ASU prof hosts video contest to bolster science communication

Risk Innovation Lab director Andrew Maynard's YouTube channel helps explain science, technology to public

Andrew Maynard in his office at ASU


When scientists at Oregon Health and Science University announced Wednesday that they had successfully performed the first-ever gene editing of a human embryo to fix a mutation that causes a common heart disorder, it marked a significant scientific breakthrough. While it opens the door for the possibility of a future where humans can be protected from a variety of hereditary conditions, it also raises a host of ethical questions.

“If we don’t understand what the consequences of these technologies are, it’s easy to make missteps,” said Andrew Maynard, professor at ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “There’s a real need for people to understand both the science of what’s happening there and the consequences so we can make sure that what comes out of that is actually going to be good for society and we don’t end up with a problem that is very difficult to solve.”

As the director of the Risk Innovation Lab at ASU, Maynard explores all sorts of questions surrounding the risks associated with emerging technologies, such as self-driving cars, biotechnology and artificial intelligence. The rate of technological advancement being what it is nowadays, making its way into the hands of the general public at breakneck speed, Maynard also realizes the importance of sharing what he learns so people can make better informed decisions about how and what they use, in order to avoid any negative consequences.

That’s the idea behind Science Showcase, a YouTube channel dedicated to making the science behind topics like water filtration, disease immunity and earthquakes accessible and interesting to the general public. This summer, Maynard announced the first-ever Science Showcase Video Contest, calling on scientists and researchers to submit a video on the subject of their choice for a chance to win $2,000 and be featured prominently on the channel. The deadline for submission is Aug. 31.

In addition to his efforts on YouTube, Maynard also hosts workshops to teach the methods he uses to create his science videos. Most recently, he hosted a three-day Chief Science Officers Summer Institute for middle and high school students at Grand Canyon University in Glendale, Arizona.

ASU Now spoke with Maynard to find out more about the field of risk innovation and what motivated him to spread the word about it and other scientific topics on YouTube.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for content and length.

Question: What is risk innovation, and how did you become interested in it?

Answer: I was a lab physicist for many years and then got involved with policy and new technologies and risk, very broadly. And one of the things that has intrigued and frustrated me for many years now, is that when it comes to making decisions around risk, we’re actually very bad at it. We’re OK if we’re dealing with, say, a new chemical because we’ve got decades of experience on how to do risk assessments with new chemicals, but if we develop a new technology or a new material or we just do something different, we find it very hard to apply old ways of thinking about risk to new problems.

So what I wanted to do was see whether we could bring a creative, imaginative, entrepreneurial mind-set to how we think about risk and how we grapple with things that we’ve never had to deal with before — like self-driving cars, like the ability to edit the human genome — and how to use that to find better ways of doing things in the future.

Q: How did the Science Showcase YouTube channel come about?

A: With this emphasis on risk, I also have a very strong emphasis on effective communication. And in part, that’s because if you’re trying to get people to think differently and do things differently, you can’t do that without really good communication tools — whether you’re working with the public or decision makers or even other scientists. So several years ago, it became very apparent that while the rest of the world was getting very excited about video-based communication, academics and the science community were being left in the dust. With the advent of YouTube in particular we found two things: First of all, a massive amount of people started using it for solid content, not just watching cat videos. They used it to find out things that they were interested in. You also saw a lot of YouTube video creators developing good science content. But totally absent there were actual scientists; people that knew stuff weren’t actually creating videos to communicate it.

So [my first YouTube channel] Risk Bites, within the realm of risk, was my exploration of whether I, as a full-time professor, could actually use this medium to convey what I knew about risk to people that would find it useful and interesting. And that’s been an interesting experiment.

On one hand, it’s shown me how tough it is to actually create video content. On the other hand, it’s shown how you can begin to develop ways of doing this which are possible to fit in with a really busy schedule — like all other academics, I have zero time. But it’s still possible to do this. It also shows how it’s possible to use very simple techniques, just using the whiteboard technique, to create content that people actually want to watch. The big problem I found, though, was because of the time limitations, I don’t have time to be a full-time video maker. So I wanted to find some way of scaling this, to take what I’d learned and make it accessible to other scientists. And this part of a multi-pronged approach.

First, I wanted to convince scientists and researchers that they can actually make videos and use them as an effective communication platform — in fact, they have to, because at the moment, there’s a dearth of really good content there. Secondly, I wanted to create a platform where they could do this. You need some way of actually publishing the video like you would publish an article in a journal, or on a website. So that was the idea behind Science Showcase. And then the third prong is actually teaching researchers how to do this. And we’re now offering training programs to scientists. It’s all part of a push to change the culture around video as a communication medium for scientists.

Q: How has the scientific and academic community responded so far?

A: [Laughs] It is a really hard sell. There is so much resistance within the research community. First, people are saying, I have no time to communicate, I’m just too busy. Second, this is too difficult, I can’t do it. But what I find is people that actually think that public communication in particular is really important find the time to do these things. We’ve seen this certainly with the written word. If you look over the last five-plus years, the number of scientists that have started writing blogs, started writing popular articles, has risen tremendously. These are people that have realized this is important, they’re passionate about it, they’re going to find the time to do it and they actually do it. We haven’t seen the same with video, and I think it’s partially because people feel that this is just too difficult. So that’s one of the things we’re trying to change.

[We’ve hosted] intensive, two-and-a-half-day workshops where we take the participants from knowing nothing at the beginning to being able to do a simple, basic iPhone video by the end. And of course, part of the idea of the Science Showcase platform is that once they’ve done this, they’ve then got somewhere to post the video. My vision is to develop the methodology and the materials so that other people can then start to offer these workshops. And we just recently posted on the Risk Innovation Lab website the materials needed for a simple iPhone video. So there’s an eight-step training process that’s available to anybody online now.

Q: What is the advantage of using video as the medium as opposed to a blog or something similar?

A: People are increasingly using video. We have what I refer to as casual learners; people that either hear something or read something about science and think, that sounds interesting, I’d like to know more. The go-to place for many people these days is YouTube. It isn’t the written word. They want to see a video about it. So to me, there’s a tremendous opportunity there. And what I would love to see is when people go online or go to YouTube and say, I have something interesting to say about water filtration, or what algal blooms are, anything like that, if they search it, they will come up with a really good video made by people who know their stuff.

Q: Why is science literacy especially important nowadays?

A: When I approach public science communication, there are three things that I think are critically important, and it’s not just about science literacy. The first is just enrichment. It’s the fact that there is really cool, interesting exciting stuff happening with science, and just learning about it and being exposed to it can enrich your life, in the same way that art does. It adds a dimension to who you are, how you understand your place in the world, and how you actually benefit from that.

Second is just simple education. We live in a world where we actually need specific hard knowledge in order to do things. Not only make decisions but actually do our jobs, live our lives more effectively. Then the third is empowerment, and this gets a little bit more into science literacy. The idea that if you’re put in a position where you can make decisions or take actions based on evidence, you’re going to be in a much better place to be successful [if you’re making a well-informed decision]. Whether that’s how you decide what to buy to eat, or what you decide to advocate for [regarding things like] the environment or health. You don’t need to know the intricacies of the science, but you need to understand how the world works in terms of evidence.

The real danger here is that what we’re seeing is people are making really important decisions based on either misunderstanding, misinformation or total fantasy. And when you’re dealing with people’s lives, when you’re dealing with the environment, making decisions based on nothing more than make-believe is incredibly dangerous. So this is one area where the more science-based information and knowledge we can get out there, the more we raise the opportunity for them to make informed decisions.

Having said that, there are some subtleties here. So one thing we know from science communication is you can’t make the better world just by educating people. Unfortunately, people are human enough that once they’ve decided what they want to do, they will cherry-pick information to justify what they want to do. So certainly I don’t think we’re going to change minds and hearts with more science education, but for people that genuinely want to do the right thing and make informed decisions, this is a really powerful way of helping them do that.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges we face as a society in terms of adapting to emerging technologies?

A: There are many. Off the bat, there’s the climate, the world we live in. You can’t avoid that. We’ve got to the point where we’re having such an impact on the environment we live in that we’ve got to work out how to modulate that and control that environment.

But there are other things associated with new technologies that are coming along, which are going to be really challenging for society. For instance, biotechnology. We’ve just had the first reports of somebody using very advanced genetic engineering in human embryos. CRISPR-Cas9 and gene editing. That’s a technology which is only going to get bigger, faster and more impactful. And as a society, we’ve got to work out what is the responsible way of using this.

You’ve also got cyber systems and artificial intelligence, and that covers everything from self-driving cars to trading systems where you’ve got a computer deciding which stocks to buy and sell, from algorithms on Facebook and Google and wherever that make decisions for you effectively. This is an area that’s going to go faster than I think most people understand, and we’re going to find it harder and harder to understand exactly what computers are doing and why they’re doing it. That becomes a real challenge. And then you’ve got the physical world, just physically what we can do with materials and chemicals now. It’s very exciting, you can create materials that are lighter than ever before, batteries that last longer than ever before, a whole plethora of things. But what we find is if we don’t understand what the consequences of these technologies are, it’s easy to make missteps.

Then there’s another thing here which both intrigues and excites and really concerns me, and that’s the convergence between these different areas. So one of the things that I think we’re going to see, where we’re going to have some profound changes, is when genetic engineering or gene editing is combined with artificial intelligence and digital systems, which is combined with new manufacturing techniques, new ways of actually physically manipulating the world. And we’re seeing this now, they’re all sort of merging together. So the distinctions between biology and the physical world and the digital world are just sort of dissolving. That’s when the really transformative things happen. And there’s a real need for people to understand both the science of what’s happening there and the consequences so we can make sure that what comes out of that is actually going to be good for society and we don’t end up with a problem that is very difficult to solve.

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