Pentagon Turns to Hollywood for National Security


Jan. 18, 2007— -- Josh Hurd has had a passion for science since high school, but he plans to go to law school after graduating from Dartmouth College.

"In dealing with environmental issues, it's not the scientists who are influencing policy," he said, "rather, it's the politicians. Scientists don't have that much impact on the actual policy being implemented. Law is where I feel I can make the most difference."

That kind of attitude is worrisome to the nation's top researchers -- and the Defense Department as well.

As a growing number of top college graduates pursue careers in investment banking, consulting and law, they say the nation is suffering from a dangerous shortage of scientists and engineers.

"There are many reasons for this trend, the possibility of a lucrative job right after graduation," said Patricia Rose, director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. "These jobs are very attractive and pay well."

How do the scientists fight back? They're going Hollywood.

Catalyst Workshop

Martin Gundersen, a professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California, created the Catalyst Workshop, a program that teaches scientists and engineers the basics of movie screenwriting.

He got funding from the U.S. Army Research Office and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. And he teamed up with the American Film Institute to run the workshop.

"I wanted to provide opportunities for scientists and engineers to tell better stories, affect the portrayal of science," said Gundersen. "It's the best thing in the world, it gives us puzzles and problems, such a challenging and wonderful area. [Scientists] just need help conveying that."

"A filmmaker might not necessarily be interested in some seemingly complicated research," said Joe Petricca, Executive Vice Dean at the American Film Institute. "We're training storytellers."

Valerie Weiss joined the Catalyst Workshop and liked it. She holds a doctorate in biophysics but now devotes herself entirely to her career in film.

"Everyone has a fantasy of leaving their day job and going to Hollywood. But it takes years to be a scientist, takes years to be a screenwriter," she said. "Film allows you to think about the bigger picture, the sociology of science."

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky was also a student at the Catalyst Workshop. As she continues to research chemotherapy drugs, she is also working on a book about the physics of NASCAR.

"What we need is a fan base for physics. Science needs a big public relations campaign," she said.

Movie Solution

Joseph Helble, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, was skeptical.

"People see Hollywood or a television series as the solution. A film has an impact for six months to a year and a few years for a TV series. There needs to be a positive, sustained celebration of the success people are having in engineering. It's still an exciting industry with tremendous opportunity."

And although the Pentagon's funding for the workshop has now stopped, Petricca and Gundersen, the organizers of the workshop, insist it was a success.

"The work that scientists do," says Petricca, "is just as interesting as what is being made up in movies."

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