News from the Field

How popular culture can elevate the public’s understanding of science

We know that science is at the center of contentious debate on a number of issues such as climate change and vaccine safety. But if The Big Bang Theory—America’s most popular sitcom about a group of lovable physicists—is a testament to anything, it’s that science is also a welcome and inescapable part of people’s lives. And funders who care about science and civic life want to make sure this positive trend continues. The question is: How do we continue reaching new and diverse audiences with science content that sparks curiosity and learning?

Earlier this month, in collaboration with the Rita Allen Foundation, Media Impact Funders presented a webinar exploring how popular culture can elevate the public’s understanding of science. It offered funders a glimpse into how two foundations—the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Simons Foundation—are supporting and disseminating science content to a broad audience.

Titled “Elevating the Public’s Understanding of Science Through Popular Culture,” the webinar featured Doron Weber, vice president of programs at the Sloan Foundation, and Greg Boustead, program director of Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation. “Science has been a crucial part of the democratic experiment, and central to our founding ideals, interwoven with civic life,” says Elizabeth Christopherson, CEO of the Rita Allen Foundation, who offered opening remarks at the start of the webinar. “It’s also associated with elites, and we’re seeing the consequences of that disconnect now. This is why we’re pleased to have Doron and Greg share their approach to connecting with a broader range of people.”

Watch the webinar here:

For two decades, Weber—who spoke at our film funder gathering at the Sundance Film Festival this year—has led Sloan’s program for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology & Economics, which uses diverse media forms to connect science and humanities and educate the public. “I think of what we do as a nonprofit multimedia company for science, with an array of culture-defining products that include books, radio, film, television, theater, new media—all trying to get science into the discussion,” Weber says.

The program’s strategy focuses on “putting science into play” in whatever media format that works. Typically, books are “where you can dig into the most detail,” Weber says. They’re small grants, but seed investments that then become the basis for other media deployment. “The most important thing to emphasize is that these projects all work synergistically,” he says, and the various media forms will work together to “ratchet up the score” to tell these stories.

For example, in 2014 Sloan awarded a grant to Margot Lee Shetterly to write Hidden Figures, about three black female mathematicians who worked at NASA at the start of the Cold War. From that, the screenplay for the story became the basis for the Oscar-nominated film released in 2016.

The program has also supported such films as the recent documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, which reveals actress Hedy Lamarr’s prowess as an inventor. “I spent 17 years trying to get her story out,” says Weber, who was trying to find the best entry point. “It was a play, then a screenplay, then a book, and now we’re working on a miniseries. And then Susan Sarandon came in with the idea for Bombshell.”

While Sloan works in books, radio, TV, theater and new media, its film program is one of the most developed. It focuses efforts at the film school level, with the goal of trying to influence filmmakers to think about science and technology and to get new works into development. “Film has a very big impact,” Weber says. “When A Beautiful Mind won the Oscar, people criticized it as not rigorous enough, but then a million people went out and bought the book and learned more about [mathematician] John Nash.”

Meanwhile, Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation, is also focusing on reaching new audiences by sparking a deeper interest in science. “You don’t have to be a scientist to think like one,” says Boustead, the initiative’s program director. “Society as a whole benefits when more people can think critically, use evidence, and course-correct when you’re on the wrong path. Scientific thinking is a powerful tool that should be available to everyone.”

Film, a relatively new priority for Science Sandbox, is one way the foundation helps reinforce that goal. Science Sandbox’s partnership with Sundance includes grants at every stage of films, plus year-round support for emerging filmmakers who want to connect science to culture. “If we’re focused on reaching new audiences, one question we ask ourselves is, ‘How do you build new stories about science that make it relevant to those who don’t feel plugged in?’”

One answer to that lies in the program’s support of Inventing Tomorrow, a powerful story about creative problem-solving that premiered at Sundance this year. The film follows high school scientists from India, Hawaii, Mexico and Indonesia—all driven to solve real environmental problems in their own communities—on their journeys to the International Science and Engineering Festival.

The biggest project of the life of Science Sandbox has been a co-production with Vice Media (the first time the media company has ever collaborated with a nonprofit) called The Most Unknown, “a science documentary that isn’t really about science and isn’t really a documentary.” Basically, Boustead says, the film is less about answering scientific questions and more about asking them. “We wanted to tell a story about basic research and the end result is a fascinating portrait of what motivates scientists to do science.”

What’s Next

The webinar was the latest in a series of conversations aimed at building a network of funders who are increasingly focusing on connections between science and civic life, and who want to engage more with research and practice around effective science communication and engagement. Last October, we hosted a webinar in collaboration with the Academy of Arts and Sciences on the Public Face of Science, a multi-year project that explores the intersection of science and civic life. That conversation offered funders a preview of research on public attitudes ranging from general perceptions to the influence of demographics on views on specific issues. We also gathered in November at the Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication III to delve deeper into issues of science communication, specifically around the National Academy of Sciences’ report, Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda.

Funders interested in learning more about the latest research and practice are invited to attend our annual Media Impact Forum on May 10 in Philadelphia, where we will be focusing on two distinct but related topics: excellent practice in the communications of scientific information and new ideas in the science of communications. From its earliest days, the American republic has relied on scientific inquiry to propel our nation forward, in all facets of our life–in commerce, national defense, social policy and creative expression, among many other areas. Our Media Impact Forum will help philanthropy focus on the special role of science in our national debates, the importance of sharpening the communications of science, and broader issues about how to understand when communications and storytelling make a difference. Register today for this funder-only event. Not a funder? We’ll be livestreaming the day’s programming. Go to mediafunders.org for more details.

Questions? Email us at info@mediafunders.org.