Media science consultancy - Is this pie in the sky?

I’ve been in the graduate unemployment holding pattern for way too long now, and my current plans involve exploring some sort of self employment in the near future, if for no other reason than CV employment gap damage control.

I have a few ideas, but the one that feels most personally attractive to me is to try and put myself forward as a scientific consultant on TV, film, or any other media projects.

I do have scientific credentials I can point to (I have a decent PhD), but I’m not actually sure that this is the important bit, I tend towards the view that suspension of disbelief is far more of a priority than factual accuracy for this kind of stuff.

I started writing about why I think I’d be good at this, but the post was starting to look like an application letter, so suffice to say, this is an area where I feel that I can add value to a project.

I’ve obviously not got any experience of consultancy work. It seems workable from a logistical point of view, but the obvious problem is the networking and contacts side of things.

I was wanting to start off by putting some feelers out to try and access the commercial viability of this. I’m a little worried that there might be something of a hurdle in terms of finding smaller projects and clients that can afford to pay a realistic rate for consultancy work, or getting near larger projects without some smaller clients on my CV.

I wouldn’t discount the possibility of pursuing some other more straightforward business in the short term and see if it’s possible to do some low pay or free side work to build up experience and contacts, but I’d be a little worried that there could be risks around setting myself up as the guy that will work for free.

The preliminary research I’ve done at this point on the existing competition seems to mostly turn up agencies and publicists who are offering lists of distinguished expert consultants, I’m not sure that this a great approach to the issue, (and most of the websites have pretty mediocre lists of previous clients and projects). But I suspect that the people who are already doing this successfully are going to be working primarily through networking.

The most immediate issues I can see.

  1. The people I need to get in touch with are obviously trying very hard not to give public contact details out. I’m not sure this is a huge physical issue, because a little experimentation has shown me that it’s actually pretty easy to (legally) get this information. But I really don’t want to start this whole thing by pissing a lot of people off.

  2. I’m working on putting together some sample stuff, but I’m presumably going to need to investigate proper intellectual property release documents before people will look at it. I’m having trouble finding appropriate information on these, but I’m not really in a position to pay for proper legal advice until I’m a lot more confident that this is worth pursuing.

I’m obviously way out of my depth here, but I suspect that most people considering this kind of work are going to be starting off like that. I am actually confident that this is work that I could be exceedingly good at, and I think that I can make a solid pitch if I can get as far as actually talking to someone.

Does anyone here have experience of this kind of stuff? Does it sound like a pipe dream?

The media wants science expertise available to put the rubber stamp of validity on nonsense. They have no regard for science. On top of that, most of them get this type of work from personal contacts or cold calls. I’ve not heard of any that make a living at it. The major attraction for doing this work is to get your 15 minutes of fame, “Yeah, I was the science advisor on Charmed!” or “Hey, I got a credit on that show with Leonard Nimoy explaining how the ancient astronauts built Pyramids”.

I’m coming off a little negative here, but it doesn’t sound like you have any understanding of the field you want to enter.

It’s obvious that there is a lot of this going on, but to be honest a movie producer who has no interest in the facts is absolutely correct in his approach to this issue, at least to the extent that he can deliver a good product without them. But when things go wrong and someone pushes things a smidgeon too far to sustain the suspension of disbelief, a multi million dollar picture gets panned by the critics. And sometimes that affects ticket sales, and then it matters :stuck_out_tongue:

I’m not wanting to sell a fact checking service. I’m wanting to sell myself as someone who can consider a script or idea in the context of the genre and tone of the piece, and then suggest changes. And to do this with regard to the seriousness of the issue, its visibility to the products intended target audience and with an understanding of the cost to the production of rectifying the problem with changes or additional dialogue.

I don’t think that there are many random scientists that can offer that. And I think that is absolutely something that is worth a lot of money to the right people. But finding those people and convincing them that I can deliver is obviously going to be the problem.

Can you name a single case where this has happened?

I have to say, it sounds like a pipe dream.

I’ve worked with expert consultants in making videogames. The people who are hired usually have deep expertise in a specific area and solid credentials. So if you want someone to advise you on small arms combat, you don’t get some random gun enthusiast, you get one of the guys who trains SWAT teams for a living. If you care about getting the details right, you’ll pay for a certified expert. And if you don’t care, you’re not going to hire anybody. There’s not much of a middle ground.

L.A. has UCLA, USC, JPL and a bunch of smaller colleges. There are lots and lots of world-class science experts within an hours drive of the big studios. If they care about getting something fact-checked, all they have to do is call up a physics professor and say “Hey, Dr. Expert, would you look over this script and tell us if there’s anything stupid in it?”

The Core? It was absolutely panned for it’s science and did badly.

I don’t think I’m being controversial in stating that a production that pushes thing too far will suffer for and that this will be reflected in ticket sales via reviews or word of mouth. The effect might be hard to quantify in most cases, but even television productions cost enough money that a very subtle effect is going to results in the loss of large sums of money.

Critics talk about the blatantly implausible a lot, especially in specific genre’s. People do listen to critics and talk to other people who have seen that film. Just because the film doesn’t necessarily go on to make a loss doesn’t make that effect unimportant.

I see a lot of films where a tiny change to a line of dialogue would do a lot to help, or where they could get away with lampshading the issue with a wink to the audience. I’ve also seen quite a bit of stuff that obviously did have some reasoning behind it which had not been properly conveyed to the audience.

My point is that slavish devotion to the facts is not always appropriate. The specific example that you give, on small arms combat stuff is probably an example of where it is, in that there is a fairly vocal subset of it’s audience that is keen on exhaustive factual accuracy.

There are few very few major issues that get pointed out by film critics for example, that I (or probably the vast majority of people who post on this board) wouldn’t be able to spot, but I’m confident that I could give better input on addressing the problem than my supervising professor could have done even if the issue had involved his specialised area of expertise.

It could be just me, but having come from academia I am very suspicious of the concept of the “expert” simply because the examples I have met have suggested to me that there are a lot lot more factors involved in prominence and recognition than how good you actually are at your job. And I certainly don’t think expert status confers a magical ability to provide useful input in a completely unrelated field.

I do have research skills, and I can quickly bring myself up to speed on complicated issues, but I don’t think spotting the problem is really the issue in a majority of these cases, I think the value lies in offering alternatives.

The Core was panned for being a bad movie. It contained better science than many more movies far more successful. No movie producer worries about the tiny percentage of people who could tell whether a story is scientifically plausible or not. What they are concerned with is the general audience’s idea of what is scientifically plausible, and you haven’t stated any credentials or experience that would indicate you have such an ability.

I’m remined of an old SNL skit about a Jeopardy like game show, called Common Knowledge. There are plenty of writers and consultants who understand what the audience will suspend disbelief about, and they rarely have any scientific credentials.

I started the thread off by stating that I do not consider the scientific credentials to be particularly important. Some people do consider them important, so I expect that it will be useful to have them. I’m working on establishing some more solid creative credentials, through various means, mostly by finally getting round to submitting a bunch of work for publication.

I believe that I can offer useful input in this area. If I didn’t, then I would have obviously have nothing useful to offer. I believe that I can support this conviction when it comes to the crunch, I realise that many people erroneously hold such opinions about their skills. I’m not particularly interested in arguing about that now, because it’s not really the side of thing I’m worrying about, and it’s not the kind of thing I can really demonstrate effectively in this thread without massively derailing it to no obviously useful end.

I’m sorry if I’m coming across as hostile, I really am just wanting to get some useful input. On the practical side of things it doesn’t matter whether I’m right about what I have to offer, if the universal response to everyone involved in the industry is negative. Getting a foot in the door is certainly where I would expect that the difficulties will be.

Likewise if the industry really is only going to be interested in approaching individual experts on a case by case basis, and I am unlikely to do anything to change that, this is also important information.

Tripolar, do you mind if I ask whether you’d be willing to give a bit more information about your own experience of the industry? I understand why you wouldn’t want to, but it would help me put your comments in context.

There are medical and legal shows who use consultants.

The National Academy of Sciences already has the Science & Entertainment Exchange to hook producers up with consultants. You might want to start there. But, David Saltzberg, the scientific consultant on *Big Bang Theory *said he got his job through “a friend of a friend of a friend.”

On the other hand, when Gene Roddenbury was putting together Star Trek, he simply called NASA, and they told him everything he wanted to know, for free.

And over here, on the BBT thread, one of our fellow posters pointed out he was less concerned about Sheldon hacking into a Cray supercomputer at Oak Ridge, than by Leonard’s inability to adjust to contact lenses.

Worked in the computer animation business for a while. Based in Hollywood for a while. Had and still maintain relationships with people in the industry.

I’m not intending to be argumentitive, it’s just part of my nature. I am saying that your expertise has to be about people’s entertainment choices, not science. That is what gets the creative team members their jobs. It is their demonstrated ability to judge what audiences are looking for, and creating that. They may use consultants to help, but mostly those would be marketing people. It is also extremely difficult to get a creative job in the industry without personal contacts unless you produce a product that can be evaluated. What you are describing doesn’t sound like an actual job that potential employers would recognize, so there wouldn’t be any career development path for it. You might as well go to a film school, and start the process of making contacts within the industry, and you would have to be versatile and take whatever jobs are available to develop your career. Many people in the biz have worked in many different positions before finding their niche, often not the one they were aiming for in the first place.

I’m not intending to dissuade you from pursuing this, as much as letting you know how difficult, IMHO, it would be to do. If you are up for the challenge, go for it. There’s no real sense of accomplishment from achieving easily attainable goals.

I know that Caltech sometimes gets calls like that, and they send out an email to see if there are any grad students in the appropriate department who would like to do it. Knowing grad students, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did it for free lunch. When I was a grad student I would regularly do all sorts of time-sinky things for a fairly small amount of free food.

So, I dunno, it sounds like it would be pretty hard to do that for a living unless you could represent yourself as somehow being value-added over a) a large pool of b) highly-trained technical scientists at one of the top technical universities who c) will do it for free lunch. I’m not saying you can’t, but I am not really sure what that value added is from your posts.

One issue that is somewhat unusual here. I was diagnosed with ADD in the last year and the medication is having a huge influence on my ability to actually focus on projects and do things with my ideas. This means that my past history of demonstrable achievement is pretty mediocre compared to some of the stuff that I can do now (although I still managed to get my PhD). I imagine that statement is triggering huge warning bells for other people in terms of the likelihood of my pulling this off, but self confidence is a little new to me and I’m still getting the hang of it :smiley:

I have a very broad knowledge of technical and scientific concepts, I am also very familiar with it’s past treatment in fiction. I am very creative and have a lot of ideas about how to apply my knowledge. Basically I very much enjoy looking at settings and concepts and examining how to make them work well, it’s what I do for fun, and I think I’m damn good at it. I am confident that I can offer a lot more input in this area than “that doesn’t make sense”. And I can certainly see a market for these skills. This idea is attractive to me because, more than anything else I can conceive, it suits my abilities and interests

I realise that I need to establish some creative credentials, and I am currently examining the best ways to do this. Obviously if I’m unable to do this, then this whole thing is never going to happen, because it will mean that I am drastically overestimating what I can offer. And please believe that I am considering that possibility, this is certainly not my Plan A business scheme.

I would certainly have to admit that if I read the above, I’d have doubts. But I want to be honest here. I am willing to put a lot of work into establishing the required credentials, and to put actually pursuing this idea on hold while I am doing this. But I can’t afford to spend the time doing that, if the project is inevitably doomed for other reasons.

I don’t want to get drawn into some weird “this is how creative I am” exercise. The issue of my abilities is not something really something I can address in researching this market. Either I can deliver or I can’t.

What I would welcome is some input on approaching the industry to talk about the market for this. I would certainly welcome some advice on what kinds of things would be well regarded as evidence of creative ability, I don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to get stories published if I’d be better of entering them in writing competitions say. I’d also welcome any experience that people have in jumping through the legal hoops that organisations require for the submission of creative material.

I understand why my ability to deliver what I think I can is a valid source of concern for everyone here, it’s certainly a concern for me. It just isn’t what I’m wanting to talk about in this thread.

Go on IMDB. Look up shows that have science advisors. Count the number you can find.

This is your job market. There is exactly one job opening for every X movies produced.

Now look at the number of actors. If your friend said he was off to Hollywood to be an actor, you’d probably laugh at him. But there are WAY more actors than science advisors. You’re looking at a world where there are only a handful of positions- all of which are short-term gigs- open up anywhere in the world over the course of a year. And your qualifications are hardly rare. Underemployed science PhDs are a dime a dozen. The numbers would be much better if you aimed to be a senator, rock star or pro-wrestler.

If you really want to do it, don’t mind never having any job security, and can face rejection again and again and again, go ahead and give it a shot. Move to LA. Spend a lot of time doing free and extremely poorly paid work on student films and vanity projects so that you can build connections with tomorrows pros. Spend a lot of time chatting people up. Hope to get lucky. I promise you that 100% of these jobs are given through connections- someone says “Hey, wait, isn’t Johnny a scientist?” So you have to aim to know everybody on the off chance they might one day have work for you.

Maybe you could make money from other wannabes. There are millions of people out there with “almost finished” screen plays that they are convinced are good. Maybe you could set up a website offering consulting services to them at a couple hundred bucks a pop. Start advertising on movie buff websites and amateur writer forums. Run a little “science in the movies” blog to get some ad money off that. It could work.

This was certainly an angle I was considering. As things stand I will most likely be trying to find freelance writing gigs of all sorts of types to supplement whatever I end up doing. And lets face it, I’d happily drop the whole thing if I actually get a decent job offer. If I can make things work with a handful of smaller jobs then I will do that, I obviously need to make sure that doing things that way is worth the costs associated with proper insurance and business expenses.

I am not overly worried about the vast numbers of unemployed scientists as competition for the reasons described up-thread. A substantial part of the reason I’m considering this is the assumption that hiring a random PhD is actually a terrible way to approach this issue. The second assumption is that if I can get some gigs and actually provide a good quality of service than things might start to open up. The third assumption is obviously that I can provide the service that I think I can.

These are assumptions, I know that they are assumptions and the point of me wanting to sound these ideas and get in touch with people inside the industry on a more speculative basis, is to test these assumption before I start to commit an excessive amount of money and effort to something that quite probably won’t work.

I know that there are risks and hurdles, I also do genuinely believe that, all things being equal, problems represent opportunity. The reason I want to talk about this at such an early stage, is that I want to determine whether they are insoluble opportunities :smiley:

Apologies to Antony Jay or Jonathan Lynn.