A view From the Bridge

Ancient DNA and the rise of ‘celebrity science’

Elizabeth Jones.

Science historian Elizabeth Jones.

3Q: Elizabeth Jones

Whether it’s about Neanderthal-human interbreeding or the prospect of resurrecting woolly mammoths, the public cannot seem to hear enough about ancient-DNA research. For science historian Elizabeth Jones, ancient DNA offered an opportunity to study the development of a field in the crucible of intense public interest. She defines the phenomenon as “celebrity science”, in which scientists harness attention to generate interest in their work and capture future funding.

What led you to the definition of celebrity science?

As a historian, I used traditional research methods, like looking at professional and popular literature. I’ve gone back to conferences and archives. But one of the main reasons I’ve come up with the idea of celebrity science is from my conversations with scientists working in ancient DNA themselves. Many of them are alive so I can talk to them, but it’s also dangerous territory because their careers could be impacted by what I write. Meanwhile, if you go back to the 1970s and 80s, you see that the interest in ancient DNA was there from the very beginning. My speculation is that this comes from a long history of popularizing certain public-facing fields, such as palaeontology, archaeology and molecular biology. Our fascination with dinosaurs, human history and genetics and DNA as the code of life is documented. When you get these things together, the interest is just explosive.

Jurassic_Park_logo

The Jurassic Park franchise enabled a visual image of what using ancient DNA to bring back extinct species might mean.

How important do you think the Jurassic Park films are to the field?

Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Jurassic Park had, for the first time, this visual image of what it would mean to use DNA to do something like bring back dinosaurs. That image was used by both researchers and reporters to talk to the public – ‘I’m doing this ancient-DNA research, and it’s kind of like this but not really’. It created a lot of momentum and it influenced press interest. There are some arguments that it influenced publication timing in journals like Nature. Did it influence research? One good example has to do with funding in the United States. Jack Horner, who is a palaeontologist but was also the scientific consultant to the Jurassic Park films, applied to the National Science Foundation in 1993 for money to try to extract DNA from dinosaur bones. Interviewees I talked to who were involved in the project feel the funding was awarded in part because of the public interest in the film at the time. Some researchers think this close connection between science and science fiction was damaging to press and publication expectations about what their research could really do. But a lot of the researchers who work in this field are very attuned to news value. They understand that you have to sell science. That means packaging it in such a way that the consumer wants to read it or learn more about it. They understand that Jurassic Park was an easy entry for communicating to the public what their research can and can’t do.

What changes have you seen in the field since?

Ancient-DNA researchers agree that they have achieved a great sense of credibility in the field of evolutionary biology. You can look at a lot of the work with ancient humans like the Neanderthal genome, for example, that’s really shown the power of ancient DNA. But even the Neanderthal genome was still very much a celebrity kind of study. Svante Pääbo was really active in designing it that way, by issuing press releases, putting a strict deadline on his lab and telling the rest of the world “we’ll sequence the genome in two years’ time”. It’s very much still science in the spotlight, but one that has demonstrated that they can do rigorous research. Next-generation sequencing has allowed researchers to get some high coverage genomes from extinct organisms. There are a few researchers in the ancient-DNA community who are not necessarily pursuing de-extinction, but they’re involved in these conversations. Because they’re respected scientists, they have lent a sense of credibility to the idea that de-extinction might happen. I think researchers in the ancient-DNA community are starting to pay attention to this pursuit in a way they wouldn’t have 15 years ago. As for my own work, I worry that scientists will think I’m saying celebrity science is a sell-out kind of science. Of course there are tensions between science and the spotlight. But ancient-DNA research is a great example of how really rigorous work can coincide with press and public interest.

Interview by Ewen Callaway, a senior reporter for Nature based in London. He tweets at @ewencallaway. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.

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