medical companies had wanted a new form of imager, they would have continued to tweak the range of X-ray machines that they already knew and understood; it took a government-funded physicist playing around with radio waves in strong magnetic fields to invent MRI, and spawn that billion-dollar-a-year industry.

    If you want great inventions, you need to invest in crazy ideas, which companies are typically not in a position to do.

    Oh, and, incidentally, you learn about the way the Universe works even if you don't get a worldwide web or an MRI scanner every time.  For many of us, such cultural enrichment is the reason that it is worth spending public money on scientific research.  The fact that that investment also pays back to society through spin-off technologies that would be unlikely to be invented any other way is not the reason to make the investment, but it should make the investment decision a no-brainer.

  • Atley Loughridge

    Great point, but I'm not big on relying on the government in general... I wonder if there is a way to monetize research through media/education extensions.... most pop media has no social value, public ed is obsolete and universities are behind/waaaay tooo $$$$. Researchers know things that they could teach in a type of media library format or education on demand... I guess I think reliance of government funds has obscured potential symbiotic relationships between industries like science, higher education and entertainment... I've been thinking of how to experiment with this with regards to Silicon Alley and OW (i.e. manufacturing jobs gone=middle class unprepped to get work in this climate). Are you familiar with Bucky's Education Automation? What do you think?

  • Packherd

    "Branding" is a tricky subject to understand, even for life-long marketing professionals. So academics can be forgiven if they don't have a total grasp on its subtleties and significance.

    As a science communicator, my experience with working scientists has been that the overwhelming majority are humble and sincere regarding communications. They know they don't know everything and they appreciate sound counsel.

    But there are the occasional nincompoops and they seem often to be not scientists, per se, but science managers or other science communicators. That is, the person with the worst sense of science branding is often the public affairs specialist who's been doing this for years and can't get out of their wagon ruts.

    Branding doesn't absolve McDonald's of responsibility to their customers to give them tasty food at a reasonable price. Nor does it permit them to screw their investors out of a fair return on their investment. What it does is allow them to form a connection with an impossibly huge audience. When audiences get so big that they and the subject become anonymous to one another, you can't initiate that connection on intellect, or even emotion. It may get to that point, in fact it has to get there or no one would ever by McRibs, but the first move happens pre-consciously.

    For what it's worth, the audiences for science are often not as cosmically huge as McDonald's audience. Congress, in particular, is a relatively tiny audience, even if you count all the staffers. At a stadium concert, a rock band will form an emotional connection with more audience members than all the Hill people—both parties, both chambers—put together. The task, therefore, isn't impossible and doesn't require "I'm Lovin' It"-style branding.

    But it does take a bit more forethought than simply blaming the audience for not recognizing how important your science.

  • Michael Merrifield

    I think this article misses perhaps the most fundamental point in the issue of science branding.  Namely, science already has an incredibly strong brand. 
     
    Ask any child what a scientist is like, and they’ll tell you about the white coat and the pens in the pocket and the big hair and the absent-minded unworldly nature.  While we can probably live without the first few items, the perception of unworldliness is hugely to our benefit, as it sends a message of objectivity and honesty: when scientists tell you something is bad, you can believe them, because they don’t have the same commercial agenda as the world of business.  It is notable that one of the biggest problems scientists currently face arose from the leaking of emails from the UEA Climate Research Unit, in which the participants were, as far as I can see, simply trying to brand their results in a way that allowed them to sell their conclusions convincingly to a popular audience.  While branding clearly played to the benefit of the anti-science faction (after all, everyone has heard of “climategate” as a brand, and knows that it is bad), the scientists going down this “sales” route burned themselves badly. 
     
    So, yes, as your headline says, science depends on good branding.  It’s just that our core branding of objectivity and trust is, by its nature, a little less superficial than a burger chain jingle, and we would do ourselves untold damage if we threw away a brand built up over a thousand years in pursuit of something more cutesy.

  • Gerard Fryer

    It has always bugged me that my employer, NOAA, constantly refers to "The Ring of Fire" in its publicity stuff about tsunamis. In geology, that term became passé in the mid seventies, once everyone had accepted plate tectonics. NOAA's continued use of the term subjects them to ridicule in academic circles, and contributes to the broad feeling that NOAA stands for science lite.

    Perhaps I should reconsider. Just like "Richter Magnitude" (ughh), "Ring of Fire" seems very popular with the public---and with Congress.

  • George Curtis

    Cattle get "branded".  We are talking about names, not the current  advertising NY buzz words.

    George Curtis
    Univ. of Hawaii

  • Damage Control

    “If I asked you to hum the "I'm lovin' it" jingle for McDonald's, you
    could do it in a second. Why shouldn't science's "brands" be able to
    command similar brain-stickiness?”

    Because one needs to actually THINK in regards to science.

    One needs to understand that branding (today) requires irrationality. The reason why people respond to brands well, because it does not requires any critical thinking. Why do people buy Nike products? Not because they know how the product is created or what is the structure of the product. They "like" it because, say Le Bron James wears it on his head. It is irrational.* And yes, it applies to Apple products also.

    Science does not work like that (from my very limited understanding). If the general public does not know what “Hubble's Constant” means, then it is the responsibility for the public to actually READ the contents and try to understand what it means (if they have any interests in science that is).

    Do I advocate people to be interested in science? Absolutely. However, branding is not the course to pursue. Whatever reasons the scientists named their discoveries are up to them. They can call it based on how things work or call it after their names. It is not up to us designers to meddle with that. Whether a name is appealing to the general populace is up to the scientists to decide.

    In recent years, science has been popularized by Dawkins, Degrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, and so forth. However, they popularized it by explaining science in layman's language. They, however, did not re-brand labels just so they sounded “appealing” or “sexy”.

    An example in history where “science” was re-branded  was Creationism being relabeled Intelligent Design. Why? So that people are persuaded of it's theory. Not by doing peer reviews, not by providing empirical data, not by defending the theory with evidence. Yup, by branding.

    If we do want the general public to be interested in science, there are two things we can do.

    1. Help with Information Design.
    2. Stop brand-washing on ALL consumer products or services and so forth, so that we encourage a culture based on rational thinking rather than irrational one just to fulfill market economy.

    How’s that for proposal?

    *For further reference, read Edward Bernay's Propaganda. You can read it for free here: http://www.historyisaweapon.co...

  • Chris CHolland

    I don't think John Pavlus is suggesting employing branding for marketing's sake or for obfuscating the true value of a path of exploration. We can all agree that there would be little value in this for society.I also want to go on record as supporting basic science, knowing that some exploratory work will hit a dead end and some will lead to practical applications. There is often no way of knowing specifically what the scientific answers may lead to.But, I bet scientists and engineers together can give us some ideas about what a given exploration might contribute  in terms of breaking through a roadblock in our understanding of something fundamental and consequently might accelerate our progress in previously stalled engineering developments. Not with certainty, but at least with an educated guess. John's recommendation for branding, or translating scientific exploratory work into common language, would go a long way towards supporting the public's engagement in the debate over allocation of public dollars and at the very least an appreciation of the value of this exploration to society and our day to day lives.The only reason this is an issue is because there are limited dollars and alternative places we can put these dollars. With no appreciation of the value of scientific exploration, we could conceivably run the risk of defunding science in the federal budget altogether, or conversely, with absolute trust in the discovery process, we could commit unlimited dollars.I'd also like us to differentiate between those explorations that are vital but have little short term "payoff," consequently being unlikely targets for private investment and the exploration that corporations have an incentive to invest in precisely because they have more potential for shorter term value and return on that investment.Since we must make choices about tax-payer funded investments, if we are indeed going to make those investments, we need a good way of making them more understandable to the general population. Most scientists are excited about their area of exploration, I would hope. If they can't translate that excitement into public interest they are less likely to be successful in getting it funded. We would also need some filtering of the "branding" so the public can tell the difference between "vaporware" and the real thing. That's why I agree with "Damage Control" in part. We wouldn't want to leave the branding solely up to the scientists and the marketeers. The BS detectors need to be functional.I still like "the god particle" and "the big bang" (assuming they accurately describe the scientific work). "Hubble's constant" means nothing to me but a lot to the scientists. And the "unified field theory" or the "theory of everything" is what I would call poor branding, satisfying neither the public nor, I would guess, the scientists. Chris
    The Holland Group
    Helping top leaders achieve dramatic change 
     www.HollandGroupResults....

  • Chris CHolland

    I don't think John Pavlus is suggesting employing branding for marketing's sake or for obfuscating the true value of a path of exploration. We can all agree that there would be little value in this for society.

    I also want to go on record as supporting basic science, knowing that some exploratory work will hit a dead end and some will lead to practical applications. There is often no way of knowing specifically what the scientific answers may lead to.

    But, I bet scientists and engineers together can give us some ideas about what a given exploration might contribute to breaking through a roadblock in our understanding and consequently accelerate progress in previously stalled engineering developments. Not with certain provision, but with some educated guess. John's recommendation for branding, or translating scientific exploratory work into common language, would go a long way towards supporting the public's engagement in the debate over allocation of public dollars and at the very least an appreciation of the value of this exploration to society and our day to day lives.

    The only reason this is an issue is because there are limited dollars and alternative places we can put these dollars. With no appreciation of the value we could conceivably run the risk of defunding science in the federal budget or conversely with ultimate trust in the discovery process, we could commit unlimited dollars.

    I'd also like us to differentiate between those explorations that are vital but have little short term "payoff," consequently being unlikely targets for private investment and the exploration that corporations have an incentive to invest in precisely because they have more potential for shorter term value and return on that investment.

    Since we must make choices about tax-payer funded investments, if we are indeed going to make those investments, we need a good way of making them more understandable to the general population. 

    Most scientists are excited about their area of exploration, I would hope. If they can't translate that excitement into public interest they are less likely to be successful in getting it funded. We would also need some filtering of the "branding" so the public can tell the difference between "vaporware" and the real thing. That's why I agree with "Damage Control" in part. We wouldn't want to leave the branding solely up to the scientists and the marketeers. The BS detectors need to be functional.

    I still like "the god particle" and "the big bang" (assuming they accurately describe the scientific work). "Hubble's constant" means nothing to me but a lot to the scientists. And the "unified field theory" or the "theory of everything" is what I would call poor branding, satisfying neither the public nor, I would guess, the scientists. 

    ChrisThe Holland GroupHelping top leaders achieve dramatic changewww.HollandGroupResults....

  • ohallford

    we need more scientists in skin tight costumes wiggling there jiggly body parts at young people before since gets cool again. sad but true. (computer & gaming geeks may be the exception)

  • Damage Control

    The function of branding for the most part, especially in this consumer-centric culture, is depicting a perceived value, NOT real value. Again, perceived NOT real. Designers that argue about "authenticity" are perhaps the greatest delusional people or just really good bullshitters.

    The last thing we need designers to "contribute" is misconstruing science. We've done enough damage in screwing up people's false perceptions of the world, whether it's politics, consumer culture, happiness, beauty, and so on.

    Yes, we can help in creating information design to help science more easily understandable. But even with that we managed to screw things up. Whoever did the graphics of evolution steps of monkey turning into modern human gave the widest misconception of the theory of evolution. NO, we do not evolved from chimpanzee, we shared common ancestors.

    Let's fix our mistakes first before trying to "help" science with branding. Again, we've done enough damage.

    Let's leave science alone (in terms of branding).

  • Eric Rice

    "Hard to tell which department it's in."

    That's because it's everywhere! The big ones that do direct science are the ones you hear about all the time - NOAA, NASA, NIST. Then there's Department of Energy, where a lot of advanced energy and energy security research happens (among other things). Department of Commerce houses NOAA and NIST, but I think there are some other branches devoted to science (not sure, tho). And then you have the research support from departments like the National Science Foundation.

    Those are just the science-focused organizations. Most of the rest of government is backed by or relies on science to do their jobs - Agriculture and FDA are two big ones where scientific knowledge is the basis for policy and regulation, and they often commission research to support their mission. Health as well, as you mentioned. If we go into the social sciences, research in policy, sociology, economics, etc are behind a lot of the other work the government does. I'm sure there's a lot more I'm not thinking of off the top of my head.

    And, the direct benefits to society are there throughout, even if they're not immediately clear. There's the obvious benefit that I mentioned before of fundamental research revealing some physical principle that then gets picked up by an engineer and applied as a product (like the solid state physics -> transistor -> microprocessor chain ... never mind the chemistry and optical physics that go into the microprocessor production process, or the E&M that underlies all the electronics that talk to the microprocessor). Other benefits are wide, but not always immediately clear to a non-specialist. A higher-profile example would be NOAA's Space Environment Center, where they study solar weather, supported by (likely) billions of dollars of satellites and ground instruments (each requiring their own scientific principles to build). That may seem esoteric to the average person, but once you realize that solar weather can affect our power systems, our communications (particularly satellites), and a number of other infrastructure systems on Earth, it becomes very clear the social benefit of being able to predict solar events and take action to secure infrastructure just as we would board up our windows for a hurricane.

    I think if you were able to study the budgets of all these organizations in enough detail, you'd find a surprising amount of money buried in there going to science in one form or another. If you traced that all back to the social impacts it has, the implications would be vast. It would be difficult for one person to get their head around it, let alone a layperson looking at it casually ... which also leads me to believe that trying to "brand" science for PR's sake is a fool's task. I think the path to true enlightenment lies in the exposure of the extent of science's impact on our lives. When the general public sees the big, sexy science, but misses the "long tail"  science that makes our lives better in every way, it's a failing proposition. We talk about god particles, but we use phones, televisions, computers, nutritional labels, drugs, food, cars, roads, buildings, and so on, all created by or improved by some fundamental science at some point in history.  Wouldn't branding just lose all of that in another form of noise?

    "To John's point, I like the "god particle" investigation but that's
    because I'd like to know how the universe got here, but I have no idea
    what the implications for the living conditions of humanity. Knowing
    that would help me engage in the debate on some level, including
    contacting my congressmen."

    I can understand this desire, but it misses the point. Until we find the god particle, or find something else in the process of looking for it, we can't study its properties, know what it does and how it does it, and therefore figure out how to apply it in some real-world way. It could forever remain esoteric knowledge, or it could lead us to Star Trek style replicators that would eliminate want. So, it's a chicken-and-egg problem - how do you tout the benefits of a discovery before you make it?

    Here at FC, there's a common theme of fostering creative work, and of building work places where people are allowed to pursue creative ideas and potentially fail without consequences. That's the spirit of entrepreneurs ... try something novel, maybe fail, but maybe do something great. THAT'S that attitude we, as a society, have to take with science, and the attitude that has historically netted amazing results. There are these fundamental questions that we'd like to pursue. Maybe we miss the mark, maybe we end up with something great, or maybe we end up with something that doesn't get applied for a generation.  But, if we only pursue studies when we know exactly how it can be applied ... then we'll never be truly creative or disruptive, and we won't progress.

  • Chris CHolland

    I went to a NYT article laying out the Obama budget to see if I could determine how much we're spending on science. http://nyti.ms/f5cGdd

    Hard to tell which department it's in. I suppose Health, Agriculture, NASA, Defense, EPA and others. Other sources cut the info by issues, like Climate Change http://bit.ly/eykC5f  with pots of money in different budgets. Then there's the National Priorities Project http://bit.ly/6ogehs . Not sure how a citizen is to figure it out.

    But I'm sure scientists could itemize the major issues being researched. If we could understand the initiatives, as John is suggesting, we could listen to or read the debates about priorities. No doubt there would be a lot of disagreement even  among scientists but at least we'd be able to follow it. 

    To John's point, I like the "god particle" investigation but that's because I'd like to know how the universe got here, but I have no idea what the implications for the living conditions of humanity. Knowing that would help me engage in the debate on some level, including contacting my congressmen.

  • Eric Rice

    "That said, doesn't the public need to have some handle on the relative
    value to the country or for humanity overall? I like your pairing of
    engineers with scientists, the former looking for the applications.
    Perhaps the Marketing folks can be added with these two up front (for
    translation purposes only, not to sell the "Pet Rock Science
    Experiment." ) "

    Absolutely, the public needs to have an appreciation of what science is and does for society! I think the public's current understanding is abysmal, and that ignorance leads to things like "Climategate." The part of the problem that's hard, in my mind, is how you tell such a complex story as the impact of science on society in a concise or catchy way. "Science" as a monolith is HUGE and incredibly diverse (it addresses literally everything physical!), so what is the best path to illustrate its value and triumphs while countering the political voices that would have us shut it all down? I honestly have no idea.

  • Chris CHolland

    Touché Mike in your defense of scientists. And Eric, I love your simple slogan!
    Eric, I think you make a good point. We don't always know, or perhaps rarely do we know the practical value of scientific discoveries. I'm also glad we have invested, not only for the philosophical puzzles but also for the practical application to improving the lot of humanity. Lots came from the Moon Landing for instance. 

    That said, doesn't the public need to have some handle on the relative value to the country or for humanity overall? I like your pairing of engineers with scientists, the former looking for the applications. Perhaps the Marketing folks can be added with these two up front (for translation purposes only, not to sell the "Pet Rock Science Experiment." ) 

    Even a historical perspective on the value core scientific discoveries have had on our lives once engineers get involved would help society weigh the relative value of limited resources for tax dollars. 

    When leaders fail to translate priorities so that we can all understand them and appreciate what these priorities "can" lead to, is critical for our national budget debates and for every organization whose leaders are trying to engage talented professionals working inside their (virtual) walls.

  • Eric Rice

    Chris - I don't think science should be done on a business value proposition. In the early 1900s, who could have predicted that the study of solid state physics would have netted the revolutionary solid state transistor decades later (and microprocessors)? Often, a scientific insight has no clear real-world application (and thus money-making possibility) for decades until conditions are right and the right people synthesize that knowledge into something useful.

    Fundamental research must happen in a value vacuum. Answering the deep questions, and pursuing esoteric knowledge for the sake of knowledge may seem like masturbation on the surface, but it's the theorists that elucidate the workings of the world, and its the engineers who take those elucidations and turn them into world-changing products. Leave the value trades to "which of these discoveries *can* we turn into a working product," not "which of these questions *should* we answer."