To two neighborhoods, actually. One is Los Angeles, where the Science & Entertainment Exchange has recently set up shop, and which the Norman Lear Center, which I direct, also calls home.
The other ‘hood is more metaphorical. The Exchange is in Westwood, located at UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute; the Lear Center, based at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, is housed in Beverly Hills. But both of us are also in Hollywood, an industry that permeates the region, both literally and virtually.
In particular, both the Exchange and Hollywood, Health & Society (HH&S), a Lear Center project on which I’m the principal investigator, have a shared mission: improving the accuracy of the scientific information depicted in entertainment.
For HH&S, the focus is medicine and health. Funded initially by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, our scope includes all topics relevant to public health and safety and studied by the CDC, ranging from avian flu, obesity, and West Nile virus to autism, bioterrorism, and violence. Subsequent support from other agencies – the National Cancer Institute, the Division of Transplantation, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – enabled us to expand our scope to topics like clinical trials, organ donation, patient safety and medical errors, and workplace injuries. More recently, support from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has enabled us to address health issues like malaria, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis in a global context, and funding from The California Endowment has added a focus on the environment, income inequality, and other social determinants of health.
What do we do with these topics? We try to make it as easy as possible for writers and producers of television series and movies to depict those issues factually. Any entertainment industry professional, at no cost, can enlist our help to connect them to clinicians, researchers, first responders, field workers, patients, victims, families, agencies – to experts across the country and around the world on any public health and safety issues that come up in their storylines. These experts, in turn, provide technical assistance and advice to those shows and films. They don’t tell writers what they have to do, but they do tell them what’s true, and they do their best to help those writers tell their stories without sacrificing either accuracy or entertainment value.
The reason our funders support this work is the tremendous influence that entertainment has on audiences. Research consistently shows that audiences believe that the medical and health content of entertainment storylines is accurate. What viewers take in when they watch television and movies does more than capture their imaginations; whether the makers of entertainment intend it or not, their creations constitute a kind of unofficial curriculum about how the world works. Writers do what they do in order to attract viewers, not to conduct public health communication campaigns. But because their stories have such a powerful impact on audiences’ knowledge, beliefs, and behavior, we do our best to help them make smash hits and blockbusters that don’t needlessly misinform their consumers.
And now the National Academy of Sciences, through the Exchange, has come to town. The broad portfolio of the NAS means that industry professionals will now have access to science and engineering experts on cutting-edge topics including extraterrestrial life, computer technology, climate change, and multiple dimensions. And where the subject matter expertise of the Exchange and of HH&S converge – in Institute of Medicine topics, and in life science basic research – we have fashioned a way to route industry queries to one another’s networks of scientists, wherever the most appropriate expertise is located.
So welcome to the ‘hood, NAS. Hollywood will profit from the cool science you can connect it with. And society will benefit from the audiences exposed to the knowledge you can broker to them. As we say in show biz, break a leg.
Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, where he directs the Norman Lear Center, a nonpartisan research and public policy center studying and shaping the impact of entertainment on society. A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard in molecular biology, and a Ph.D. from Stanford in modern thought and literature, he was Vice President Walter Mondale’s chief speechwriter, and he worked at Disney for 12 years as a motion picture executive and as a screenwriter and producer.