How to sell science

Each week, Symposium Magazine provides a blogging forum for the week’s featured article. Today, Euny Hong writes more about her piece  on Ethan Perlstein. You can also follow her on Twitter @euny.In my article, I wrote that Ethan Perlstein believes independent scientists have a responsibility to share their research with the public in real time, rather than hoarding it furtively until it comes time to shop around a journal article. I had envisioned his plan as something like open-source software, in which a developer generously makes his application available to public users, who then tinker with it, offer variations on a theme, and perhaps perfect it.

I realized after reading some of Perlstein’s ongoing experiment updates that the open-source analogy is not totally applicable. His way of wording and framing his work is so clever that he can be described as more of an ad man. It occurs to me that a scientist not blessed with the gift of the gab would probably not make it as an independent scientist.

For example, Perlstein is working on yeast as an experimental subject. Yes, yeast. Ordinarily, it’s hard to imagine how someone working with yeast could have been so successful at crowdsourcing, until you read his updates on what he calls the “yeast de résistance.” In his words, his pre-experiment involved selecting “psych drug overdose-resistant yeast mutants.” So already I’m drawn in, imagining that these yeast mutants are going to prevent things like the tragic death of Glee star Cory Monteith.

Everything is worded so that even non-scientists like me can not only understand, but find the whole thing engrossing, like his dangling the term “Mystery Psych Drug X.” Why withhold the name? To create suspense, Perlstein says. It’s working. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens in this saga of the Marmite.

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