Signals Blog


Last week the German Stem Cell Network (SCN) released three videos on the current and future possibilities of stem cells. The videos feature three top tier scientists in the field – Andreas Trumpp, Magdalena Gotz and Anthony Ho – and treat viewers to their viewpoints on where stem cell research currently sits and where it is headed.

Overall such videos are a very welcome addition to the online community and, according to EuroStemCell, audience members in a public outreach event were very engaged during a question and answer period. I applaud each of my colleagues (Professors Trumpp, Gotz and Ho) and their teams for committing time and resources in this fashion and hope that others will also see the value in such efforts.

After watching each of the videos, however, I couldn’t help but wonder who is the audience for these videos? I also wondered how effective such videos are for improving the overall understanding of science (and stem cells) in the public eye. What can you actually communicate in a few minutes and is the message heard? The Wellcome Trust recently released a study of more than 1,000 individuals that queried knowledge of the terms “DNA” and “stem cell” and found that the public’s understanding of both, but particularly stem cells, was actually quite poor.

To put the German SCN videos in context, there have been several similar attempts in the past – both short videos (such as the StemCellShorts driven by fellow Signals’ blogger Ben Paylor) and longer feature films (such as the previous EuroStemCell project, Stem Cell Revolutions).

Whereas the Stem Cell Revolutions feature length documentary was incredibly well done, it also required the highest level of engagement from the audience (e.g., it’s more than one hour long). Compared to the short commitment required for both the StemCellShorts and the new German SCN contributions, this is a big ask from the general viewer so I can appreciate the need for a shorter format to get broader uptake.

In saying that, however, I do worry that the tiny information packets fired around in this digital age might not be particularly conducive to communicating the complicated science behind stem cells. I’m certainly not suggesting we bottle up science and keep it from the public, but it does seem to me that five minutes needs to be used in very creative ways in order for the actual science to come across.

As a consequence, the short video format of the recent German SCN videos forces the producers into making concessions and this is evident across each of the videos. Whereas the Anthony Ho video gives an excellent overview of why stem cells are important for therapeutic purposes and includes a patient story, it says very little about Ho’s research. I was left with the message that stem cell research is important, but I wasn’t sure what I’d actually learned about blood stem cells. Rather, it felt unfair to do things like compress the blood system into eight cell types when there are well over 200 distinct cell types. That said, when you compare Professor Ho’s video to Professor Gotz’s video, it becomes apparent why such concessions were made. The Gotz video discusses the stem cell activity of “radial glial cells” with hardly any introduction and goes on to talk about “de-differentiation” and “action potential” in a video that is great for a scientist to listen to, but I wonder what Joe Public would take away.

As we are now in an age where the public is beginning to demand access to stem cell therapies, prospective patients will need better information and policy makers will need to understand which therapies work and which ones are a waste of the health system’s money. Videos of scientists talking about their research are a good step forward, but evidence of real progress being made comes when the public starts giving feedback to the scientific community.

So, I’m hoping that our readers on Signals can help: These three videos are short and make different concessions. Which one(s) do you find most interesting, most informative or most confusing? What do you actually learn from each one?

Of course I wouldn’t expect a one-size-fits-all solution, nor a guide for how to make a five-minute video about science, but a lot of money is being pushed into public engagement by funders in North America and Europe, and sometimes public engagement is viewed as a chore rather than an active teaching role for scientists. I hope that, together, the stem cell community can keep improving how it communicates in this highly topical area of research and I hope the interested public can help us achieve that.

I’d be grateful for your feedback below and please indicate whether you are a scientist or not.

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David Kent

David Kent

Principal Investigator at University of Cambridge
Dr. David Kent is a Principal Investigator at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute ( His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009. He has been writing for Signals since 2010.