Television reporter turned science wonk, Laurie Kinney, talks to us about Russian spy technology and The Exchange's request to learn how to build WMDs with parts found in “interesting places.”

Tell us about your background. How did you end up at the Potomac Institute? Were you interested in science as a kid?
I spent most of my career as a TV reporter, and I came to the Institute in 2009 after several years as the Senior Correspondent for Hearst Television’s Washington, DC, news bureau. As a kid, the area of science I was most interested in was weather, and I actually started my TV career as a weather reporter. At my first TV station I also created a regular feature called “Fact or Fiction,” exploring the truths and/or misconceptions behind common beliefs about science. Later, I became an anchor and a general-assignment reporter and covered all kinds of issues, including the activities of the major government science agencies here in DC. I got to interview many fascinating people in my TV career, and that was unquestionably the best part of the job.

The really fun thing about working at the Potomac Institute, which is a science and technology policy research organization, is that it is much like reporting in that you get to be exposed to new and intriguing topics almost every day: cyber security, neuroscience, technology used in counterterrorism, and so on. I can also say with no exaggeration that we have genuinely brilliant people working here, and I love that. Like reporting, the job often involves getting up to speed on technical subject matter very quickly so that you can turn around and write about it, or explain it, for the lay people who read our website and newsletters as well as for the scientists in our community.

Tell us a little bit about your interactions with The Exchange. Do you have a favorite project? 
Working with The Exchange is really stimulating because you never know what kind of expert consultation they will be looking for next. The inquiries are usually for something totally unexpected, and often there is a tight deadline, so responding to them reminds me of reacting to breaking news.

Since we started working with The Exchange, we have received requests for experts to talk about Russian spy technology, how to build WMDs with parts found in “interesting places,” the latest in home security technology, hostage negotiation techniques, several aspects of neuroscience, and even a sci-fi scenario involving a future world run entirely by teenagers! The projects have to be kept “hush-hush” so as not to compromise the creators’ proprietary information, but some of the titles mentioned to us have included CSI: New York, the Fast and Furious movies, and the Bourne films. Earlier this year, we sent the head of our neuroscience program to take part in a special Exchange event at the Directors’ Guild called “Night of Total Destruction.” The idea was to expose screenwriters to a variety of ways to wreak havoc on humankind in a plotline, and I am told our expert’s ideas about “neuroweapons” that focus on the brain were among the scariest! 

Do films and television shows influence young people to want to become scientists
I definitely think they do, and I also think the influence goes beyond traditional film and television. My husband and I were among the millions of people who watched Felix Baumgartner’s history-making skydive streamed live on the Internet in a format that mimicked a live TV show and even included a former network correspondent as anchor. It was absolutely riveting and also extremely informative regarding the science that went into planning and executing a jump from the stratosphere. As we all know, entertainment and information “programming” is migrating across multiple platforms, and it all has an influence.

Should that be a goal of science consulting?
Getting kids excited about science through popular culture should absolutely be an objective of the program! We are very big on encouraging STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education at the Institute, but sometimes it takes an extra nudge to get kids interested in what school has to offer. Inspiration drawn from movies, TV, and other media can be the impetus that gets kids involved in pursuing STEM education. 

What is the most common question you get asked when explaining your job to people? 
We cover a lot of ground and are active in many diverse disciplines, so people want to understand the unifying or “umbrella” principle for all we do. The Institute’s mission is to advance sound science and technology policy, which must be based on unbiased, nonpartisan research and should not be beholden to a political agenda. Some of our work focuses on the needs of the defense and intelligence communities, but not all of it does. I wanted to get our folks engaged with The Science & Entertainment Exchange because I think our organization shares a core belief in the importance of science in society as well as the importance of an accurate portrayal of science to the public. Besides, it’s fun!