Science, People and Politics,Volume 1, 29.7.06. First posting, 00.00 g.m.t. Second and final Posting, 21.37 g.m.t.


by Paula Cleggett

Over the transom came a request from the producers of West Wing, an American television drama featuring a fictional U.S. President and the politics that enrobe him. No stranger to Hollywood requests, the public affairs staff at the nation's space agency gleefully scurried to review the script for scientific accuracy and believability. Without much effort the agency could get mentioned in a hit TV show, witnessed by millions of loyal viewers each week. Within hours, the facts were checked and returned to the originators.

This scene - the exchange of facts for widespread notice - is played out regularly in U.S. government agencies. Government communicators long ago concluded that to reach millions of Americans on minimum budgets, the most efficient vehicle is to ride the coattails of the popular media.

Civilizations have long employed government scribes to chronicle important events and relay information to the public. The methods shifted over time, with only their cost and complexity escalating, but the intent remains the same: to inform taxpayers and influence public opinion.

It is almost one year since I retired my government badge. In this essay, and before public service fades from memory amid the welter of my new academic career, I explore some of the issues that were at the center of my professional life for over two decades. Having held several positions at different U.S. government agencies - executive, public affairs officer, technical writer/editor - I saw significant shifts in how news and information is conveyed to the public. My views on how government communicators adapt to technological changes, budget limitations, political concerns, ethical constraints and societal influences are explored in the following pages.

As most readers know, the U.S. government has three branches: judicial, legislative and executive.

Of all the executive branch departments and independent agencies in the U. S. government, about 30 conduct science and technology research, set standards, and regulate and enforce laws.

From the Department of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology to the Federal Aviation Administration - a multitude of programs advance America's, if not humankind's, understanding of the universe, themselves and their futures.

Taxpayers as investors in those government programs want to know the returns on their investment. Conversely, those agencies want to reach the American public.

For a variety of reasons, limited only by one's imagination, government-disseminated news and information is omnipresent. Press releases stream from government agencies daily to herald obscure personnel changes as well as dire weather warnings.

An unofficial survey of science and technology agencies yielded the following broad themes that motivate the government's public affairs activities:

*Increase interest in Science and Technology;
*Inspire Americans to study science, engineering, computer sciences and pursue careers in technical fields;
*Advance America's competitive edge;
*Gain public support to increase budgets for government programs;
* Equip voters with the information needed to make informed choices;
*Educate Americans to make better choices affecting their health and safety;
*Inform Congressional members and their constituents.

For NASA, the law that created the agency calls for it to:
"provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof."

Unique for a government agency, this language gives NASA's staff a mandate to bring its activities and achievements closer to the American public.

Whether it is because of law or a regulation, all government agencies - as responsible stewards of tax dollars - should operate in a transparent manner. Public dissemination of information about government programs also demonstrates accountability. Government agencies look for the most cost effective, efficient ways to communicate with an increasingly diverse population. Some strategies led to productive partnerships others fell short.

There's an inelegant dance of the public searching for information and federal agencies seeking an attentive public to extol the programs they are administering. Sometimes they find each other. Given the overwhelming amount of government information offered, ranging from credit card use to diet advice to renewable energy consumption, all distributed in an increasingly wide variety of formats - from pamphlets to website - this finding of one another is an impressive achievement.

A multitude of websites offer government information, and some say government information on the internet is difficult to navigate, though the government itself offers an all-inclusive website -- with a search engine -- called FirstGov.gov. Google recently unveiled a similar website: usgov.google.com. It boasts a single location for searching across U.S. Federal, State and local government websites or the entire Web.

Meanwhile, more people are getting news from the Internet. About half of all Americans go online from home or work on a typical day; about a quarter go online daily for news, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet not all Americans own or have easy access to a computer, particularly one capable of easily downloading the audio and visual material now favored for capturing the public's interest. By contrast television ownership in America is nearly universal, and newspapers are affordable and readily available.

Therefore, the primary vehicle for a government agency to disseminate news is the established news media. The national networks reach far more people than a single government press release or stump speech ever could. Still, news organizations are losing audiences. According to a Pew Research survey on the news industry, over half of those in the national press and three-fifths of those in local news say that news organizations are losing readers, viewers and listeners because Americans feel overloaded with information. "People are tuning the news out. Readership is down," says a reporter for a national news service. "People have more choices with the Internet and cable channels."

Other factors cited as contributing to failing news audiences included the media's lack of credibility with the public and the media not giving enough attention to stories meaningful to average Americans. So, though a government agency needs the credibility and the coverage of the established news media to convey its latest findings and discoveries, the media itself is undergoing significant shifts to meet the needs of a changing American demographic.

To keep pace with how Americans get news and information, government leaders have adapted accordingly. According to Federal Computer Week, "Everyone in the government from Barack Obama to the president's pooch is now hosting an Internet show. While FDR used to deliver radio fireside chats during the Depression, today, you can hear Condoleezza Rice giving a public podcast on World AIDS Day."

And then there's advertising. In America from the time you wake up until you go to bed you will have experienced 1,500 impressions, or messages, from largely paid advertisements. From television commercials to billboards to radio jingles to pop-up computer ads, the onslaught of messages continues from dawn to dawn.

A recent study revealed that more people knew the Simpsons (an animated comedy) characters than knew the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The study, funded by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just one in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms. (For those still racking their brains, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, the press, and religion, as well as the rights to peacefully assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.)

There's nothing BAD about the sources of news evolving as society changes. In May 2006 Harvard University hosted an event to explore the thesis that traditional public media - public broadcasting, cable access television, etc - face a unique opportunity to embrace new participatory web-based media models -podcasting, video blogs, social software, etc - and create a stronger and more vital public service.

No matter where it comes from, news and information should be credible, reliable.

Currently there is a news fusion going on: news merged with opinion, or news merged with entertainment or both. Evidence shows young people in particular are bypassing mainstream sources in favor of alternatives they find on the internet or late-night TV.

A Pew Research poll released in early 2004 - a presidential election year - found that 21 percent of people aged 18 to 29 cited "The Daily Show" and "Saturday Night Live" as a place where they regularly learned campaign news (that figure was up from 9 percent in 2000).

Some people can separate news and information from entertainment but some can't......a la the Simpson's story.


Not only does government news face fierce competition in getting heard and seen, a slew of rules and policies curtail just how it's disseminated. Taxpayer dollars for advertisements are forbidden unless in unique circumstances like recruiting for the military or announcing changes in coins, cash and checks.

Marketing in all its various forms - advertising, publicity - are taboo for key reasons:

1. The taxpayer has already paid for government programs; they would be paying additionally if slick ads were produced to tell them what they paid for.

2. Congress, which establishes laws and budgets for every government program, also approves of how the budgets are spent. So, unless Congress approves of the marketing scheme, government agencies would do well to stay within the bounds of the appropriated funds.

3. It fails the smell test.

Many citizens don't trust the government. The notion that government-funded "spin" or "hucksterism" could compete with coverage by an independent news media wreaks cries of foul play.

In late 1995, then-Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary found herself the subject of harsh criticism for having paid an outside consulting firm $46,500 in public funds to evaluate the reporters who covered her department.

A New York Times editorial did not mince words: "She should have been fired to make it clear that such conduct cannot be tolerated in the Government. Mrs. O'Leary, a former utility company executive, and her public information officers were apparently concerned that they weren't getting their "message" across at a time when they are engaged in a host of controversial issues. It was a flagrant misuse of taxpayer money by a department with plenty of its own propaganda specialists."

Not to be outdone by clearly stated and understood restrictions, however, clever ways to circumvent those restrictions have surfaced over the years.

It is entirely legitimate for a contractor affiliated with a government agency to host a reception or an advertising campaign. Lockheed Martin, reportedly the world's largest defense contractor, recently built a 3D IMAX theater in the National Air and Space Museum. The museum was then able to premier the newest space-themed movie: Space Station 3D, which painted an extremely flattering picture of a NASA program long-plagued by cost concerns and criticism by researchers. The documentary, narrated by Tom Cruise, was underwritten by Lockheed Martin.

Also support groups or clubs, such as Women in Aerospace and the Space Foundation, host events that recognize the achievements and people affiliated with government programs, thereby augmenting the official news apparatus. Many of the members of these groups are associated with government agencies or corporate contractors who have a vested interest in the success of those programs.

The Advertising Council, the leading producer of public service announcements, forms partnerships with numerous government agencies and non-profit organizations to promote a wide range of issues: from math and science literacy for girls to obesity prevention.

The widely recognizable "Got Milk" advertising campaign caused a stir when government officials, such as former State Department Secretary Madeline Albright and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, appeared in print ads sporting a milk moustache. The ads were largely paid for by the milk industry. Some consumer groups claimed there was a conflict of interest: the fact that the same government agency charged with educating Americans about healthy eating is also promoting industry interests.

From one industry observer, "What is the federal government doing promoting what is a commercial product like any other. substitute the word Coke for milk. Can you imagine Donna Shalala doing ads for Coke or McDonalds?"

These creative partnerships and alliances often spring from the vast network of public affairs offices located throughout the U.S. government.

Formerly the vehicle for conveying unvarnished government news and information, public affairs offices now purvey "strategic communications." A recent government announcement proclaiming a new such office stated that it will:

focus on new and innovative ways to engage and inform a broader cross-section of the American public about agency activities through the development of new technology and tools, enhanced outreach mechanisms and key partnerships, and will develop long-term communication strategies and plans for increasing public awareness and understanding of the agency and its missions.

Whew! Surely somewhere in there is truth and justice for all.


The key staff for the public affairs offices are professionals who, before working in the government, typically held positions in the fields of journalism or public relations.

There is debate in the US science community whether the public affairs staff might better serve the media, and the public, by having a science degree with, perhaps, some journalism training. It has been more likely, however, that the staffer is trained in journalism and gets a crash course in astrophysics or earth sciences through on-the-job training.

Former NBC Today Show host Jim Hartz and NASA scientist Dr. Rick Chappell co-authored "Worlds Apart; How the Distance Between Science and Journalism Threatens America's Future." Published in 1997 by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, the book presents recommendations for both the scientist and the journalist to advance the content and coverage of science news. The book, and its survey of 1,400 scientists and journalists, served as a springboard to vigorous dialogue - and related course work - on how to improve the public's understanding of science.

So, there are public affairs offices staffed with civil servants of varying depths of knowledge of science and technology. These civil servants are led by political appointees. The Administration, the reigning political party, selects and empowers not only Cabinet Secretaries and agency administrators but people who move the news.

Even a casual television viewer might see Tony Snow, the President's current spokesperson, commenting on the issues of the day. Below Snow is a vast network of similarly trained staffers who speak on behalf of their department head, ensure the accuracy of news and information released to the media, and work with their colleagues to orchestrate the timing of news released.

True, some news can't be rescheduled to suit public affairs strategies; however, the timing factor is significant when calculating how much coverage a press release or news briefing might garner. Late Friday afternoons are typically the worst time for releasing good, positive government news.

Timing is but one of the many issues public affairs people assess - particularly those in the political realms: When the news is released, who will deliver the news, where the news will be released, who will be quoted in the press release, whether there is video, whether the news should be leaked to a reporter in advance of its official release time.

A single agency will ask these questions of itself concerning multiple, potentially newsworthy stories. That agency will try not to "step on" its own news, or compete with itself. Multiply those questions times 30 Departments and agencies with science and technology programs, and you can begin to grasp the magnitude of the challenge.

Political appointees to the rescue: they regularly exchange information with senior political staffers as well as their counterparts from other agencies. In a cascading fashion, relevant information is then shared among key people in each agency's public affairs team. News and information strategies are subsequently developed and executed.

Often the appointee brings renewed energy, enthusiasm and strategic skills to the public affairs team. Appointees also know their tenure is limited to a few short years, so their eagerness is relatively high. Sometimes the appointees are fresh from a campaign trail and, whether or not one voted for the prevailing party, public affairs civil servants typically adjust quickly to the newly elected President's staff.

Typically in the field of science and technology, programs underway have a news timeline of their own; launches, tests, take-offs, planetary crossings and landings press ahead regardless of the party in power.

Rare as it is, though, the a-political-ness of science can be challenged, as it was by one political appointee in a move that resulted in public controversy that contributed to his eventual resignation.

Set in the drama-rich corridor from New York City to Washington, D.C., a passionate story unfolded worthy of a telenovella: Over a three-month period in early 2006, accusations, claims of censorship, congressional intervention, secrets uncovered, and a resignation vied for headlines in major news media.

At the heart of the story, Dr. James Hansen, a prominent government climatologist, reportedly said the Bush administration tried to stop him from speaking out on global warming. That claim, denied by the senior political appointee for NASA's public affairs, was reinforced with similar claims from NOAA.

Meanwhile, a junior political appointee at NASA, George Deutsch, who supposedly limited reporters' access to Hansen was reported to have said that his "job was to make the President look good."

Lawmakers registered their discontent at the reports of censorship. "Good science cannot long persist in an atmosphere of intimidation," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chairman of the House Science committee.

Within a week, NASA's Administrator Michael Griffin - also a political appointee -- stepped above the fray and affirmed his agency's policy of openness. Griffin issued a "statement of scientific openness" to all NASA employees saying, "We have identified a number of areas in which clarification and improvements to the standard operating procedures of the Office of Public Affairs can and will be made."

Dr. Griffin also said, "It is not the job of public affairs officers to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's technical staff."

One would think the story would be put to rest: not when there's more fodder. Uncovered in a science policy blog, Deutsch, the junior political appointee, apparently did not earn the Bachelor's degree that he claimed on his resume. In light of this new revelation, Deutsch resigned from the space agency.

The drama dwindled by mid-March with NASA's release of its new communications policy. Recently, the D.C. Science Writers Association presented a program on scientific openness in government. The reporter who uncovered the Hansen story, as well as the chief of staff for Rep. Boehlert and the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science spoke to a packed audience on Capitol Hill.

The discussion centered on the government's balancing act in ensuring scientific openness yet curtailing scientists' role as scientists not policymakers. "Scientists should offer their findings and expertise to science policy makers and then 'shut up', avoiding advocacy of any specific policy options," said one staffer.

For the foreseeable future, decision makers will be scrutinizing policies affecting the dissemination of research results by federal employees.

So, to recap, science news faces obstacles in many forms: competition from the daily bombardment of advertisements and entertainment programs; restrictions and bureaucratic wrangling from within government; as well as the myriad of media outlets recasting how people get their news.

Meanwhile, science news, like other news, has to get creative to attract the public's attention.

Even fictional stories grounded in a scientific effort - searching to cure a disease, following a gathering storm, landing on another planet -- can connect with the public emotionally and stimulate discussion and interest broadly.

Many scientists today say they were first drawn to their profession by watching fictional or factual scenes on television or at the movies.

The popularity of the CBS television drama, CSI, and others that dramatize crime scene investigations, has led to increased interest in forensic science. Hundreds of forensic science programs have sprouted around the country to teach students the science of fingerprinting, toxicology, ballistics, arson and DNA testing.

Whether it was Buck Rogers or Chuck Yeager, Sally Ride or even Walter Cronkite reporting one of the Apollo moon landings, today's scientists often recall their engagement with a story unfolding and characters with whom they could identify.

Conversely, whether the government's goal is to sway public opinion or to educate potential voters or to graduate more engineers and scientists, engaging the public and involving them on an emotional level is key to successful communication.

The very nature of government science lays the fertile ground for public engagement. Inherent in government's role is to conduct high risk/high pay off research critical to the nation, yet beyond the means of private companies. High risks and extreme conditions draw storytellers who can weave characters into an adventure that readers and viewers vicariously experience.

Space, for example, is a powerful draw to answer fundamental questions about the very existence of humans, questions that humans have asked since the beginning: Are we alone? Is life out there? Is Earth the only habitable planet with an environment that can sustain life? How long can Earth continue to sustain and support life?

The nation's space agency is endowed with compelling images and high risk adventures. As the digital age dawned, NASA's public affairs office realized that it was better to act as wholesalers not retailers. The staff decided not to put limited resources behind creating a finished product, but instead developed the materials for professionals who could then make a finished product.

Therefore, the staff produced and facilitated unique video, digital imagery, access to unique facilities, interviews with scientists - whatever it took - to help reporters tell a story, help a sci-fi writer develop a book, help a movie producer or writer or director craft a credible story and help visual and performance artists convey the space and aeronautics experience.

Over the past year alone, NASA has participated in almost 125 film projects for major motion pictures, television productions and documentaries. Two recent films, Armageddon and Apollo 13, were part of the 100 top grossing films of all time. On some level, millions of Americans were reached with a documentary or a fictional or dramatized account of NASA's programs -- all through means beyond the capacity of the space agency alone.

Although the agency receives no funds from its involvement with movies, considerable attention is given to how much staff time and government resources are allotted for such a business venture. For major productions, like motion pictures, a written agreement between the space agency and the producers is reached before filming.

This year one government agency ventured into Hollywood where no one had gone before, with unfortunate results.

The Smithsonian Institution drew fire from film makers, historians and members of Congress, who charged that a near exclusive agreement it negotiated with Showtime Networks for television programming would limit access to museum resources. Through the Showtime deal, the Smithsonian, a venerable collection of 18 museums, 9 research centers and 120 affiliates around the world, reportedly sought to reach new audiences while easing budget woes.

Details of the contract were not released publicly and Congress, which supplies 70 per cent of the institutions' budget, was not informed. Members of Congress said they were surprised to learn of the deal through the media.

Apparently the Showtime contract would give the network first option to produce most films and documentaries that use Smithsonian resources and would make those productions available only to cable subscribers.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small has maintained that the Showtime agreement is similar to other Smithsonian outreach programs, such as its magazine, aimed at promoting knowledge and education by making Smithsonian museums, experts and other resources more accessible to the public.

The materials at the Smithsonian cover almost every aspect of American life, from U.S. presidents to inventors to musicians to oceanographers to astronauts.

The Washington Post quotes Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, a filmmaker whose award-winning documentary about Tupperware relied heavily on materials at the Smithsonian as having said, "I am not against them having a deal with Showtime that is lucrative. But the archives are for the public to use."

Ellen Rothman, associate director of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, said, "It is the first place everybody goes because it is a public source."

Small defended the contract, saying the new venture would expose the Smithsonian's collections to new audiences. Smithsonian officials say the deal could bring in much-needed revenue. Almost $95 million a year are needed to reduce a backlog on repairs, according to Smithsonian officials.

So far, a Congressional panel has included language in the appropriation bill that forbids the Smithsonian to enter any new contract that would "limit access by the public to the Smithsonian collection."

"This exclusive arrangement is inconsistent with a public institution that is largely financed by the American taxpayer, and it was done without any consultation with this committee," said Rep. Charles H. Taylor (R-N.C.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the federal contribution to the Smithsonian's budget.

This subcommittee recommended a $5.3 million cut in the Smithsonian Institute's budget, following this dispute over the contract between the Smithsonian and the cable network Showtime.

If Smithsonian officials had consulted Congress in the earlier phases of the Showtime contract's development would that have ensured success? Not necessarily. The deal could have been compromised with "leaked" information. One lesson is that to not consult Congress on the use of public funds and facilities increases the likelihood of failure.

To understand how best to communicate science and technology, it is wise to assess how science and technology is viewed in a societal context. Only a broad brush can be given in this article, though the subject has been addressed extensively. Two key areas reflecting societal importance are: budget and vision.

Recently, several impressive reports have sounded alarms about America's global competitiveness. The mounting national concern is the United States is in real danger of losing its leadership in the ability to generate technological innovation and compete in the world marketplace. Often, the issue is framed in terms that compare the state of education and research investments with those of other countries. Even media inattention has been cited as a key factor in the reduced outlays that could erode America's scientific stature.

Near the end of 2005, the National Academy of Science released a report: "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." It was commissioned by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and led by Norm Augustine, retired CEO of Lockheed Martin; Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel; and Chuck Vest, president emeritus of MIT. This synergy between sectors -- business, government, and academia -- is invaluable to advancing more federal investment in research.

The report claimed significant attention in Washington's policy and media circles. It benefited from a good press operation at the National Academy of Sciences, and enough facts and figures for any politician or newsperson to put to good use.

Momentum spread, with numerous editorials appearing in major, national newspapers. Also, congressional leaders, from both parties -- and in both houses -- were starting to seize the issue. Who can argue against American leadership in math and science education or leadership in scientific and engineering research that drives innovation or an economy that can continue to compete strongly against those of other nations.

After an intense effort to win White House support, success was proclaimed when Andrew Card, then-White House Chief of Staff, promoted the "Gathering Storm" at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce luncheon, urging everyone to read it.

In January 2006, the President's "State of the Union" address called for a major new national priority called the American Competitiveness Initiative, which included many of the specific recommendations from "Gathering Storm."

In February 2006, when President Bush sent his fiscal year 2007 budget request to Congress, he followed through with a promise to work towards doubling spending on research in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering over the next 10 years.

These proposed levels of spending serve as a first step in the long annual process of negotiating final funding levels for U.S. federal programs, a process that is yet to be completed.

In a difficult budget environment in Washington, with lawmakers already extremely concerned about growth of government spending and record federal deficits, this budget initiative, American Competitiveness Initiative, is broadly viewed as a positive direction for the nation.

Closely aligned with national budget priorities are the attendant efforts to communicate those priorities to the public. Before the ink dries on the fiscal year 2007 budget, a strong and continued public relations and lobbying effort will have unfolded. Business and higher education leaders and interest groups will be mobilized to repeat the same message.

Given the recent reports and the President's competitiveness initiative in the current budget cycle, one could surmise that key sectors of America's economy view the advancement of science and technology as critically important.

Whether the American public will understand and adopt the same sense of priority remains to be seen. The benefits of technological achievements from computers to airplanes to medical devices are broadly enjoyed. Will the American public get the intended messages about global competitiveness and investing in the nation's technological leadership?

Recall the earlier discussion on the public being bombarded with competing messages from a variety of sources. Social issues, health concerns, personal income might seem more pressing than far off research and development (R&D) initiatives and a stack of blue-ribbon reports.

Some observers say support of R&D runs the risk of being viewed as a luxury, rather than an investment, which could possibly be shelved until more funds are available.

Could the data and analysis that inspired elected officials, university presidents and corporation heads to take swift action also engender the public's support?

How best to communicate a vision or a message has also been a topic of much study. Literature studies, focus groups and opinion surveys have elicited valuable information from the public about their views of science, exploration, risk, and national pride.

One recent report produced for NASA, "American Perception of Space Exploration: A Cultural Analysis," presented specific and fundamental elements of communicating vision to the American public. The report was produced by The Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis for NASA and Harmonic International.

Among the report's listing of fundamental elements of vision are the following:

*To be successfully adopted, visions must reflect the larger culture in which they must operate.

*Visions are contextual. If the context changes, the meaning of the vision changes.

* When asked to judge between two competing arguments in which they have little or no expertise, people will default to the more compelling vision.

*American culture has always been future-focused.

The report says visions of the future have been successfully adopted in America when various factors are aligned. Among those factors are:

*A core cultural belief that the future should be better than the past.

*A core cultural belief that everything can and should be improved.

*A strong moral imperative to better the lot of the individual.

*An individualistic ethic that celebrates and rewards inventors and innovators.

*Mass media that can bring the vision to the attention of the public.

*Business interests that promote the vision of a better world in which products play a key role.

*A driving external force or event that makes the vision the optimal or necessary choice.

As an exercise, one could assess the challenge of communicating say, the American Competitiveness Initiative, against these elements.

Communicating news on any subject is challenging in today's media-rich environment. When the subject is science and technology, government communicators often have the noble task of conveying news that transcends boundaries and cultures. Hurricanes speak no language; medical breakthroughs benefit all humankind; newly discovered planets ignite imaginations across the globe.

Given such a lofty charge, government communicators would do well to honor the public's trust and preserve the integrity of the news by upholding offices that maintain a credible, industrious news staff. Government communicators, with their ethical and budgetary restrictions, should seek opportunities to reach the public without compromising the government's credibility or the public's access.

Creative opportunities that allow the public to experience science and technology are equally as important as a well crafted press release. With the abundance of media access -- from cell phones, to laptops to satellite radio -- people will define where and when they want information. Whether it's a crime drama or an art gallery or a classroom, opportunities abound to embrace the public.

Communication to the public is done best when involving the public in the process. A communications strategy that is focused on the end user, such as the science fiction writer or a news broadcaster, makes for a more efficient use of resources.

If the government's aim is to inspire citizens to support bigger R&D budgets or to study science or computer sciences, a well articulated vision is vital in engaging the public.

It took thousands of years to move beyond oral storytelling - passing the news by word of mouth - to any form of mass communication. From messages, to letters to eventually newspapers, civilization has come a long way -- and it's moving much faster in recent times than in earlier times. The communication methods of Lewis and Clark weren't much different than those available to Columbus, more than 300 years earlier. Seemingly, a newer communication tool surfaces within in 300 days.

Communication tools and strategies will be forever changing. Government agencies will use those tools to advance national concerns and to uplift the condition of humanity.

Paula Cleggett is the Associate Director for policy in the Office of Federal Relations of Vanderbilt University. She also holds the same title for her position at the Curb Center for Art, enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt.

After serving for six years as NASA's deputy associate administrator for public affairs, she joined Vanderbilt through the Inter-governmental Personnel Act, a program intended to promote cross-fertilization of ideas and practices between federal and non-profit sectors. Her role as Associate Director for Policy in the Washington, DC, office includes coordinating the Arts Industries Policy Forum while linking the Center and Forum with news media, think tanks, national associations, philanthropic organizations, the executive branch and Congress.

As deputy head of public affairs for the high-profile space agency, Cleggett had extensive experience dealing with news media and managing NASA relations with numerous constituent groups, including the arts and entertainment industries. Her experience with the entertainment industry included negotiating agreements with IMAX Corporation in its production of large-format space movies, as well as working with Hollywood studios in the development of space-themed feature films such as Space Cowboys and Deep Impact. Under her management, NASA's extensive fine arts program was expanded beyond specially commissioned paintings to include poetry, musical compositions and Web-art.

Cleggett has held editorial and public affairs positions in the U.S. Energy Department and the U.S. Treasury Department. Prior to a government career, she held private sector positions in the advertising and marketing fields. She has been recognized for effective communications strategies and creative management, receiving the prestigious Presidential Rank Award for sustained excellence in government service.

She serves on the board of directors for the Society for Arts in Healthcare and the advisory board of Women in Washington.

Cleggett received a Bachelor of Arts in art education from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, and a Masters in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


GavaghanCommunications Science, People & Politics©. All rights reserved.