Do TED Talks help a scientist’s career?

Wildly popular streaming Internet videos of talks given at the TED conference—short for Technology, Entertainment, Design—have helped create a growing class of public intellectuals. TED talks elevate their speakers well beyond the ivory tower or the corporate boardroom, by presenting their ideas in highly-palatable, 18-minute presentations that easily go viral. The format would seem to be a model for the dissemination of complex scientific ideas. But a group of researchers from Canada, the United Kingdom, and Indiana decided to study the impact of the talks and found that TED stardom does not help build professors’ academic stature among colleagues, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE.

The Boston area has more than its fair share of TED celebrities who’ve pitched their ideas to broad audiences via the widely-watched online videos. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s talk on happiness has been viewed more than 5 million times on the TED website since 2004; MIT professor Pattie Maes’ 2009 talk on wearable technology that her graduate student Pranav Mistry invented has now been viewed more than 7 million times. Mistry’s solo talk, filmed later in 2009, has gotten more than 10 million views. Among TED’s academic presenters, MIT has had the most TED presenters and Harvard ranks third, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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The TED medium has raised some eyebrows for its sometimes-formulaic structure and its glib packaging of insight and ideas. But the popularity of the conference series—its videos surpassed 1 billion views last November—attest to its success in engaging an audience But what are the effects of popularizing science on a researcher’s career, the researchers wondered? And were the videos really a good vehicle for presenting ideas, or more of a way to spotlight talented communicators?

Unlike the Nobel Prize, which has been found to provide a bump to the number of times a scientists’ work is cited by their colleagues, the TED talks appear to provide no comparable boost, the researchers reported in the journal PLOS ONE. The authors even write in the paper that the benefits of the extra exposure may be cancelled out by the “tendency of fellow researchers to question the presenter’s motivations.”

But the study also speaks to other attributes of TED speakers that raise questions about whether the medium is an effective method to popularize science more generally, or whether it is merely providing a venue for already accomplished communicators. Of TED presenters who were academics, three-quarters were based in the U.S. and most already had a Wikipedia page and were cited more often than average. TED may simply be amplifying the reputations of people who are already at the top of their game, instead of mining for the best and most surprising new ideas. The researchers cite the “Matthew effect” in which the rich get richer and the poor poorer.

The Internet provides a slew of new kinds of opportunities to popularize science, raising the question of what is the best way for the public to engage with science, and vice versa. Jamil Zaki, a former postdoctoral researcher at Harvard who now runs a social neuroscience laboratory at Stanford University, recently launched The People’s Science, a webpage where scientists can write their own lay-summaries of their work directly for public consumption. Casey Dunn at Brown University came up with CreatureCast, a forum that feature videos about biology, many starring some of the sea-dwelling creatures his lab studies.

What do you think is the best way for scientists to engage with the public?