Breaking through the breakthrough

Getting the public to care about science takes a good story, and the breakthrough narrative always delivers. But not all science can or should be framed this way.

The dominant media narrative concerning science is the "breakthrough," wherein infrequent, powerful flashes of knowledge illuminate our world. Carl Milner/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The dominant media narrative concerning science is the "breakthrough," wherein infrequent, powerful flashes of knowledge illuminate our world. Carl Milner/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


This is an editorial for Issue 7 by Lateral editor-in-chief Jack Scanlan. Working in a field that seems largely immune to "breakthrough" media coverage (insect genetics) has really done a number on him.

By and large, the scientific community and the rest of society exist in separate spheres. These spheres do overlap in significant ways — which this magazine perpetually aims to highlight — but the truth is that most people are pretty disconnected from science as a process. It is not consciously shielded from the general public, though — this disconnect exists largely because of an inability for science to naturally filter through the mainstream media landscape.

This is an uncontroversial viewpoint, and it's an oft-repeated one in science communication circles, where scientists, journalists, entertainers and artists converge to try to address this imbalance. But a solution is rarely agreed upon; scientists would have more science discussed in the news, while journalists would have scientists make their work more accessible and understandable. I don't claim to have any real answers, but I think a part of the problem that is often overlooked is the narratives that frame science in the media.

These narratives limit the kinds of new scientific research that can be discussed in the media, and they fall into two main types: the discovery, and the breakthrough. 

A discovery is exciting — something new has been uncovered, something unexpected. New planetsnew species and new elements tend to be very popular examples. Surprise is usually key to a discovery narrative, as it drives interest in the science. Our view of the world has changed! It will never be the same! Read all about it! Some discoveries are anticipated, like the Higgs Boson, but they're usually not — and the more surprising the discovery, the better it plays in the media.

A breakthrough is different, as it is usually purposeful and premeditated — a problem existed and the scientists solved it, by targeted application of hard work and smarts (and sure, sometimes luck too). They broke through a metaphorical barrier, and now we're someplace new. A breakthrough almost always has clear applications, unlike a discovery, which may or may not lead to anything practically useful. But discoveries can also lead to breakthroughs, if we realise that what was discovered can help solve a problem somewhere else. New species may lead to new medicines, just as new elements may lead to new technologies

The breakthrough is by far the most popular of the two science media narratives. The notion of scientists working to solve problems that could affect the average person is a powerful one, but breakthroughs also add an element of inspiration, that flash of understanding that has embodied narratives of scientific advancement since ancient history. That science progresses through exciting "Eureka!" moments is a hard idea to shake, because it is incredibly romantic. But it has the unintended consequence of pushing science away from the general public — it makes research seem like an activity suited for only a gifted few, when really anyone can become a scientist: all you need is passion for your field of choice and the dedication to put in the time to learn about it in detail.

These days, most real breakthroughs take significant time and effort. Often the goal is well understood, but many avenues of progress must be explored and tested before the correct one is identified. As such, teams of people must work on problems together, sharing the load. Advancements don't come from lone geniuses anymore, like Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton, but from huge groups, like the teams that built the Large Hadron Collider and sequenced the human genome. This is why some are calling for a change in how Nobel Prizes — very individualistic awards, even though they can be shared between three people — are awarded, so that teams may be eligible.

Of course, teams are harder to put a face to in the media. In Australia, we like stories about underdogs triumphing, and little is more apt in this regard than a PhD student toiling away in the lab late at night, until a spark of recognition runs across her face as she realises the monumental progress she's made in her discipline of choice. Perfect breakthrough narrative fare. Teams are a little more amorphous and less camera-friendly, and it's harder to emphasise sudden inspiration when dozens of minds were toiling away in multiple different labs simultaneously, sharing ideas and converging on a goal together.

Our desire for science to provide material benefit to society reinforces the breakthrough narrative too. A new gene editing method, known by the intriguing acronym CRISPR, made headlines all throughout last year primarily because it seems to be a new way to treat genetic diseases — it was even the "2015 Breakthrough of the Year" for Science, a leading scientific journal. Similarly any incremental advance in our knowledge of the material graphene is trumpeted as a revolution in battery technology, computer processing and even artificial skin.

Few scientific achievements touted as breakthroughs in the media are the kind of breakthroughs the public hopes for when it comes to high-impact applications — most theoretical advancements in battery technology and cancer treatment (to pick two popular 'problems') have been promised for decades but largely fail to materialise. This is usually due to issues with their suitability for application: not every so-called breakthrough can lead to a new technology or thing, and there are a lot of dead-ends. As such, emphasising breakthroughs regardless of their real potential for application — just the promise — can lead to an inflated sense of hope for solutions to big problems. Hype in the media is not restricted to stories on science, but that doesn't mean we can dismiss it as unimportant. 

Clearly, not every scientific advancement comfortably sits inside either the breakthrough or the discovery narratives. One of the most important kind is a change in theory, wherein the way we understand or make sense of part of a scientific discipline changes. Sometimes these can make waves in the media if they are particularly revolutionary or strange (quantum physics, the theory of evolution, and the work of Albert Einstein spring to mind), but most of the time they go unremarked upon. This is largely understandable, as most new scientific theories require background knowledge in the discipline in question to be made sense of, which can't be conveyed in a typical media story. 

Another largely ignored type of scientific advancement is the gradual fact accumulation. Any particular case could be a breakthrough or discovery in theory, but in reality, no one would care about the particulars outside of the community of scientists who study it for a living. There are good reasons to do science like this — 'real' future breakthroughs rely on the normal progression of science to lay groundwork that makes them possible. But it's incredibly hard to write stories about the accumulation of basic facts. The narrative just isn't compelling. 

This is the central thrust of the problem with the breakthrough narrative — along with discoveries, they really are the best ways to talk about science in the media, and as such, there isn't an easy fix for addressing their issues; they have a particular inertia. Steps could be taken to reduce the hype associated with every tiny step towards curing a disease or developing a new technology, but the trade-off would be a reduction in the amount of science making its way to the public.

Perhaps we need to look at other topics covered in the media for inspiration. Politics and sport receive enormous amounts of coverage, even for stories that are by all accounts quite trivial — however, public interest in these areas is huge, so people read them. Increasing public interest in science therefore looks like the best plan — but it's easier said than done. Bypassing the traditional media landscape is another alternative and shows some promise online, but there are still significant hurdles to overcome. 

Ironically, it seems like solving the problem of the breakthrough narrative might require a breakthrough itself. But realistically, it's just going be a lot of effort and teamwork.

This issue of Lateral — No. 7! — takes a look at other things that, like breakthroughs, are in some way on the edge: species near extinction, mental health in academia, fancy forms of carbon, bitterly cold microbes, and fear in cinema.

By Jack Scanlan

Jack is the Editor-in-Chief of Lateral.