“Can’t I just be excited about the research?” my colleague asked.
We were discussing the work published by Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues in Science (1) that described an arsenic-tolerant bacterium and proposed that this organism was not only sequestering arsenic but also incorporating it into biomolecules in place of phosphorus. The work was preceded by a press release by NASA, was leaked, and picked up by major media outlets like the Associated Press (AP) who got the story wrong. It was embargoed by Science, blogged about heavily in well-respected scientific blogs and lambasted by some within the scientific community. To quote science blogger Alice Bell “that not-an-alien-story really does keep on giving.”
It seems like the web world is full of blistering criticism and staunch defense of this work from both the scientific and the lay communities. Why has this work generated so much controversy?
I think that this “not-an-alien-story” provides an incredibly valuable “teachable moment” for scientists, journalists, and the public as well as the public institutions that fund scientific research.
Lesson 1: Language is powerful. Be careful how you use it. NASA’s press release was over-the-top. The press release entitled “NASA Sets News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery; Science Journal Has Embargoed Details Until 2 p.m. EST On Dec. 2,” included a sentence that read: “to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.”
NASA classified this release as a “media advisory”, so it captured the attention of the media. The media did what the media do, they jumped on the one sexy term that was included in the text: extraterrestrial life. Because the real story was embargoed (see the lesson 3), journalists and other interested parties went to the NASA web site and searched for information. The most recent story on the NASA web site that jumped out when searching for “extraterrestrial life” was a story about acetylene straws on Titan.
This research by Wolfe-Simon and colleagues was paradigm-challenging research. The press release could have said, “to discuss discovery of an organism that appears to build DNA using different elements. Such elemental substitutions have not been observed in any life form on earth before, and will change our thinking about the molecules required for life on this planet and elsewhere in the universe.” That would have been just as exciting, more accurate and not involved the term “extraterrestrial” that helped lead readers astray.
Lesson 2: Check your sources. This story leaked to at least one blogger, Jason Kottke. In the first report that I saw, his blog was picked up by a journalist for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Larry Harstein, and his short article “Has NASA found life near Saturn?” was picked up and distributed by AP News.com. The AP article is innaccurate, ending with a quote from Kottke saying “…NASA has discovered arsenic on Titan and maybe even detected chemical evidence of bacteria using it for photosynthesis.” Kottke says this is a guess. It was, a bad one. He didn’t check his sources. Harstein didn’t check sources or dig deeper to get more information, and the AP bought and distributed the news hook, line and sinker. I’m not sure what has happened to the days of journalists hitting the pavement to confirm stories via multiple sources before printing them. The 24-hour news cycle? Budget cuts?
I had one friend tell me of a college professor who requires students to completely disconnect from cyberspace in all forms, then that professor starts asking questions, like “what were the last five bills debated in Congress?” The students don’t know where to go to find the information; they don’t know how to hit the pavement. Have we really come to the point of not knowing anything if it’s not available via Google? Is the same thing true of modern journalism?
In this case, the lack of initiative to check sources created unreasonable expectations from the nonscientists who tuned in to view the press conference; some of those nonscientists are the politicians who control NASA’s budget, by the way. It also raised expectations to a point that the real-life, really exciting, potentially paradigm-changing research seemed disappointing.
Lesson 3: Embargoes and lack of access cause communication problems. Science embargoed the paper and is not an open-access journal. The embargo of scientific research that has been accepted for publication, printed, approved and circulated to media and well respected bloggers (who are both part of the scientific community and the media) is a problem because stories leak. And this one leaked. Once it leaked, because of the embargo, few had access to a primary source to figure out what the real story was. NASA couldn’t even put a decent summary on their website because they had agreed to the terms of the embargo when agreeing to publish in Science. Today, if you do not have access to an institution with a subscription to Science, you do not have access to the research. If part of NASA’s goal is education and inspiring young people as scientists, publishing in nonopen-access forums runs counter to that goal. There is no good reason to embargo a paper after it has been accepted for publication. The author will not be scooped on the research, and embargoes only lead to leaked stories and bad journalism. Better to let NASA and the lead scientist on the paper control the dissemination of the work rather than the publisher.
Lesson 4: Much scientific discussion and debate occurs online in public forums. Actually, one of the purposes of the original internet that those stodgy physicists invented was to disseminate research and share ideas more freely with scientists around the world. That is finally beginning to happen. There is little difference between participating in a moderated discussion on Nature online and going to a scientific meeting and standing around a poster debating the merits of the science. There has been much legitimate criticism and discussion of this paper online, and it is sad that NASA scientists seem so unwilling to participate in this discussion. If NASA is going to use their website, webinar media for press conferences, etc., to make big splashes, then they need to be willing to finish the game online as well. Why not publish in a journal like PLoS that allows commentary on peer-reviewed papers and response to that comments from the authors? What a wonderful thing for students of science to see the discussion happen in real time—to see the discussion that usually happens at the meetings they can’t attend.
Last Lesson: In the end, I was delighted to see a young researcher who was unabashedly excited and inspired by science on an international stage. About darn time. I wish that I was still teaching because I would have made my students watch this press conference, particularly my early childhood education majors who tended to be so science and math phobic. What an inspiration, particularly to students. Wolfe-Simon is young, smart, enthusiastic, and loves science, and she’s done some impressive work. I’d like to see more scientists like her, male and female, on the international stage—those who are enthusiastic, in love with science and not afraid to express their passion.
Wolfe-Simon, F. et al. (2010) A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus. Sciencexpress 2 December.
Doubts Brew About NASA’s New Arsenic Life (Wired Science)