No breakthroughs here!
– by Children’s Medical Research Institute Director, Professor Roger Reddel
You are unlikely to read or hear about breakthroughs happening at Children’s Medical Research Institute (CMRI). We have a long-standing policy of avoiding the “B” word in press releases about our work and in descriptions on our website.
CMRI is acutely aware of the importance of communicating our research to the public. We are very much a community organisation, having been created through a meeting of people who decided to set up a research institute to do something about childhood diseases. Our community fundraising committees are a critically important source of support for our work. We have a constant stream of visitors, perhaps more than any other comparable institute, and we greatly enjoy explaining to them what we do.
So we put a lot of effort into communicating our science in ways that are readily understandable. We are proud of what the institute has achieved, and enjoy sharing our sense of excitement about what we will achieve in the future.
To communicate clearly, we aim to simplify – but not to distort. We want to share our excitement about what we do and what we plan to do, but avoiding hype and never promising unless we can deliver.
When we make discoveries that come to the attention of journalists, they naturally want to present the stories in a way that attracts attention and generates interest. Quite rightly, they push us to explain the significance of what we have found – how could the discovery affect the lives of the reader, radio listener, or TV viewer?
It is here that tension often arises. Researchers may feel a lot of pressure to go beyond the facts to make sure that the story gets noticed. Many genuinely important discoveries are presented as breakthroughs, in a way that suggests the cure is just around the corner. The public is bombarded with breakthroughs, and surely must be a little cynical when the B-word is used yet again.
Perhaps CMRI’s avoidance of this word is unrealistic? Maybe we sometimes deny our stories the chance to be heard. There have in fact been occasions when we have decided not to proceed with media items because of a perceived gulf between the facts and what it would take to grab attention.
But over time, we consider that our best chance of being heard and believed is to stick closely to the facts and to avoid hype. Then when we have major announcements to make, they will be noticed even without the B-word.