Pentagon Teaching Scientists to Become Filmmakers

The Defense Department, fearing that too few Americans are going into the study of science and engineering, are working to improve the image of scientists.

Pentagon’s New Goal: Put Science Into Scripts (NYT RSS)

Tucked away in the Hollywood hills, an elite group of scientists from across the country and from a grab bag of disciplines – rocket science, nanotechnology, genetics, even veterinary medicine – has gathered this week to plot a solution to what officials call one of the nation’s most vexing long-term national security problems.

Their work is being financed by the Air Force and the Army, but the Manhattan Project it ain’t: the 15 scientists are being taught how to write and sell screenplays. At a cost of roughly $25,000 in Pentagon research grants, the American Film Institute is cramming this eclectic group of midcareer researchers, engineers, chemists and physicists full of pointers on how to find their way in a world that can be a lot lonelier than the loneliest laboratory: the wilderness of story arcs, plot points, pitching and the special circle of hell better known as development. And no primer on Hollywood would be complete without at least three hours on “Agents & Managers.”

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?

Silly as this sounds–and it sounds pretty damned silly–the idea here makes some sense. Popular culture is highly influential in shaping images of what is “cool.” With the exception of the occasional Indiana Jones, it is rare that a scientist is portrayed in the movies or on television as anything other than a clumsy dork.

Still, one would think it would be easier to encourage established film writers to put out good images of scientists than to teach scientists to put out good films.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John Thacker says:

    With the exception of the occasional Indiana Jones, it is rare that a scientist is portrayed in the movies or on television as anything other than a clumsy dork.

    I’d say that another possible problem is that it’s rare that advanced science in SF movies is portrayed as anything other than the Frankenstein scenario– something that is extremely not the case in the SF literature. Look at that travesty of a movie called “I, Robot.”

  2. Jem says:

    None are so blind as those who will not see…given the ideological proclivities of the current crop of screenwriters, I doubt many would respond to efforts to do what James suggests.

    Besides, the lack of scientific literacy among most of the Hollywood literati is impervious to education–at least in the near term. If you want science portrayed reasonably, you need someone with a reasonable knowledge of science. Outside of Michael Crichton, it’s mighty slim pickin’ today….

  3. Kent says:

    Still, one would think it would be easier to encourage established film writers to put out good images of scientists than to teach scientists to put out good films.

    Difficult as it is to imagine scientists putting out good films, I find it even more difficult to imagine established film writers changing their views of scientists.