Stardom, Diversity and Virality: The Rebirth of Science in the Media

Budget cuts and fake news have not yet taken the place of science. Better yet, today’s scientific content offers incredible opportunity to captivate audiences on new interactive platforms.

A new era populated by celebrities (such as Neil deGrasse Tyson with his 7.3 million fans, Chris Hadfield and the Mythbusters duo), critical and commercial successes (The Imitation Game, Hidden Figures) and prime-time TV entertainment (The Big Bang Theory, Masters of Sex, CSI, Breaking Bad), combined with the increasing buzz generated by TED Talks (6.1 billion online viewings), means that scientific discoveries have probably never had a greater impact on the population than they have today. The 21st century scientist in now depicted a cool, unabashed and engaging way.

The 2017 CPH:DOX documentary festival proposed a conference program entirely devoted to the new modes of expression of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) community in the media. It was an opportunity to discover the most recent scientific content production models and get to know the new generation of researchers-storytellers who have little in common with the science communicators of the past.

Art and science at the service of storytelling

Since its beginnings, cinema shares a growing interest for STEM, as not only a support used to conserve the most significant researches and breakthroughs, but also as testimony to the impact that STEM have had on the evolution of society. Need I remind that science and entertainment represent the two most evocative disciplines when it comes to understanding the world around us.

From the short-form documentaries of Jean Painlevé dating back to the middle of the 20th century to today’s shocking environmental investigations led by Canadians David Suzuki and Jean Lemire, including the global shock waves generated by the An Inconvenient Truth and Blackfish films, the recent evolution of scientific content is testimony to an underlying trend that consists of refocusing stories on intrigues and inspiring characters rather than tabling on factual data and educational presentations.

Here are the strategies used by seven personalities who embody this new generation of researchers-storytellers who choose to capitalize on the buzz generated by scientific stories.

Seven strategies to promote scientific content

1. Eliminate the intermediaries between scientists and audiences:

Nadja Oertelt, scientist and digital producer, cofounder of Massive (United States)

The Massive Science Consortium produces scientific media content set to transform researchers’ work into memorable, verifiable and comprehensive stories that can be understood and appreciated by wider audiences. A former scientific producer for Vice, Oertelt also managed the Fundamentals of Neuroscience, a hybrid platform somewhere between an online course (MOOC), an interactive animated documentary and a fabrication laboratory (FabLab).

2. Deliver what the public demands:

Dr. Nozman, YouTuber, Science and Experiments (France)

With its 1.3 million subscribers and 137 million viewings, the Dr. Nozman channel created by Germain Olivri is amazingly successful thanks a simple yet effective concept: filming and distributing experiments proposed by users whether it be to make crystals, chewing gum or invisible marbles… Trained as a video editor, Olivri recently decided to go back to school to study biology, which has since become the main theme of his channel. And he has just launched his first derived product, a board game titledDr Nozman à la conquête du temps, le quizz scientifique à travers l’histoire.

3. Showcase women’s successes:

Amanda Phingbodhipak, founder and head of creation of The Leading Strand (United States)

The Leading Strand is a digital creative agency that combines interactive design and storytelling to focus on the history of science. Designed by Amanda Phingbodhipak, the Beyond Currieseries showcases the accomplishments of women having made STEM history and contributes to changing our perception of science by adding a more human touch to it.

The agency is currently developing interactive applications, short-form documentaries, sensory animations and conversational bots.

4. Be where your audience is:

John Yembrick, NASA’s social media manager (United States)

NASA is one of several US government agencies that invests the most in social networks. It uses social media to communicate its discoveries and promote its activities with the media and general public.

After having created a Twitter account devoted entirely to the Phoenix spacecraft when it landed on Mars in 2008, NASA today manages more than 500 accounts on some fifteen or so social platforms (in English and in Spanish) with humour, everyday language and multiple references to pop culture.

John Yembrick, the main strategist behind this initiative, has just launched NASA Social, an ambitious new-generation program that gives social influencers privileged access to certain announcements and media events. A total of 123 million fans now religiously follow NASA’s publications, and NASA creates Snapchat Stories since 2016 dealing with a host of subjects such as life aboard the International Space Station. It also encourages its astronauts to exchange through Facebook Live.

5. Opt for a hybrid distribution model:

Alexis Gambis, executive director and founder, Imagine Science Films (France/United States)

Imagine Science Films is one of the most innovative science film festivals since the middle of the 2000s and is held in three cities on as many continents (New York, Paris, Abu Dhabi). It supports creative initiatives and members of the scientific community.

Irritated by the stereotypes conveyed on the scientific community in the media, molecular biologist and filmmaker Alexis Gambis founded the festival and later implemented, a new mixed model somewhere between a subscription-based VOD platform, monthly interactive magazine and online festival where experimental data are viewed and new creative and scientific written works are showcased through multidisciplinary hackathons. It also provides access to a catalogue that now contains more than 1,000 titles originating from 200 different countries.

6. Take advantage of financing sources allocated specifically to STEM:

Lucy McDowell, head of factual development, Wellcome Trust (Great Britain)

In Great Britain, the Wellcome Trust, just like the tentacular program Public Understanding of the Sloan Foundation in the United States, figures among the rare financing sources dedicated to promoting STEM through films, webseries, and interactive experiences.

The Wellcome Trust privileges innovation and stories that illustrate the complex ties between science and the human condition through works that are susceptible of winning awards at festivals and fostering the interest of large audiences. For Lucy McDowell, regardless of the scientific notions that it addresses, a film must foremost generate curiosity and inspire the audience (through humour, drama, tension).

7. Build upon the unusual aspects of STEM:

Nelly Ben Hayoun, designer of experiences for the SETI Institute (Great Britain/United States)

Known as the ‘Willy Wonka of design and science,’ Nelly Ben Hayoun has star status within the confines of scientific and creative communities. Her influence on STEM is similar to that exerted by Björk on pop music.

She works closely with a whole set of stars including Sigur Rós, Beck, Damon Albarn and cyberpunk literature pioneer Bruce Sterling. Her work constantly flirts with dadaist performance and has contributed to shedding light on unknown and unusual aspects of STEM, such as the implementation in 2013 of the International Space Orchestra (ISO), the first ensemble entirely composed of astrophysicists, and the film Disaster Playground (2015), which investigates emergency procedures in cases of natural catastrophes and makes a mockery of Hollywood’s catastrophe movies.

A globe-trotting and iconoclast speaker, Ben Hayoun contributes to redefining our relationship with scientific discourse and community by multiplying multiplatform projects from iconic STEM venues such as Chernobyl, the CERN, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), and the Super-Kamiokande Observatory in Japan.

New technologies, new stories

Recent breakthroughs in the fields of stereoscopy (virtual reality), neurotechnology and nano optics represent but some of the tools that could inspire tomorrow’s scriptwriters and producers to revolutionize how ‘invisible, futuristic and impossible’ stories are told, in terms of both form and content, to quote Alexis Gambis.

In this era of alternative facts and climate scepticism, STEM contribute more than ever before to pushing back the limits of storytelling. Ask Capucine, the focus of one of the most unusual documentaries presented at the Imagine Science Festival…

Charles Stéphane Roy
Charles Stéphane Roy is a multiplatform producer and innovation lead at La maison de prod since 2013. Before that, he was the editor-in-chief of the daily Qui fait Quoi. He also carried out research and strategic analysis mandates for the Observatoire du documentaire du Québec and and Evolumedia Group. His projects, which incorporate filmtech and innovative business models, were selected at Cannes NEXT and the Cross Video Days and by the Storytek accelerator, in addition to earning the POV Hackathon Award and the HackXplor Liège TV5 Monde Award.
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