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AWIS in Action! October 2012 - Guinea Pigs
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AWIS In Action!

 Advocacy & Public Policy Newsletter   ~   October 2012
In This Issue
 
Guinea Pigs and the Art of Communicating Science
 
Germans and Belgians have experimental rabbits. Indians have sacrificial lambs. Americans have the guinea pig. For each of these countries, those remain the idiom of choice for experimental subjects despite the fact that mice make up 80% of the research animals used these days. Daniel Engber became concerned by the disconnect between the public’s perception of what lab research looks like, as well as the issues that arise from basing much of our understanding of disease and therapies on inbred strains of rodents that spend their entire sedentary lives in small boxes. He set out to write about the problems that stem from depending so heavily on mice. For his efforts, which were published in Slate as "The Mouse Trap”, the National Academy of Sciences granted him the 2012 Communication Award for material published online.
 
There is an art to science writing. To bridge the gulf between deep, scholastic comprehension resulting from years, even decades, of study, and the typical reader’s level of scientific education while still keeping the material interesting and accurate takes skill and practice. Examples like Engber’s at the intersection between science and writing were celebrated by attendants of the National Academies 10th Annual Communication Awards Ceremony. The panel of judges each plowed through a dozen and a half books, nearly as many documentaries, and countless articles. Whether addressing the appropriate choice of model systems, infant mortality, Watson the computer, or the way our brain makes decisions, the winners did it with aplomb (We attendees got copies of each, making it the best swag bag for a book worm!) and offered humorous and insightful acceptance speeches. Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow and winner of the best book, addressed the challenges of trying to write a book for the intelligent public while trying not to lose the respect of one’s colleagues. Paula Apsell, Michael Bicks, and Julia Cort won the award for best film/radio/TV segment for their NOVA production "Smartest Machine on Earth,” thanking, "PBS, CPB, and viewers like you.” They offered remarks on the transition from simple programming stating, "when we started it was a machine that was making embarrassing mistakes,” to the creation of the next chapter in artificial life.
 
The impact of a well written story is exemplified by "Empty Cradles”, a six part series by Crocker Stephenson and Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel focused on infant mortality in Milwaukee and winner of the award for best print journalism. The writers wanted to answer why infant mortality rates were five times higher in one part of the city than another. Through their articles they traced the myriad factors which contribute to this disparity. As a direct consequence of these newspaper articles, BMO Harris Bank pledged to donate $750,000 over the next three years to the United Way of Greater Milwaukee. The United Way is using the money to address some of the identified issues that lead to this incongruence and help babies born in Milwaukee survive their first year of life. It is sobering to consider that newspapers are losing money and having to cut their investigative reports because they can often be more effective at affecting changes than government policy.   
  
In This Issue
 

 

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