Marketing Science? Eeeew!

How dare I? Right?

I’ve been wanting to write about how my experience in CME and healthcare marketing has made me a better academic writer, but this post has been really challenging for some reason. Maybe because it treads into that no-man’s land between the pure, untainted world of lofty scientific endeavor and the seemingly sly, underhanded world of marketing and advertising. So this post rambles. You’ve been warned.

When I climbed down from the ivory tower and started working as a medical writer in CME, I quickly had to learn about marketing science. CME is not marketing, you say? Come on now. There is a reason that CME is seen (at least by some) as tarnished – even indirect contact with pharma appears a bit…unseemly. But however you might feel about CME, that was where I first learned about key (educational) messages and crafting a story that starts in science and ends in patient care.

Stay with  me now…I swear there’s a point in here somewhere.

Two recent posts on grant writing got me thinking about the topic of storytelling and marketing in academic writing.

The first post was by Prof-like Substance, who explained exactly how your grant proposal gets reviewed. (Kinda reminded me of “I’m Only a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock.) But the part that got me was this:

“Undivided attention to your proposal is probably unlikely. What have you got that is going to capture my attention and keep me from answering that phone or email? Is your proposal going to make me tell one of my grad students to come back later with their problem?”

Ah – you mean grant writing takes a little bit of marketing…Ugh. How gauche! Good science doesn’t need to be sold, yes, yes, I know.  But it’s, like, über-competitive out there, dude – we all know that. Furthermore, the NIH seems to be refocusing on the “H” with their new grant format, and it’s become crucial that researchers find a way to communicate—and succinctly at that—how their particular bit of research might be ultimately applied to improving human health. The story’s origin is certainly the breathtaking science, but within that very limited research plan section, the rest of the story has to be laid out in a compelling and logical way that takes the reviewer all the way to the bedside. Even the best scientists, who might have the most amazing, innovative ideas that will lead to breakthroughs that simply revolutionize healthcare, may not be able to communicate their ideas in a way that compels a reviewer to stay riveted to the page. Or compels a funding agency to help support that absolutely groundbreaking research plan. (I think the only superlative I left out was “earth-shattering.” Darn.)

Then I read “The Art of Grant Getting” over on Naturally Selected, which spelled out four obstacles to getting a grant funded. Take a gander at obstacle number four:

“4. That “marketing” your work is somehow underhanded or bad. Let me assure you: all truly successful scientists (or at least those with funding) know a thing or two about marketing.  They may not label it “marketing” but the name doesn’t matter.  That’s what it is.”

The post at Naturally Selected went on to list some strategies to overcome obstacles to successful grant funding – one of which was KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Rule number uno in marketing. So it may seem icky to have to “market” your science, but even a grant proposal must have clear, key messages that target a specific audience. In the end, funding agencies want reassurance that they are investing their relatively teeny tiny budget allocation in the best, most innovative, most impactful research that will advance human health.

So, I suggest that marketing science doesn’t somehow imply deceit, but rather a process of careful thinking about how to tell your science story so that it gets heard. Call it marketing-lite, I guess. It’s necessary, not icky. I think the shorter NIH grant format actually forces researchers to dig themselves out from the minute details of each and every proposed experiment, and asks them to take a step back to identify the overall research direction, the long-term goals, and the larger potential impact of their work. (I realize that I’m probably placing myself in the minority by admiting I like the new format, especially because the change was so drastic, and put much less emphasis on the experiments themselves. I guess I really have turned to the Dark Side.)

And that brings us back to my original point – why my experience outside academia, in CME, healthcare communications, and (gasp!) advertising, has made me a better academic writer and editor. Eight years away from the tower, I have been able to wade out of the experimental weeds and step back to appreciate the larger themes of innovation, impact, and plication to health in a grant proposal.  Man, that tower is really really tall – climb down here and take a look.

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One response to “Marketing Science? Eeeew!

  1. Couldn’t agree more! Perfectly crafted. And I couldn’t agree more. I think that sometimes, as scientists, we get distracted by the minute details and forget that reviewers and granting agencies are revising TONS of these grant applications and that you need to make your homework and lay a nice and brief foundation and craft a document which as you mentioned, takes the application to a whole new level and relates it to the main purpose of the grantin agencies … to find cures, to help in treatment and to answers those fundamental questions and problems which lead to improving our health and our treatment. This is the point that my former PI always emphasized. And even before I went to grad school I noticed that the PIs who got me hooked on their research were the ones who explained things well, posed the questions well and above all, brought it back to the main problem, whether it was cancer, heart disease or obesity. Those were the ones that I wanted to work with/for. My current PI’s style of writing id different from that of my former PI, but, he crafts a story well, lays out all the pieces, then brings the pieces together to pose the idea or question and proceed to explain, in the right amount of detail how to attempt to answers it via the available methodology in the lab/group. It is an art, and it is not wrong to do it this way.

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