Study Finds Less than 20% of Americans are Active Consumers of Science News

Here at the Mass General Research Institute, we live and breathe science news every day.

We’re eager to find out what’s happening in the research labs, centers and institutes at Massachusetts General Hospital (and with biomedical science in general), and share what we’ve learned on our blog and website.

But what about the general public? Do they share the same interest in science?

A recent Pew Research Survey of 4,000 adults aged 18 and over found that only 17 percent of respondents were “active consumers” of science news. Active consumers were defined as those who get science news several times a week, either by chancing across it or by actively seeking it out.

Details of the Study

The study found that general news outlets are the most common sources of science stories, though respondents indicated that they tend to view information from niche sources such as scientific institutions, museums, documentaries and science-specific magazines as more accurate.

More than 80 percent of those who follow science news cited curiosity as their prime motivating factor. Other reasons cited by respondents for following science news was that the information helps them make decisions in their everyday lives, and that they enjoy talking about science with others.

There is also a family connection—many of the respondents who were parents said that they sought out science news due to the activities and interests of their children.

When it comes to the coverage of science itself, some respondents criticized science journalists for too much emphasis on “gee-whiz” writing that doesn’t do enough to explain the relevance of the science for the average person, or assess the quality of the research.

Some 44% of survey respondents said it was a “big problem” that the public doesn’t know enough about science to understand research findings in the news. A similar number of respondents said that with so many studies being published, it can be difficult to distinguish between high and low quality work.

Finding Meaning in the Results

So what does that mean for researchers and the research communications team at Massachusetts General Hospital?

We have an opportunity to be a trusted and accessible voice for science. We can take a hard look at the way we communicate our findings to see if we are using too much jargon, failing to explain key concepts or not taking the time to explain how our work could impact human health down the road—even if the potential benefits are a long way off.

In an era where hot button issues such as climate change and childhood vaccinations have scientists facing an increasing level of scrutiny, it’s important that we continuously work on improving our communication skills.

Communicating Science at Mass General

Through the Office of the Scientific Director, the Mass General Research Institute has launched several programs designed to improve the way our researchers talk about science.

We have organized communicating science competitions at HUBweek and the Cambridge Science Festival, and hosted workshops on science communication in conjunction with the Alan Alda Center For Science Communication.

We also share tips on communicating science on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Science is a complex and ever-changing field. Each new advance, from personalized medicine to CRISPR gene editing, creates a new set of terminology that might make perfect sense to the research community, but is totally unknown to the general public.

By challenging ourselves to be better communicators, we can advocate for the importance of medical research and its potential to improve the lives of patients, both here at Mass General and across the globe.

The Research Institute:
Saving Lives Through Science

The Massachusetts General Hospital Research Institute is the largest hospital-based research program in the United States, with a community of over 10,000 people working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments.Our researchers work side-by-side with physicians to pioneer the latest scientific advancements for curing disease and healing patients in Boston, across the United States and around the world.To learn more about the Research Institute, please visit our website.

Study Provides New Treatment Option For Recurring Prostate Cancer Patients

There is new hope for the more than 30 percent of prostate cancer patients who will experience cancer recurrence after undergoing surgery to remove their prostate gland.

Prostate cancer cells need androgens (also known as male hormones) to grow, and, in order to function properly, androgens must bind to receptors in the prostate. Medications called antiandrogens can bind to these receptors to block the androgens. A new study from the Mass General Department of Radiation Oncology found that adding antiandrogen drugs to standard radiation therapy can improve the survival of patients facing post-surgery prostate cancer recurrence. Investigators believe that their findings will change the standard of care and provide new treatment options for patients experiencing a postoperative recurrence.

The clinical trial looked at 760 prostate cancer patients who had recurrent cancer after surgical removal of the prostate gland. Participants were randomly assigned to either receive an antiandrogen drug (bicalutamide) or a placebo for 24 months in addition to six and a half weeks of radiation therapy.

The long-term study found that adding antiandrogen drug therapy to radiation treatment reduced the death rate in a subset of prostate cancer patients by more than half. The group who received the combination treatment as part of the clinical trial were also 50 percent less likely to develop cancer in another area of the body. The treatment also didn’t seem to have negative side effects on the heart and liver.

Research is currently underway to test the effectiveness of newer antiandrogen drugs. Those trials started about five years ago so it will take some time to get their results.

William U. Shipley, MD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Department of Radiation Oncology, is lead author of this study.

Interested in learning more? See the full press release here, and read the original study here.

New Scent Recognition and Recall Test Could Better Predict Onset of Alzheimer’s Disease

If you are wondering about your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the answer may be found right under your nose.

A Mass General research team has developed a series of four tests designed to measure early indications of Alzheimer’s disease based on an individual’s ability to recognize, remember and distinguish among odors.

The 30-minute scent test was given to 183 people between 60 and 80 years old – some with mild cognitive impairment or possible Alzheimer’s disease—and of those, about 20 percent showed signs of olfactory deficiencies.

Genetic and imaging testing revealed that that these same individuals had other deficiencies that have been linked to the illness, including thickening of certain brain structures and a mutation in a gene associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

While Alzheimer’s disease is known to affect brain structure involved in odor perception, previous tests have not been effective screening tools since the natural ability to identify and distinguish among scents varies greatly among individuals.

The new test developed by Mark Albers, MD, PhD, of the Center for Alzheimer’s Research, takes a four-part approach that includes identification, emotional association, memory and differentiation.

For example in one test, participants were presented with a series of 10 odors—menthol, clove, leather, strawberry, lilac, pineapple, smoke, soap, grape or lemon. They were asked if they could recognize the scent and if they could identify it from a list of four options.

In a subsequent test, the participants were presented with 20 odors, 10 of which were repeats from the first test and 10 that were new. The participants were not only asked to identify each odor, but also to recall if it was included in the first test.

It is estimated that there is a 10-year gap between the start of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain and the first outward manifestation of symptoms. If researchers can better identify individuals in the very early stages of the disease, they may be able to develop therapies that will slow or halt its progression.

Teaming Up to Find Treatments for Rare Diseases


What is the fastest way to develop new treatments for patients with rare diseases? In a word, teamwork.

That was the consensus that emerged from an hour-long panel discussion on rare disease research hosted by the Division of Clinical Research at Massachusetts General Hospital last month.

“By their very definition, rare diseases have limited resources and we all have to partner together to move them forward,” said Florian Eichler, MD, director of the Mass General Center for Rare Neurological Diseases.


Reading the Unconscious Mind Under General Anesthesia

In September, eight researchers came to Massachusetts General Hospital to compete in our first-ever Art of Talking Science competition during HUBweek.

Each researcher had four minutes to present their science to an audience of 200 people and a panel of judges, and then received feedback on how well they communicated the impact and significance of their work.

Participants included scientists from Mass General, MIT, Harvard and Tufts University.

The goal was to encourage scientists to find creative ways to engage with the general public. Here is the presentation of our winner, Patrick Purdon, PhD, of the Mass General

Research at Massachusetts General Hospital

Did you know that Massachusetts General Hospital is home to the largest hospital-based research program in the United States? We’re a community of over 8,000 people working to improve the lives of our patients and those across the globe.

New Method for Testing Blood Sugar Levels Could Improve Diabetes Monitoring

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a new method for measuring blood sugar levels in diabetes patients that could reduce testing errors by 50 percent.

The new method, which uses a mathematical formula that factors in the average age of a person’s red blood cells (RBCs) in addition to the cells’ overall blood sugar content, could help to improve the accuracy of most commonly used test, known as A1C.

The A1C test is designed to measure the amount of sugar absorbed by RBCs in the body over a period of time. The problem with getting an accurate diagnosis is that older RBCs tend to absorb more blood sugar over time, while newer RBCs soak up less.

Blood cells can live in the body for roughly 90 to 120 days, and cell lifespan varies from one patient to the next.

By incorporating a mathematical formula that accounts for the average age of RBCs in the body, researchers can reduce the errors caused both by older, more glucose-dense blood cells in someone whose RBC lifespan is longer than average, and by the younger, less glucose-dense blood cells in someone whose RBC lifespan is shorter.

An accurate measure of blood sugar levels is crucial for diabetes patients, as persistently elevated levels can damage the heart, brain, kidneys, eyes, nerves and other organs.

John Higgins, MD, of the Center for Systems Biology, is corresponding author of the study.