Would you act as a consultant on a scifi movie?

Last week in my first year seminar course “Controversial issues in the life sciences” we watched Jurassic Park and discussed a series of questions about the science included, the portrayal of scientists, and various other issues. This was interesting, because most of the people in the course are not biology majors but had done a good job learning about cloning, genetic engineering, and other topics during the semester. (This was also a nice break from giving weekly presentations, I am sure).

Anyway, as part of the discussion we also read several papers about science in movies. One of them by Kirby (2003) is about scientists as consultants for Hollywood productions. As I was reading it, I thought to myself, “I would probably do it, but not for personal payment — if they funded my research that would be ok”. Then, on the following page, I read:

Based on the available evidence, science consultants are far more likely to accept research funds, or no compensation at all, rather than actual payment for their services. One of the reasons for this situation is the unwillingness of scientists to take money for what they consider a “public service.” Many of the consultants I researched felt it was their “duty” as a scientist to impart knowledge to an uneducated public, including filmmakers, and that it would have been “unethical” for them to take money for this activity. For example, two of the consultants for the 1922 gland-based horror film A Blind Bargain(1922) felt that it would be “disreputable” for “medical researchers” to accept payment for their services, and they even requested that their names not be included in publicity material (see Riley, 1988).Likewise, Donald Francis of Genentech, Inc., who is most famous for his work on an AIDS vaccine, refused financial payment for his work as technical adviser for the film Outbreak(1995), accepting as compensation “only that his 17-year-old son, Oli, be allowed to observe the filming” (see Ganahl, 1995: 1E). Francis’ example underscores the conflict that science consultants face. On the one hand, they believe that as scientists they should give scientific advice freely to anyone who seeks knowledge. On the other hand, they are providing a specialized service for filmmakers and believe they should receive compensation of some type. To resolve this tension, consultants have come up with other forms of compensation that do not involve direct financial payment. In this regard, consultants who accept research funds rather than salary or consultation fees perceive that this action does not compromise their “ethics,” because the money will not go into their pockets but will go toward the production of “new knowledge.”

Science is an intriguing culture, no question.

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Kirby, DA (2003). Science on the set: science consultants and the communication of science in visual fiction. Public Understanding of Science 12: 261-278.


2 comments to Would you act as a consultant on a scifi movie?

  • Don Monroe

    In this context, it’s probably worth mentioning the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which was established last fall to help moviemakers hook up with scientists who are willing to help them get their science right.

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  • Karl

    I seem to recall Randi commenting on maybe the Penn Radio show that Richard Feynman stopped allowing people to use his name on book covers (ie he would politely turn down requests for a favorable book review comment) after he won his Nobel prize as he did not want to make it appear he was leveraging the prize.

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