Getting What You Want Out Of Nobel

When the Nobel committee announces the new prizes every year, what is the most important thing for the world to know about them? Your answer will almost certainly depend on who you are, and if you're in the business of communicating the news in some way, who your audience is. Yesterday at lunchtime, I was sitting in a smallish auditorium two train rides and an exorbitant cab fare away from my office, waiting for one of the Nobel Laureates in Medicine, Carol Greider, to make some remarks and answer questions. It was an eclectic gathering- grad students and admins from Greider's department rubbed elbows with reporters from local paper the Baltimore Sun, a reporter on her first day with Baltimore's local CBS affiliate, and more. There are lots of angles to the story of this year's medicine prize- too many to mention in any one news story. It's fascinating to see the details that different outlets took back with them and how different players in the day tried to steer the message one way or another. Take the local CBS affiliate I mentioned earlier. They keep the focus on the "local scientist gets a surprising phone call from Sweden" angle. It would've been nice for them to go into the science, but on some level, it accomplishes something good for science in the eyes of the readers/viewers. The piece humanizes Greider- it says- hey, look, scientists are normal people just like you and me. They live in our neighborhoods, have kids, and go to spin class in the morning. Take a look at Reuters, and it's a different story entirely. It just so happens that one of the Laureates, Elizabeth Blackburn, is based at a university in California. The state's currently mired in budgetary woes- now the Nobel trains the spotlight on the funding difficulties for basic research. Also, Greider happens to suffer from dyslexia, and Blackburn was once unceremoniously dismissed from the Presidential Council on Bioethics. At the press conference, Greider went to great lengths to emphasize the importance of basic research to the prize. That's not something you have to explain to fellow scientists-lots of Nobels get handed out for basic research. But to a roomful of reporters emphasizing the applications in their questions, it seems like a good idea. (I should note that not everyone had that focus- kudos to whoever the reporter was calling in to the conference who asked Greider about the moment of her discovery.) Provided news outlets get whatever sliver of science that's in the articles right, I don't think these stories are such a bad thing. Science is woven into everyone's life, somehow. The Nobel Prizes are just an excuse to put the science front and center, instead of ignoring that dimension of a story. There's no good reason why stories like this shouldn't happen more often in the mainstream media. But the prize seems to be a sort of benchmark of importance in cash-strapped, busy newsrooms, a regular, token science story to do, regardless of whether the prize is as meaningful as it was back in the day. Oh, and there's no good reason why I included this photo, either. I just thought it was cool to see Greider's kids taking their own pictures of their mom. Image: Drahl/C&EN

Author: Carmen Drahl

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  1. Anyone else staying up for the chemistry prize tonight?

    • I set my alarm for 5:45 to check out who won. Then I went back to sleep again, confident that the requisite grumbling would be taken care of.

  2. It’s worth noting that 1) Greider was Blackburn’s grad student but Blackburn shared the glory (unlike several male recipients) and 2) Blackburn was the scientist who got fired from the Bush “bioethics panel” for daring to inject some reality into the stem cell debate.