September 28, 2009

Research universities launch online news compendium

The Johns Hopkins University and 34 other leading U.S. research universities have launched Futurity, an online news source that spotlights the latest discoveries in science, engineering, health, the environment and other disciplines.

Futurity, which debuted Sept. 15 at, offers the public direct access to research breakthroughs conducted at the participating institutions. The stories, based mostly on press releases disseminated by the universities, are written for a lay audience. The site carries no advertising.

Dennis O’Shea, executive director of communications and public affairs for Johns Hopkins, said that research institutions have been looking for new ways to reach out to the public and share this information. Futurity, he said, will bring attention to research that may go unreported or otherwise fall under the radar.

“Mainstream news outlets—newspapers, networks, cable channels—have cut way back on science coverage,” O’Shea said. “In addition, many of the audiences interested in this type of news have migrated away from newsprint or television to the Web.”

O’Shea said that the site also allows the public to see how federal, state and private funding are being put to use by universities to address critical challenges.

“Futurity is an online place where universities work together to tell research stories and, more broadly, to tell the story of research and how it makes the world a better place,” he said.

Futurity co-founder Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke University, said that it’s unique to see so many high-powered universities working together in such a collaborative way.

“That fact alone indicates the project’s significance. Universities are the world’s laboratories. They host the brightest minds working to answer some of today’s most urgent questions,” Schoenfeld said. “The breadth and caliber—and the collective force—of the research featured on Futurity is truly extraordinary.”

The stories are organized into four subject groups: Earth and Environment, Health and Medicine, Science and Design, and Society and Culture.

In addition to the story itself, the news packages include photos, illustrations and/or videos.

The site is drawing attention. In its first two days, Futurity attracted 13,800 visits and 46,600 page views.

Lisa Lapin, assistant vice president for communications at Stanford University, said that Futurity is looking for new ways to extend the site’s reach.

“We’re active on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. We’re also in partnership talks with major Internet news providers. Today’s online environment is perfectly suited for this type of direct communication,” she said.

Lapin says that the site is designed to encourage interaction. Stories include links to published reports and supplemental materials that allow readers to explore topics in more detail. The site is available in a mobile-friendly version, and visitors can comment on stories and sign up for a daily e-mail update.

Johns Hopkins, like all the current partner universities, is a member of the Association of American Universities, a nonprofit organization of leading public and private research universities.

Futurity has featured a number of studies by Johns Hopkins scientists to date, including a report on how new computer software is sifting through hundreds of genetic mutations to highlight the ones most likely to promote cancer. The site has also featured Johns Hopkins–led research on helicopter crashes in Hawaii, the use of Legos to visualize life at the nanoscale and lung cancer treatments for “never-smokers.”

In addition to Johns Hopkins, the participating schools are Brown; Carnegie Mellon; Case Western Reserve; Cornell; Duke; Emory; Iowa State; McGill; Michigan State; NYU; Northwestern; Penn State; Princeton; Rice; Rutgers; Stanford; Stony Brook; Tulane; University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Irvine; University of Chicago; University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Iowa; University of Kansas; University of Michigan; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; University of Pennsylvania; University of Rochester; University of Southern California; University of Texas, Austin; University of Washington; Vanderbilt; Washington University in St. Louis; and Yale. National Institutes of Health.