Many of us who grew up watching network television in the 1970s regularly tuned to the hit series, M*A*S*H. It was a witty, romantic “comedy-drama” set in a US Army Mobile Surgical Hospital in South Korea during the Korean War. Since we had no way to record the weekly episodes, we had to build our lives around watching it when it aired so we wouldn’t miss a zany moment in the lives of the beloved characters the show brought into our lives. One of them was Surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce played by actor Alan Alda in all 256 episodes that spanned 11 seasons. You’d think you‘d really get to know a guy after spending that much time together for so many years, but what I didn’t know until last week is that Alan Alda’s television surgeon was actually a science nerd in real life.
On July 31, 2019, I attended a program sponsored by the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) about agriculture and food security issues around the world. The event was titled, “Justice, Evidence, Urgency: GMOs in a Changing World” and Alan Alda gave the opening remarks. While the topic was certainly of interest to me, hearing what Hawkeye had to say was also an incentive to attend.
Alda told us that after M*A*S*H ended he went on to host the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, where he got to interview some of the most interesting scientists in the world. In that format, he said scientists spoke about their work the same way a novelist writes a great story. They would describe a protagonist and antagonist in their work or a hero and some obstacles, and that’s what made the show so engaging. That is also when he realized the reason most people don’t love science the way he does is because most people don’t understand what scientists are talking about. The solution, he decided, was to make scientists better communicators. So he established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science in 2009.
The Alda Center “empowers scientists and health professionals to communicate complex topics in clear, vivid, and engaging ways; leading to improved understanding by the public, media, patients, elected officials, and others outside their own discipline.” Located at Stony Brook University on Long Island, the workshops offered at the Center have trained thousands of scientists and doctors in improvisational techniques, known as The Alda Method®, with the goal of helping trainees connect with their audiences in a more personal way. Sound too good to be true? There’s more.
A similar and equally innovative program developed at CALS is the Alliance for Science – a global initiative for science-based communications. Started with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the objective of the Alliance is to change the conversation around crop biotechnology. One way they do that is through their Global Leadership Fellows program. It offers 12 weeks of intensive training to international “fellows” on the Cornell University Ithaca campus to empower them with the tools and skills they need to defend science and improve access to scientific innovation in their home countries.
The director of the Alliance for Science, Dr. Sarah Evanega, started the story-telling portion of the evening by sharing what inspired her to leave the lab at Cornell where she was conducting research for her doctorate in plant biology, and lead the fellows program. Like Alda, she said she felt what she was doing didn’t matter to most people because they couldn’t understand the science. Working on science communications became her passion.
Evanega then introduced the three guest speakers on the program, all from Africa and recipients of science communications training at Cornell. Each told her very personal and impassioned story about how their farms, their livelihoods, and their families have been impacted by problems that good science can solve. Whether it is drought, lack of pesticides, poor soil, or plant disease, low yields leave them without enough food to feed their children or make enough money to send them to school. All they want, each said, is social justice for smallholder farmers in the developing world and access to innovations that can bring them food security.
Their stories were very powerful and very effectively explained the science that stood between them and their prosperity. I can only hope they will be heard loud and clear beyond the confines of that room.