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Nerd Busters

Other Countries Recognize their Scientific Rock Stars. Why Don’t Americans?

Rudy Tanzi, PhD, Joe Perry, and Francis S. Collins, M.D.. PhD rock out SOURCE: Rock S.O.S./Geoffrey Beene Gives Back GQ's new "Rock Stars of Science" campaign should give not just disease sufferers, but America's scientists, hope. Above: Rudy Tanzi, PhD; Joe Perry; and Francis S. Collins, M.D., PhD rock out.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)

They get the name of the “National Institute of Health” wrong. They say cheesy things, like this comment on Alzheimer’s researchers: “These guys will get inside your head.” And it just feels weird to see Francis Collins in sunglasses, slinging a guitar.

Still, you have to admire the “Rock Stars of Science” campaign—Rock S.O.S.; hat tip Mary Spiro—which launched with a four page portfolio in GQ magazine that paired up musicians with scientific “celebrities” (none of whom are household names) for a high-end photo shoot. The idea seems to be that having Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Harold Varmus, co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, groove with Sheryl Crow will reflect some of the latter’s rays on the former. The campaign—which advocates for increased funding for biomedical research—is sponsored by Geoffrey Beene Gives Back, the philanthropic arm of the clothing design company. In case it isn’t obvious already, they know how to make anyone, even frumpy scientists, look good.

I am not nearly snooty enough to pooh-pooh this kind of initiative. Rather, I applaud it. For after all, I’ve long felt that when it comes to the cultural standing of science in America, our problem is a lot bigger than a poor educational system, bad test scores, or rampant scientific illiteracy. It is at least as troubling that very few Americans can name Fauci, Varmus, or Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute—and that very few American kids want to be them. A scientific research career, if you can get it, is a pretty good life—one could set one’s sights far, far lower. But it’s not clear that as a culture today, we recognize this.

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Sheryl Crow, and Harold Varmus, M.D.

Rock S.O.S./Geoffrey Beene Gives Back

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, Sheryl Crow, and Harold Varmus, M.D., President of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology

Other countries do: The crashing down of South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-Suk amid fraud allegations in 2006 was shocking precisely because Woo-Suk had become a nationally known figure, a celebrity, by virtue of his scientific success. The sense today that America may be “falling behind” in science isn’t just about the numbers of researchers we produce: It’s also based on the accurate recognition that in South Korea, or in China, there is a very different perception of science as central to the national future. It’s a perception we ourselves had 50 years ago, inspired in large part by those dreaded Sputnik bleeps. But times have changed, and it’s an open question as to whether we as a nation can ever go back there again—without, I hasten to add, abandoning any of the lessons learned since.

Initiatives like the Rock S.O.S. campaign, or the National Academy of Sciences’ Science & Entertainment Exchange, suggest that maybe we can. Finger to the wind prognostications aren’t worth much, but one gets the sense that with the Obama administration, the place of science in American culture may be changing—improving. Maybe we were at an artificial low under the Bush presidency.

Yet one also wonders whether the GQ spread does enough to combat prevailing stereotypes of scientists as nerdy, as weird and anti-social, or as mean and condescending religion bashers. Some of the researchers featured in GQ get beyond the geek, but mostly, the contrast between them and the rock stars is sharp and heightened.

It is particularly difficult to miss the fact that while the rock stars are far more diverse, the scientists are all older, white, and male. Yes, it catches your eye to see such scientists rocking out. But it would be even more bracing to see female and racially diverse young researchers—with tattoos! Believe me, they’re out there.

Nevertheless the Rock S.O.S. initiative makes several unforgettable points: Billions of dollars of scientific research can remain invisible without a good marketing campaign. And scientists, while undeniably respected, simply do not sit atop the totem pole of American culture—celebrities, musicians, and sports figures do.

Next stop for Geoffrey Beene: In the pages of Sports Illustrated, I want to see young, athletic scientists catching passes from Peyton and Eli Manning.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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