Inciting Change through Science-Driven Communications

On April 25, 1953, Nature magazine published a one-page letter submitted by a 23-year-old American zoologist and a 35-year-old English graduate student from Cambridge. In one of the greatest examples of understatement on record, the letter began: “We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.” The authors, of course, were James Watson and Francis Crick, and their modest suggestion revolutionized our understanding of biology and the blueprint of life.

Less than 20 years later, researchers at Stanford and UCLA developed a way to cut and splice, or recombine, different pieces of DNA and mass produce the stitched-together genetic material in bacteria. Paul Berg, Stanley Cohen and Herb Boyer would later win the Nobel Prize for inventing genetic engineering. In 1976, Boyer co-founded a company dedicated to using this technology to make medicines. By the time the first genetically engineered medicine (recombinant human insulin) made its debut in 1983, the biopharmaceutical boom was well underway. Today, more than 900 new biologic medicines are in development.

The journey from Watson and Crick’s eureka moment to the birth of a new industry is a tale of convergence and insight. Science and business also converged to translate a biological research tool—cutting and pasting together different bits of DNA—into a truly revolutionary way to make medicines. It was Bob Swanson, a visionary venture capitalist, who convinced Herb Boyer that genetic engineering could be the foundation for a new kind of drug company. He sketched out his idea on the back of a napkin and a new era of biology-driven drug development was born.

The birth of the biopharmaceutical industry had an enormous impact on humankind, but most people, including highly educated ones, have never heard these wonderful stories. Although our scientific resources—from the $1,000 genome to cloud computing—have never been greater, limited attention has been paid to the challenge of translating the benefits of drug discovery and other great developments in ways that resonate with audiences, including patients and caregivers.

Without scientific research, knowledge-based healthcare discovery could not exist, but without sharing the “scientific stories” behind cutting edge data, the real meaning and impact of innovation gets lost.

Specialized scientific communications services speak the language and articulate the value of organizations on the leading-edge of scientific innovation. Highlighting the meaning of scientific discovery and the impact these discoveries make in our lives give people a better understanding of how scientific breakthroughs will actually enhance their lives, and not just explain the technical details.

Telling Science Stories that Matter

Over the past two decades, the skyrocketing cost of healthcare has dominated the public discourse and some of the most innovative companies have been accused of charging too much for drugs that do too little. In the worst cases, critics have suggested that many drug manufacturers have lost the will to innovate because profits always come before patients.

It is time to change the narrative. Just as every major advance in medicine has started with a scientific insight—whether divined from an X-ray diffraction pattern or scribbled on a napkin—so, too, should the story of every pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical company begin with a breakthrough in the lab or clinic and end with how that breakthrough will help people.

The importance of differentiating science and innovation in health is essential for companies trying to successfully navigate the current payer-based health system. Companies that understand the importance of authentic storytelling gain corporate brand reputation and credibility. Fostering a greater understanding of a company’s scientific investments, as well as the real value those investments bring to people and society at large, can help disease-modifying drugs get the price and access they deserve in today’s cost-conscious environment.

Adopting this approach, a leading pharmaceutical company undergoing a renaissance in research and development (R&D) was able to regain its market leadership and rebuild its image after a very challenging period. Leveraging new talent, novel technologies and a more streamlined approach to drug development, the company had introduced several innovative products to market, raising awareness of their science and their scientists—many of whom had been recruited from leading academic institutions.

Previously, the company rarely mentioned their research and reporters rarely contacted the company for commentary on the latest trends in drug discovery and development. In short, the story of their renaissance had not been told.

Driven by research that included landscape analyses, in-depth reviews of the scientific literature published by the company and their competitive set, and interviews with more than 45 journalists, scientists and R&D executives, a scientific communications program was developed focused on:

  • Elevating awareness of the company’s world-class science/scientists, its vision for advancing drug R&D, and successes developing innovative drugs;
  • Highlighting internal experts, technologies and research platforms that differentiated them from other R&D organizations;
  • And validating their scientific leadership by showcasing collaborations with prestigious institutions and consortia.

Ultimately, the story of a medicinal chemistry powerhouse that had transformed itself into a leader in disruptive biology helped the company reposition itself in the market. They were using new technologies not only as research tools, but also as a way to potentially treat disease in an entirely new way—much the way Herb Boyer and Bob Swanson transplanted the fruits of genetic engineering from the lab to the clinic.

Clarifying the Science Story

Reviewing the websites of companies in the health space, we find that many are trying to tell a science story that is relatively indistinguishable from any other firm’s narrative. A considerable number of these companies fail to highlight what makes their science unique or illustrate how their science could make people’s lives better. Every story should support a company’s value narrative. Whether it is aimed at policy-makers or the general public, messages need to be skillfully integrated to deliver measurable results.

Clearly, identifying your unique story is critical to a company’s success, but powerful scientific storytelling can only originate from communicators who understand a company’s unique assets and can creatively shape each story to influence key constituencies. Especially now that social media is becoming a primary place where news is consumed, we must leverage each channel to the greatest impact.

Healthcare communicators in the 21st century are fortunate to witness the opening of new frontiers at a scale and speed that is unimaginable to people even 40 years ago. The promise and impact of scientific innovation have changed the odds for people living with HIV, cancer, hepatitis C and many other life-threatening disorders.

It is time we do justice to innovators in the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industry by recruiting specialists dedicated to telling their stories with understanding and with passion, fostering a greater recognition of the value of science for all.


  • Laura Schoen

    Laura Schoen, president of the Weber Shandwick Global healthcare practice, works closely with its established practices in North America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. A recognized industry leader, she has provided strategic counsel to a significant group of multinational healthcare-related campaigns.

  • Frank Orrico, PhD

    Frank Orrico, PhD, Executive Vice President, Weber Shandwick’s Element Scientific Communications, with significant experience in medical/scientific writing and strategic programming, has built an unparalleled team of experts who illustrate how scientific breakthroughs translate into benefits to society, public health, patients and caregivers.


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