Stem Cell Town Hall Fails Web 2.0

March 19th, 2009

Last night, I attended the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (CIRM) San Francisco Town Hall for stem cell science. In their words:

“The Town Forums provide an interactive opportunity for people to learn how CIRM is investing
Proposition 71 funds to improve human health and about advances in stem cell science from some of the
most distinguished researchers in the field.”

CIRM manages the public money that was allotted for stem cell research through the passage of Prop. 71. Part of their mandate is to inform the public of the state of the research. They have a vested interest in doing a good job at the public outreach: future funding depends on it.

I went with great hopes for a well-attended, message driven, engaging experience.

They did have the numbers. It’s estimated by the CIRM chief communications officer, Don Gibbons, that 275 people came to the event, which is 75 more than had RSVP’d. So, in terms of feet in the meeting room, the people came.

Needless to say, there were event posters plastered all over SF Muni’s buses and trains for a month prior. But, the fact that so many people had RSVP’d makes me wonder how successful the print ad campaign actually was. I don’t know how many people would write down the email address in order to reply once in front of a computer. Yes, in San Francisco, many people could have used their mobile devices to respond on route, but I still wonder. I know I never RSVP’d. I just showed up.

An RSVP is most likely to come from someone who receives an email communication, an invitation, or… a press release. And, those people are going to be somehow linked to the organization through some kind of list. So, how many of the attendees were citizens of this California locality with no link to CIRM? Probably not as many as they hoped to attract.

But, what about people who might have been interested, but unable to make it to the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco? What about Californians in Redding, Stockton, Humboldt, Fresno? That’s a long drive to make for a lecture on stem cells. This is where CIRM fails in its mandate to inform the public of its activities, and where it fails at basic Web 2.0.

With today’s internet capabilities, there is no excuse for relying on outreach techniques of yesterday. They have a mandate to reach the public. I don’t think 275 attendees cuts the mustard. So, where could they have improved?

1.Interact with the audience

If it’s supposed to be interactive, make it interactive.

Sure, the q and a after the lectures was interactive for the people in attendance, but they could do so much better. There are web companies that make it easy to set up a simple camera and stream events live to people around the world. Not only does the video reach a wider audience, the platforms make interactive chat between people hosting and viewing an event possible. Both the informational lectures and the question and answer session could have been made richer by the parallel discussion. I had the only video camera at the town hall, and I wasn’t streaming.

2. Engage the audience

Who did CIRM have presenting to the audience? Scientists. And, while scientists are smart and everything, they don’t always do a good job of conveying information to a lay audience. The lectures last night were academic, textbook, and DRY. If it weren’t for the fact that I think 2/3 of the people in the room had a science background, the lectures would have been over the heads of the average person. Add to the lecture content the fact that the visual presentations were abysmal. The slides were consistently over-stuffed with text or overly-complicated graphics. However, there were two bright spots. Tamara Alliston, who lectured on cartilage, did an excellent job of using cartilage as the main character in her story, and Bruce Conklin, who lectured on heart muscle, effectively used humor to his benefit (not to mention that he also had cool videos). Both of these techniques are extremely effective in getting an audience to engage with a topic.

3. Don’t forget the audience

It seemed as though, as well-intentioned as the speakers were, the purpose of the event was muddled. They forgot the concerns of the audience.

The entire series of three lectures needed to be message driven rather than driven by scientific jargon and research techniques. For future events, I suggest enlisting a public relations expert to train the speakers and help craft a series of engaging lectures with hooks to draw the audience in, stories to keep them engaged, and simple bottom-lines. What is the take home message? Drive it home.

4. Get the audience to spread the word

I’m spreading the word because that was my goal in attending. I wanted to see how this town hall was produced, and then talk about it. CIRM needs to get their audience to advertise for them, to pass their messages along for them. Where are those opportunities? Their website is devoid of ways to interact, communicate, and share. I did hear last night that part of the reason the website is suffering is that it is managed by the state, and has to deal with a lot of internal beaurocracy. Fair enough, but it is easy to become involved in non-state-managed web communities like Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, Stumble Upon, or even Flickr. What about Seesmic? I can imagine some interesting discussions taking place there. To CIRM’s credit, they do have both a YouTube site and a Flickr account.

5. Give the audience what they want

Some of the most effective campaigns to get the public interested in science are being run by NASA and the California Academy of Sciences. They are taking advantage of all the data available to them, and creating fascinating new ways to interact with their respective audiences in just the way the audience wants. NASA’s recent Twitter accounts have had amazing success, especially @MarsPhoenix. Then there is where I watched the recent shuttle docking with the International Space Station. Here in San Francisco, the Cal Academy recently began a Thursday night, adults-only event with top djs and alcohol. So far, it has been a raging success.

These examples aren’t necessarily exactly what CIRM should do, but they should learn the lesson of giving the audience what they want.


I’ve been a bit harsh on CIRM for its inaugural public outreach event, but I think it is deserved. Science media is lacking, and every organization that is trying to share scientific information with the public needs to do their absolute best to step it up. Science needs to use PR and web 2.0 techniques just like everyone else.

I will admit that the whole town hall left me feeling as if CIRM was only just going through the motions of fulfilling its mandate for public outreach rather than truly making an effort to reach out and educate the people of California and beyond. I hope they do better next time.

12 Responses to “Stem Cell Town Hall Fails Web 2.0”

  1. john foster on March 19, 2009 7:15 pm

    I saw the Muni poster while waiting for a train. there was so much info on that poster there was no way to remember any one thing about it. thinking back I just remember the words “Learn” and “Stem Cells”. I wanted to remember the details so I took a picture of the sign. the information from that made it to my calender.

    while we will never the know the costs involved in getting the word out we can guess. let’s say they got a deal on 250 locations at a cost of $500 (for 30 days). that’s $125K for the sign rental. the poster had a cost and whatever the agency charged to manage it bring the total to $140k. that means the cost of the 275 people that showed up was $509 per person.

  2. Carmen Gonzalez on March 19, 2009 7:37 pm

    Dear Dr. Sanford:

    You are so dead on! I hope the powers that be at CIRM listen up and follow your advice. I made sue to Digg your story to help spread the word. A Twitter pal, @dontgetcaught has tweeted your article. If science does not begin to promote its necessary and revolutionary promise to the masses, it may find itself out of money. This economy suffers no fools.

    Keep up the good work.


  3. Naomi Most on March 20, 2009 2:55 am

    That was a bittersweet meeting, to be sure. But I felt I came away with a clearer understanding of the challenges that science faces with regards to popularization and addressing the concerns of the public.

    I spoke with Don Gibbons, the Chief Communications Officer of CIRM, after the talks. I brought up internet relations efforts and he more or less halted my questioning by saying “oh we have a YouTube channel”, with an impatient tone of “enough said, we’ve done our part.” HMM. “Only just going through the motions” indeed.

    It also wasn’t all bad. I learned a lot, though I (like you) worried about the rest of the audience.

    Nice surprise running into you there!


  4. Don Gibbons on March 23, 2009 5:13 pm

    Would anyone in this conversation care for some facts. Did anyone actually go to our YouTube channel? Obviously not. We have 16 videos that do a good job of covering all the basics of stem cell science and we get over 100 views per day. Our Flickr site has 49 images and gets over 200 views a day. We did a social media release the day that site went up, which got into several blogs, and we got 6,000 hits in a day. Images from our Flickr site were used by some major papers for coverage of the Obama decision.

    We audio-cast our board meetings on the web. We did a public science seminar as a video web cast in September, but found it prohibitively expensive, because I feel it requires two cameras to catch the speaker and the slides. If anyone wants to be constructive and direct me to a low cost/high quality service, I am listening. But quality is important. No one watches an hour and a half of poor video on the web.

    Also, the entire ad campaign cost less the $14,000, so I don’t know where Mr. Foster’s wild estimate came from, and in fact, the vast majority of the audience filling out the exit survey said they learned of the event via the Muni/Bart posters. A tiny fraction indicated email lists.

    I am a firm believer that a balanced communication program includes in-person communication.

  5. Carolyn on March 23, 2009 9:21 pm

    Mr. Gibbons,

    You make some good points, yet you haven’t addressed Dr. Sanford’s comments regarding engaging the audience during a live presentation. You had a live audience. Do you feel that more could have been done to make the evening better, easier to digest, less dry? This isn’t about slamming your intent, your hard work or that of your presenters that evening, but how to make the most of similar events — to make the public learn and want to learn more. I’m guessing that since your advertising was in the BART and Muni stations that you were hoping to attract members of the general community.

    Honestly, I wasn’t there. I have, however, worked in cancer research and seen eyes glaze over the second I mentioned what I did. People thought it was “cool” and “interesting,” but felt it was over their heads because it was “science” and that’s “hard.” It was always rewarding to watch the glazed look leave those eyes when I was able to explain something in a way that made sense to the listener.

    And I have met Dr. Sanford and know her to be very passionate about science and about making it interesting and engaging to those who aren’t very informed.

    So what do you feel, if anything, could be done to address her points 2 and 3?

  6. Naomi Most on March 23, 2009 10:50 pm


    I can understand feeling put-upon for the implication of “you haven’t done enough.” But the idea here isn’t blame, it’s that “enough is not being done.” To claim otherwise is to turn a blind eye to the past 8 years’ worth of utter shenanigans with regards to science policy in the White House and the U.S.’s horrendous science education reputation compared to the rest of the world.

    Of course, it also doesn’t sit too well with those with journalistic aims to be fed the implication that their work, the work of popularizing scientific research, getting it into the core of our culture rather than left on the fringes, is unneeded. Please excuse my reaction if that’s NOT what was implied, but reading your reaction in the comment above seems to reinforce it.

    Do you have data on how many of those 100 views per day actually finish watching the video all the way to the end? How many referrals to the CIRM website come from video views? How many visits to the website result in a bounce in 30 seconds or less?

    Finally, have you tried searching for “stem cell research” on YouTube (incidentally, the 2nd most popular search engine in the world)? CIRM isn’t on the first page of results. Penn Jilette is.

    > No one watches an hour and a half of poor video on the web.<

    More to the point, no one watches an hour and a half of ANY video on the web. (Unless it’s two back-to-back episodes of Dollhouse.)

    Perhaps there is a reason TEDtalks limits their incredibly brilliant and fascinating presenters, many of whom I’m sure could talk your ear off, to a mere 20 minutes.

    In closing, my suggestion is not for scientists to spend more money on video, but rather to reach out to the willing workforce of science journalists, bloggers, storytellers, podcasters, documentarians, search engine optimization experts, and social media mavens who are clamoring to have a hand in raising science awareness and education in this country.

    We’re on the same side.


  7. Kishore Hari on March 24, 2009 1:16 am

    Mr. Gibbons –

    My comment is that the event had the content and speaker quality for something exceptional. The only missing piece for me was greater audience involvement.

    There is an easy cheap solution for this. It’s called a science cafe, an informal discussion that is driven by audience questions and comments. It was designed specifically to bring science to public lay audiences.

    Many universities and museums are using this methodology for engaging and empowering their audiences. I run a science cafe in San Francisco called Down to a Science ( The only additional expense versus a forum talk is the service of a moderator (which is fairly cheap). Bruce may speak at an upcoming cafe in May, it’ll be an interesting way to preview the format before investing in it.

    I’d be happy to talk to you about the format and how CIRM can use it to more effectively engage a public audience. Drop me a line at khari at

  8. Lee Buckler on March 24, 2009 11:04 am


    As you know, one of the first rules of social media engagement is that is is a two-way discussion not a one-way feed. Kiki attended your session, is an intelligent citizen and successful user of social media. She had a perspective on your program. There are valuable things to learn and leverage from that perspective.

    You know that I work exclusively in the cell therapy field. I am a subscriber to CIRM’s emails, I have “CIRM” as a google-alert, I have YouTube subscriptions, and I do regular cell therapy industry blogging so I am constantly monitoring news in the sector. I was not aware you had a YouTube channel.

    Kiki is an advocate of science as am I. Her feedback was meant to be constructive, useful, and used. I know you have a tough job and are required to defend the Institute but we’re just having a conversation here.

    Kiki spend considerable time in this blog actually putting together some helpful suggestions to make her criticism constructive.

    I give you full credit for being here, for posting comments on a blog, and for the facts you’ve shared. That’s outstanding! If the defensive tone were softened just a little (maybe even a ‘thank you Kiki for your insights’ that would go a long way to helping you let people help you.

    Keep up the good work, Don. I know it’s tough sledding and you have (I am sure) a sometimes thankless job. We believe in what you’re doing and sometimes we can help if you let us.

    Just my thoughts…


  9. Don Gibbons on March 24, 2009 11:49 am

    Dr. Sanford’s main intent seemed to be to have a riff for her blog. She says there were two bright spots, noting two speakers, when we only had three. So, how cold the content be that bad. Her column suggests she has very little experience working with faculty. I did similar programs for the public at Harvard Med for 10 years and always offered the faculty the opportunity to work with a professional speech coach, let them know it was an expensive perk that would improve all their talks, and had three faculty accept in all those years. They just will not take the time in their jammed schedules. I do insist on a pre-event conference call where we discuss audience and the avoidance of jargon. It turns out that most folks attending our event indicated on the post event survey that, for the most part, the speakers hit the right level of complexity. We got much positive feedback and very little criticism.

  10. Kirsten Sanford on March 24, 2009 1:52 pm

    I want to thank everyone who has so far taken the time to reply to this blog post.

    My intent in the post was not to “have a riff for my blog”, Don, but to create a conversation. That is what social media is about… allowing people to have a voice, and learning from one another.

    CIRM is but one example of an organization who is doing amazing, important work, but could honestly use some help in using the potential avenues available for communicating science information to the public.

    I am sorry that I got your back up, and that you felt the need to be defensive. The work that you are doing is a good start, but there is room to grow.

    Science, not just stem cells, but all of science needs to take communication in this new media environment seriously.

    I agree person to person communication is very valuable, and that is what new social media tools can allow you to do on a much bigger scale.

    I have worked with faculty, and I do know the challenges that face someone trying to work with them. I appreciate that difficulty. However, it is time to work past that difficulty. The task at hand is too important to let excuses get in the way.

    I’m glad that the audience in attendance found the lectures appropriate. I’m still not convinced that the lectures couldn’t have been improved significantly. I did find those two techniques used by the speakers useful, but the use of those techniques did not completely compensate for everything else.

    Please, just hear me out that there was ample room for improvement. I was attempting to be critical of the event in a helpful manner, giving suggestions that can be used to get an even better response from the people you are trying to reach.

    Thank you for organizing the town halls. They are important forums for this topic.

    I would like to help you and other organizations like CIRM communicate more effectively. Please, contact me to talk about this further.

  11. Jason Anderson on March 24, 2009 3:37 pm

    Just a foreword to my comment. I am not a scientist. I am a technologist and media optimization junkie.

    Most of the points that Dr. Sanford was making can be applied to many science disciplines. The purpose of the post seems to be to point to the generalizations about the state of science in media and it’s penetration among its viewers. CIRM was just caught up in the cross-fire of a “science in the media” post.

    I don’t think anyone will disagree that there is a lack of science knowledge among the broad American public. One of the problems is that the science industry moves so fast. It is much like the technology/gadget industry in that respect.

    We need to find what magical set of events happened in the 1960’s to push science into the hearts and minds of the American people that allowed for us to put a man on the moon.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Dr. Stanford: I cannot think of a better person to talk about science in the media than you. It is your niche and you do a great job of it.

  12. Mike Spear on March 30, 2009 11:09 am

    While up here in the still frozen North far away from the San Francisco event, I can practically see and hear the Town Hall not just because of this posting and comments, but because I have attended far too many like it.
    Science has not exactly been at the head of the pack when it comes to embracing new ways to reach the general public and the media, but it is getting better.
    As more scientists come over to the dark side of media and some of us move from the media to the equally dark side of Communications maybe, we will see better events and more with signifcant online components. We twittered a couple of lectures by Nobel Laureate Dr. Luc Montagnier and while it didn’t light up the social media world it was definitely a success that moved it well outside the packed lecture hall and into the online ‘lecture hall’.
    Keep up the good work of bringing science to a broader audience and thanks to the CIRM for even taking on the challenge of a Town Hall. We can only get better if we keep working at it.


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