Science on the Silver Screen

Somehow I missed this story until now. Cyndi Greening and Anbruch both point to a recent New York Times artcile reporting that the American Film Institute (AFI) is participating in a workshop to train scientists and engineers on screenwriting. The work is funded by grants from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research ($100,000 a year annually for three years) and the Army Research Office ($50,000 this year), who seek to promote “accurate” portrayls of scientists and engineers in Hollywood films. So what’s the motivation behind hosting these workshops?

Exactly how the national defense could be bolstered by setting a few more people loose in Los Angeles with screenplays to peddle may be a bit of a brainteaser. But officials at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research spell out a straightforward syllogism:

Fewer and fewer students are pursuing science and engineering. While immigrants are taking up the slack in many areas, defense laboratories and industries generally require American citizenship or permanent residency. So a crisis is looming, unless careers in science and engineering suddenly become hugely popular, said Robert J. Barker, an Air Force program manager who approved the grant. And what better way to get a lot of young people interested in science than by producing movies and television shows that depict scientists in flattering ways?

Now, as Anbruch notes, this is the ultimate example of “product placement,” as the defense industry attempts to attract young viewers into the sciences. This kind of relationship has a relatively long history, as David Robb’s Operation Hollywood points out, with movies such as Top Gun serving as little more than 100-minute recruitment videos for the military and apparently led to a major spike in military recruitment.

But while I’m suspicious of the motivations for this seminar, I am intrigued by some of the questions it’s raising. It is interesting to see these scientists reflecting on questions of audience and what it means to write for non-professionals outside of peer-reviewed journals. Also worth noting: in the past, I’ve commented on my frustration at how college and university professors are represented in Hollywod films, and it sounds like the seminar has focused to some extent on these “representation issues,” with the seminar participants debating about Michael Douglas’s portrayal of a defense-industry engineer in Falling Down.

Here’s the AFI press release on the workshop (note: this might explain the NIH Science in Cinema series playing at the AFI Silver).

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