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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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