This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
In the mid-1960s, a documentary producer in New York City wondered if the addictive jingles, clever visuals, slogans, and repetition of television ads—the ones that were captivating young children of the time—could be harnessed for good. Over the course of three months, she interviewed educators, psychologists, and artists, and the result was a bonanza of ideas.
Perhaps a new TV show could teach children letters and numbers in short animated sequences? Perhaps adults and children could read together with puppets providing comic relief and prompting interaction from the audience? And because it would be broadcast through a device already in almost every home, perhaps this show could reach across socioeconomic divides and close an early education gap?
Soon after Joan Ganz Cooney shared her landmark report, "The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education," in 1966, she was prototyping show ideas, attracting funding from The Carnegie Corporation, The Ford Foundation, and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and co-founding the Children's Television Workshop with psychologist Lloyd Morrisett. And then, on November 10, 1969, informal learning was transformed forever with the premiere of Sesame Street on public television.
For its first season, Sesame Street won three Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award. Its star, Big Bird, landed on the cover of Time Magazine, which called the show "TV's gift to children." Fifty years later, it's hard to imagine an approach to informal preschool learning that isn't Sesame Street.
And that approach can be boiled down to one word: Entertainment.
Despite decades of evidence from Sesame Street—one of the most studied television shows of all time—and more research from social science, psychology, and media communications, we haven't yet taken Ganz Cooney's concepts to heart in educating adults. Adults have news programs and documentaries and educational YouTube channels, but no Sesame Street. So why don't we? Here's how we can design a new kind of television to make science engaging and accessible for a public that is all too often intimidated by it.
We have to start from the realization that America is a nation of high-school graduates. By the end of high school, students have decided to abandon science because they think it's too difficult, and as a nation, we've made it acceptable for any one of us to say "I'm not good at science" and offload thinking to the ones who might be. So, is it surprising that a large number of Americans are likely to believe in conspiracy theories like the 25% that believe the release of COVID-19 was planned, the one in ten who believe the Moon landing was a hoax, or the 30–40% that think the condensation trails of planes are actually nefarious chemtrails? If we're meeting people where they are, the aim can't be to get the audience from an A to an A+, but from an F to a D, and without judgment of where they are starting from.
There's also a natural compulsion for a well-meaning educator to fill a literacy gap with a barrage of information, but this is what I call "factsplaining," and we know it doesn't work. And worse, it can backfire. In one study from 2014, parents were provided with factual information about vaccine safety, and it was the group that was already the most averse to vaccines that uniquely became even more averse.
Why? Our social identities and cognitive biases are stubborn gatekeepers when it comes to processing new information. We filter ideas through pre-existing beliefs—our values, our religions, our political ideologies. Incongruent ideas are rejected. Congruent ideas, no matter how absurd, are allowed through. We hear what we want to hear, and then our brains justify the input by creating narratives that preserve our identities. Even when we have all the facts, we can use them to support any worldview.
But social science has revealed many mechanisms for hijacking these processes through narrative storytelling, and this can form the foundation of a new kind of educational television.
Could new television series establish the baseline narratives for novel science like gene editing, quantum computing, or artificial intelligence?
As media creators, we can reject factsplaining and instead construct entertaining narratives that disrupt cognitive processes. Two-decade-old research tells us when people are immersed in entertaining fiction narratives, they loosen their defenses, opening a path for new information, editing attitudes, and inspiring new behavior. Where news about hot-button issues like climate change or vaccination might trigger resistance or a backfire effect, fiction can be crafted to be absorbing and, as a result, persuasive.
But the narratives can't be stuffed with information. They must be simplified. If this feels like the opposite of what an educator should be doing, it is possible to reduce the complexity of information, without oversimplification, through "exemplification," a framing device to tell the stories of individuals in specific circumstances that can speak to the greater issue without needing to explain it all. It's a technique you've seen used in biopics. The Discovery Channel true-crime miniseries Manhunt: Unabomber does many things well from a science storytelling perspective, including exemplifying the virtues of the scientific method through a character who argues for a new field of science, forensic linguistics, to catch one of the most notorious domestic terrorists in U.S. history.
We must also appeal to the audience's curiosity. We know curiosity is such a strong driver of human behavior that it can even counteract the biases put up by one's political ideology around subjects like climate change. If we treat science information like a product—and we should—advertising research tells us we can maximize curiosity though a Goldilocks effect. If the information is too complex, your show might as well be a PowerPoint presentation. If it's too simple, it's Sesame Street. There's a sweet spot for creating intrigue about new information when there's a moderate cognitive gap.
The science of "identification" tells us that the more the main character is endearing to a viewer, the more likely the viewer will adopt the character's worldview and journey of change. This insight further provides incentives to craft characters reflective of our audiences. If we accept our biases for what they are, we can understand why the messenger becomes more important than the message, because, without an appropriate messenger, the message becomes faint and ineffective. And research confirms that the stereotype-busting doctor-skeptic Dana Scully of The X-Files, a popular science-fiction series, was an inspiration for a generation of women who pursued science careers.
With these directions, we can start making a new kind of television. But is television itself still the right delivery medium? Americans do spend six hours per day—a quarter of their lives—watching video. And even with the rise of social media and apps, science-themed television shows remain popular, with four out of five adults reporting that they watch shows about science at least sometimes. CBS's The Big Bang Theory was the most-watched show on television in the 2017–2018 season, and Cartoon Network's Rick & Morty is the most popular comedy series among millennials. And medical and forensic dramas continue to be broadcast staples. So yes, it's as true today as it was in the 1980s when George Gerbner, the "cultivation theory" researcher who studied the long-term impacts of television images, wrote, "a single episode on primetime television can reach more people than all science and technology promotional efforts put together."
We know from cultivation theory that media images can shape our views of scientists. Quick, picture a scientist! Was it an old, white man with wild hair in a lab coat? If most Americans don't encounter research science firsthand, it's media that dictates how we perceive science and scientists. Characters like Sheldon Cooper and Rick Sanchez become the model. But we can correct that by representing professionals more accurately on-screen and writing characters more like Dana Scully.
Could new television series establish the baseline narratives for novel science like gene editing, quantum computing, or artificial intelligence? Or could new series counter the misinfodemics surrounding COVID-19 and vaccines through more compelling, corrective narratives? Social science has given us a blueprint suggesting they could. Binge-watching a show like the surreal NBC sitcom The Good Place doesn't replace a Ph.D. in philosophy, but its use of humor plants the seed of continued interest in a new subject. The goal of persuasive entertainment isn't to replace formal education, but it can inspire, shift attitudes, increase confidence in the knowledge of complex issues, and otherwise prime viewers for continued learning.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.