The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a problem when it comes to the national media: The New York Times is the only major outlet that still regularly covers science, said Jeff Nesbit, director of legislative and public affairs at the agency.
The reason? A sharp falloff in advertising in print media.
In response, the NSF is "trying lots of new things," said Nesbit, speaking at the second annual Public Engagement and Science Communication Symposium at Cornell, May 13. His goal is to fill the science media gaps using creative approaches on the Internet, radio and television.
The NSF funds science research across the United States (including nearly $123 million in fiscal 2006 at Cornell), but proposals must now address how investigators plan to engage the public in communicating a program's broader impacts, Nesbit said.
With the decline in national media science coverage, the NSF has become an "aggregator" for science news -- it now features on its Web site a huge array of science stories from universities and institutions all over the country, whether the work was directly NSF-funded or not.
The NSF is also working with U.S. News & World Report, Discover, Wired and Popular Mechanics magazines to bolster science coverage. For example, it helped finance a science editor at U.S. News & World Report when a drop in ad dollars forced the magazine to end that position. The NSF also provides U.S. News & World Report's Web site with its aggregate science news, images and more under the heading "Content provided by the National Science Foundation."
When asked about possible ethical issues of a U.S. government agency providing content from universities on a U.S. News & World Report news page, Nesbit said, "Consumers don't distinguish where [news content] comes from," and they trust news branded with logos from educational institutions, from the NSF and from U.S. News & World Report.
The NSF also is providing live webcast panel discussions on science topics through Popular Mechanics and is partnering with cable TV's Research Channel to develop science programs for national and international broadcast. NSF's The NewsMarket site offers downloadable video, 3-D animations and story information for TV news outlets to use.
Nesbit also arranged to send reporters from "Good Morning America" and the "Today" show to Antarctica to report on climate changes, science and nature there. "We have got to figure out ways to take the media to the science," he said.
The NSF now has 150 programs on its Science Radio Network, enough material to broadcast around the clock. The NSF's Discovery Files also provides downloadable 90-second audio science stories that 500 radio stations have agreed to air, while NSF's "Science in Motion" series offers "lighthearted video reports about news from NSF research," according to NSF's Web site.
Nesbit is also working with researchers to "take popular sports and science and marry the two." For example, the science of NASCAR and of golf are being developed by the agency.
As part of NSF's ScineVision initiative to engage the public "in science through the dramatic power of film and television," Nesbit recently presented the 18 top science stories to the creators of such TV shows as "Numbers," "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Big Bang Theory" and a leading scriptwriter.
At first, he was nervous they would not be interested. Instead, "They mobbed me. They said, 'We are really interested in new stories.'"