We are in a media era. There have for centuries been the occasional public scientist, seeking attention and recognition, grandstanding to the public. Apparently Galen was like that in classic Roman times. Edison was that more recently. Scientists with their magical apparatus did public lectures and tours in Europe, making sparks and exciting demonstrations of vacuums and so on.
Not that long ago, however, most scientists were as dull as a black-and-white photograph. Their journals were that way, too. No orchestrated press releases about their every tiny finding described as earth-shaking.
Yesterday the New York Times had a feature on actor Alan Alda's attempt to teach scientists to get out of lecture mode and explain things better to the public. This sounds great, but in our time it probably would be better, far better, if professors stayed in their labs and lecture halls....and Alan Alda stayed in Hollywood.
The reason is that these days going public for scientists doesn't mainly mean making sure that the great unwashed can understand the latest discoveries of science. Instead, it means honing the lobbying and PR skills that one can use to hype one's research and of course the vital need for more funds. This is too bad, and there is no obvious answer.
One thing is that science journalists, and their jobs, have become largely shills for the same objectives: exaggerating, excited lobbying for whatever happens to come down the pike this news cycle. Science journalists often are not well trained, and/or don't have the time to actually understand the stories they do. But more importantly, to us, they are not doing their most important duty as journalists: they are not protecting the public against manipulation by power or insiders, which is the most important job of the Fourth Estate.
We certainly need comprehensible explanations of what science is finding, so the public (the taxpayers) can see what they are getting, and can understand their world. But we also need skeptical treatment of claims, to show what the public is paying for but not getting. When entrenched interests, such as universities have become, are fervently lobbying to maintain their slice of the public pie, the journalists should be understanding enough of what the science is about to call us on our exaggerations, and pare us back unless or until we become more modest in our claims. These days, we need to be more modest in our expectations for support as well.
Instead of always finding reasons to say our current result shows the desperate need for more, more, and even more, perhaps rewards should go to those who can take current findings and show how s/he can learn more, but with less or more modest resources.
Of course, the physicists, having now claiming to have found the smallest of the small (the Higgs Boson), now desperately claim they need the biggest of the big: a 100 Km loop around Geneva, to do more and more expensive efforts to find less and less.
It's a game, almost an entertainment game, these days. It's surprising that, actually, some real science does seem to get done.