• Amy Damianakes Roger Aines

Welcome to Championing Science

Science needs champions. We need scientists who can help Congress take a stand on important issues, or win the pitch for VC funding for a new energy source, or corral foundation grants to find the cure for Alzheimers.

Scientific breakthroughs start with an idea. Scientists in industry, government laboratories, and even in academia need to effectively present their ideas to people who can help make them happen. {…Read More …}

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  • Biotech

Getting to Yes in Biotech: Bill Young on Honing Your Message to Advance Science and Win Investor Support

“Most scientists seem to follow a basic tenant of science that goes something like this – “Since I went through years of hard work and hell to figure this out, I’m going to take you through the whole thing and at the end I’ll show you how I got the answer”.  We tell scientists to give us the answer up front and then if we’re interested in how you got there, we’ll ask.  Turning it around is a hard concept but that’s often the best way to start.”    Bill Young

A Conversation with Bill Young, Venture Partner, Clarus Ventures and Biotech Pioneer

Bill Young credits luck and good timing for his career in healthcare.  Unlike most of his chemical engineering classmates at Purdue, Bill chose pharmaceuticals and a position at Eli Lilly in Indianapolis after graduation. His big break came following an assignment in Puerto Rico where his team transformed a bankrupt brewery into a plant to make antibiotics. Bill was recruited back to Indianapolis to serve as the technical lead for a new collaboration credited with the first recombinant, genetically engineered product – human insulin.  

Lilly’s partner was a fledgling company by the name of Genentech.  In 1980 Young joined Genentech about a month before its $35 million IPO – which is well remembered for its meteoric rise from $35 to $88 a share after less than an hour on the market. Initially charged with developing the processes for making new products, Bill spent 20 years at Genentech, ultimately becoming Chief Operating Officer in 1997. Seeing the early promise of personalized medicine, he left to become CEO of Monogram Biosciences, a diagnostic company focused on viral disease and cancer in 1999. About 10 years later, Bill sold the company to LabCorp and joined Clarus Ventures to focus on investing in promising healthcare companies.  

We talked with Bill about the challenges of bringing new scientific ideas to market and what scientists need to do to convince a Venture Capital firm like Clarus to invest.  

Think back to your early days at Genentech, what were some of the challenges of the new science?

The whole experience at Lilly and Genentech was almost out of a fairytale. We had great times and there were ups and downs. It wasn’t always an easy ride. In the early days at Genentech, we thought that biotech could do everything, so we had an Ag division and we had an industrial division. After a while we decided that making drugs was pretty time consuming on its own, so we formed Genencor and another company to do the industrial piece and licensed off the agriculture piece.  We ultimately focused on drugs, and in time, on cancer, which happened rather serendipitously. Herceptin was the first oncology product, followed by many other anti-cancer products targeting specific receptor-site cancer cells. {…Read More …}

  • Author Roger Aines writes about science communication.

Good Presentations Equal Good Proposals

Why should a good proposal presentation be so closely linked with a fundamentally good proposal?

I recently sat through a review of research proposals, and there was a pretty close correlation between good presentations and good scores from the committee. This led to a spirited discussion after the review – would more presentation training have resulted in better scores from other proposals?  Half the group, including me, thought that good ideas may have failed to get their full airing because of gaps in presentation skill.  But other reviewers were dismissive of that. “If these people can’t present their proposals well, then they couldn’t manage the project either.  The idea probably isn’t useful. We shouldn’t train them, because they should be doing other things”.

Who is right?

I have to admit to being sympathetic to the Darwinian approach.  If you don’t take the time to find out how to handle a key proposal opportunity, you deserve to fail.  Talk to people who have been there, and listen to their advice.  Read a good book or two on presentations – my favorite is Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery by Garr Reynolds. Read my post on The Five Slides You Need. Test your presentation on your colleagues, and even on the reviewers themselves.  Many organizations are much more interested in having good proposals, than in having some arbitrary separation between the presenter and reviewer.  Ask if you can talk to them ahead of time.

But ultimately the link between good presentations and good proposals goes much deeper than the 10 minutes of screen time. A good proposal has structure – there is a need, there is a way to fill that need, there is a program for executing the work.  And guess what – a good presentation follows the same format.  If you have trained yourself to think about either one, the other comes along with it.  One of the real values of good presentation skill preparation is that it trains you to think clearly about your message.  That results in a good proposal, and a good presentation.

So please take the time to develop your presentation skills.  Even in an audience closely attuned to your science, it is respectful of their time to do the best job possible presenting your idea.  For the non-experts on the committee, your good presentation skills will help them understand the importance of your work.  And for yourself, structuring a good proposal pitch helps you establish the fundamentals of a good proposal itself.

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Why Can’t Scientists Communicate Outside Our Field? Because We Are Trained That Way.

My colleagues understand me just fine – why do other people have trouble?

If we want to learn to communicate effectively, it is probably a good idea to understand why scientists find it hard to talk to the public and especially to decision makers. We scientists are all good at talking to our major professor, and successively more dismal at communicating as we encounter people with less and less of our training. And it is not because those people are stupid.  That decidedly lame explanation is blamed too often when scientists talk to each other about this problem, but it is neither true nor helpful.  What is true is that magnificently intelligent people may know little about science.

What I think is helpful is to recognize two important factors that affect communication about any richly endowed topic:  jargon and paradigm.  Jargon is required to have rapid, accurate conversations about any specialty topic – in fact we use jargon in our everyday lives, but since we all share that jargon (at least regionally or culturally), we simply call it language.  Paradigm is the shared experience of those in your field, and is perhaps more insidious than jargon because we fail to recognize how extensively shaped we are by the course of our learning and discovery in our specialized area of study.

The words that we use are just a surficial symptom of the detail required for scientific communication.  A deeper issue is all the linked science and understanding that forms the basic foundations of our discipline.  We touched on this complexity in the discussion of the basalts, but the linkages extend even further, to the very edges of our disciplinary knowledge. This network of understanding can be called our paradigm.   {…Read More …}

Collaborators Trump Secrets – Why You Should Share Your Ideas

At a recent Department of Energy meeting lunch – the usual eight strangers around hotel rubber chicken – the conversation was brisk about new types of environmental and energy technology.  After a great discussion of a carbon capture demonstration of going on in North Carolina, I turned to the dapper older gentleman next to me and introduced myself.  He returned the pleasantry, telling me he was from a major southern university, after having spent several decades at a flagship industrial firm. He was at the meeting to try to get a sense of whether the Department of Energy might be interested in his new technology, which converts carbon dioxide (and apparently other oxides) into useful compounds.

At this point he had my interest. He had a long career, which should provide a lot of useful experience, and an application (converting waste carbon dioxide into useful products) that intrigued me.  Anything we can do to use carbon dioxide, is that much less in the atmosphere. For instance, I am quite interested in ways to form cements that have a high amount of carbon dioxide in them.  I anticipated a lively and informative discussion, perhaps even a new friend.

My question,”So, how do you do that?” got the answer, “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you.  We are here to talk to the DOE folks and we haven’t received all the patents yet.”

I hear this all too often. A magic technology that is going to save the world, and make the inventors rich.  But I was surprised to hear it from an experienced and worldly-looking academic. I pressed on.  “What products do you make?” was also rebuffed.  He wouldn’t even tell me what the process does, let alone what it is.

I turned away and continued the first, fascinating conversation about demonstrations. The thirty-something engineer was more than delighted to tell me why his demonstration mattered, and just exactly what he was discovering.  But the failed conversation continued to eat at me as I sat on the plane heading home.

Why do people think secrecy has any place in environmental and energy technology?

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  • Championing Science Interview Conversation

Influencing Decision Makers: What Does it Take?

“Decision makers will want to know, “Why am I talking to you? What information do I need to know? Am I going to need to make a decision? What action do I take?”  The action might be to book a committee hearing. It might be to start working on draft legislation. They just want to know what decision to make based on the information you have provided. It’s about meeting their needs; it’s not about the science.”         Julio Friedmann

A Conversation with Julio Friedmann, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for Clean Coal

Julio Friedmann is one of the world’s leading thinkers on managing the emissions of carbon dioxide. In the 1990s he helped originate the concept of carbon capture and storage, where carbon dioxide from industry and power plants is captured from the smokestack, and then stored underground as a supercritical liquid, much like oil. Julio got his bachelor’s degree from MIT in music and a master’s degree in geology (yes, he is a renaissance man) and his PhD from the University of Southern California in sedimentology, the study of how rocks like sandstone form. He has worked at Exxon, the University of Maryland, and Lawrence Livermore Lab. Today he is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for Clean Coal – but we interviewed him in Livermore before that gig began, so his comments reflect those of the Chief Energy Technologist at Lawrence Livermore, not the Administration.

When people are trying to convince you of something, what do you need to hear in order to be compelled?

I listen for a couple of things. First, is this really new, or is it already around in another form? Second, is it materially important? {…Read More …}

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  • Heart attack

Dr. Richard Friedman: Champion of Heart Health


The Problem of Statistics vs Individuals – Conveying the Impact of Detailed Information in Simple Messages

One of science’s great challenges is to meet the multiple demands of the accuracy of statistics, and the visceral grip of an individual story.  Medicine is perhaps the field most impacted by this challenge.  Healthcare studies have the additional challenge of avoiding the implication that a simple message contains conclusions and advice that are inappropriately influenced by the money that funded the work.

About a week after the American Heart Association and American college of Cardiology issued new guidelines for cholesterol levels, Amy and I were eating dinner with an experienced cardiologist, Richard Friedman.  Amy asked him about the new numbers – leading to one of the most compelling examples of championing science we have encountered. With an annual worldwide industrial research budget  of more than $189 billion, medicine is the big science of our day, and that sheer volume of information makes it one of the most challenging for a champion. Dick Friedman shows us one way to succeed. {…Read More …}

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  • The Five Viewgraphs You Need

The Five Slides You Need

Every scientist has had the experience of needing a small number of viewgraphs for a short time slot.  Faced with the forty or fifty viewgraphs we have already prepared which describe the topic in sufficient detail to satisfy any expert, reducing to a small number is a daunting prospect.  This task, however, is one of the most important aspects of advancing science – editing your material, and thoughts, down to the central essence.

Short conversations with people (your colleagues, your friends, your bosses, your program leaders, your sponsors) are the most important thing you can do to advance your prospects of having an impact or getting a new idea adopted.  The first page of a proposal or a five-minute discussion can generate interest in spending another half an hour on the details. The short viewgraph presentation is perhaps the most difficult example of this short conversation, because we are naturally drawn to include more of the detail of our analysis than time, or audience attention will permit.

With that in mind I want to share some thoughts that originated with Jay Davis, Champion of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry and the first Director of the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). (Check out our recent conversation with Jay). He emphasized that there are five things you need in any short conversation or presentation:

The Problem

The Technical Gap

Filling the Gap

Why You Are Right for the Job

How Will You Meet the Sponsor’s Needs?
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  • Championing Science Interview Conversation

The Art of Making Your Audience Comfortable – A Conversation About Structure, Style and Strategy with Joshua White

“Speakers often focus on the technical content and forget about other cues, like visual and emotional cues. One important element is that you have to give people a feeling of the structure of a presentation to make them feel comfortable as it unfolds.  Give them the feeling that they will understand it.”   Josh White

Joshua White – Engineer and Geophysicist

At Championing Science we have been interviewing senior scientists and communicators about their communication methods.  Young scientists also can be great champions, and we are curious to find out how they become good speakers so quickly.  Is it school, or experience, or disposition?  One such young scientist is Josh White, a geophysicist and engineer, and winner of the prestigious Lawrence Postdoctoral Fellowship at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  His clarity and poise stand out in his cohort – we interviewed him in Livermore to find out how he does it.   {…Read More …}

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  • Championing Science Interview Conversation

Jay Davis on Accelerator Mass Spectrometry’s Impact on Medicine and The Importance of a Single Page of Text

“You have to have a social tolerance for the fact that you are going to talk past each other for a much longer time than is comfortable.  So that’s why you have to put it all on one sheet of paper. You can have all kinds of diagrams, but you need to boil it all down to what fits on a sheet of paper.”           Jay Davis

A Conversation with Jay Davis, Champion of Accelerator Mass Spectrometry and First Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency

Jay Davis is a gregarious Texan transplanted to California, and then Washington DC, with his love of homespun wisdom and simple solutions intact. A physically imposing man who looks like he would be much more comfortable tossing telephone poles while wearing a Scottish kilt than fine tuning an accelerator, Jay is always thinking about how to make friends, and how to get along with people. He was the first Director of the Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the principal implementor of large-scale accelerator mass spectrometry while at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Lab.    {…Read More …}

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  • number 9 with background

The Championing Science Tenets

We believe that these nine principles can help every scientist communicate ideas to change the world.

1) Be passionate. Palpable enthusiasm is contagious. It will carry people along for the great ride of science.  Sharing what inspires you about your work will help others see the potential.

2) Build the big picture first. Resist the temptation to dive into the details.  Frame what you say by explaining what exists today, the future possibilities, and how your work will fill the gap.

3) Be understandable. Use plain, common language. Avoid or translate acronyms. Start from where your audience is, not where you are.  Use iconic references to link science to everyday familiar experience.   {…Read More …}