Thursday, December 2, 2010

Science and the public

On the one hand, I'm fuming over the Majority Leader-Elect's website asking for "citizen review"of National Science Foundation grants based on the abstracts online. Presumably this will be used as an excuse to cut NSF funding by a commensurate amount. All researchers like myself who work on topics to which the public can be uninformedly "reactive" (e.g., evolution, sexual reproduction, species formation) are obviously shocked and worried.

On the other, while not dwelling on the obvious deficiencies (being generous) of this idea, let me put out a thought for comment/ discussion. Do we, as scientists, do enough to inform the broader public about the importance of our research, or scientific research in general? The NSF and NIH ask that we have a short "public relevance" statement in our grant proposals, but I know that many of us put little or no energy on this statement (and frequently leave it as a few sentences packed with impenetrable jargon, possibly ending with "including humans"). Obviously, scientists are not a uniform group- some spend a ton of time speaking in public forums and are otherwise engaged with their local or national communities. However, my uninformed guess is that such scientists are in the minority- many of us rarely escape the ivory tower, and some even get resentful at having to justify "valuable basic research" to the "lay public" or even to colleagues doing applied research.

Similarly, we often complain bitterly when school board members take stances against ideas we know to be true. But how often do we present those facts "we know to be true" to the broader public, hence educating well-intentioned but misguided school board members? Heck, how often do we even vote in school board elections, except when reacting to a crisis?

We know science. We know it darn well. Politicians and school board members don't know it nearly as well, and it's unreasonable to think that they would. We can say they should just leave us alone, but they won't (and shouldn't)- their, and everyone's, tax dollars fund the science that we do. It's incumbent on us, those who know science, to make the impact of science far more clear to the public. We can do this through: 1) taking those "public relevance" statements in our grant proposals far more seriously, 2) maintaining websites that actually explain what we do and why anyone should care, 3) being pro-active in reaching out to schools and public presentation forums to provide resources & lectures, 4) becoming engaged in our community through informed voting and writing to politicians, and 5) many, many more possibilities. Yes, our time is limited, and academic scientists often work 50-60 hour weeks already. But we have to do it, and there are resources to help us (here's the plug for our university science writer, especially if as great as ours here at Duke!). Irrespective, we can expect a lot more misguided (again, being very generous) proposals like this one to cut funding to research. Let's just put some effort at minimizing their impact.

Thoughts? Comments?


  1. I do think it's incredibly important for scientists to leave the ivory tower. I have actually had some success in writing my representatives and senators (in Missouri, no less!). This push from Eric Cantor directs the public's attention to scientific abstracts that do not necessarily explicitly state their broader impacts to society. Changing requirements for grant-writing would undoubtedly help, but community outreach I think (in schools or public forums) has a much higher impact. I mean if this website didn't exist, do you think that an average citizen would voluntarily read NSF abstracts for fun?

    I think you also make a great point about making time for basic outreach to schools and communities. However, that outreach can be a job in itself. It's also incredibly difficult for many scientists to learn to do effectively. Maybe some scientific funding should be dedicated to funding jobs in outreach? I know NESCent has someone who dedicates their time to this. Are these positions common? What use are discoveries if only 2 people know about them or if they aren't shared in classrooms?

  2. Dear Mohamed,

    As a teacher, I am always in favor of educating in ways that help to strengthen democracy by creating an educated electorate that can make judgments based on critically-discerned values. Because of this, I am increasingly alarmed at the way in which our public education system (and, in many ways, even private schools as well) teach obedience and rote-memorization, which essentially leaves people vulnerable to whatever demagoguery can tap into their fear rather than their sense of the common good. And so, I think scientists are right to be concerned that decisions about the value of research might be influenced by people who got their talking points from FOX News.

    I appreciate that you are raising this question of public education within the scientific community. If there is indeed an attitude held by some researchers that there is no need for them to explain their work to the outside world, it does need to be changed. I am not a specialist in scientific research, but I am an educated citizen who loves to read about scientific research that has implications for how we understand the world (and really, doesn't all research of any merit seek to do this?). I very much appreciate books written for the general public, such as Frans de Waal's primate research, or Brian Greene's string theory. It gets me excited about their projects because I can make connections with my own in the humanities.

    If scientists did take the "public relevance" portion of their grants seriously, I think there would be benefit all around. As someone who also writes grants, I know that it is often the process of trying to put yourself in the place of the reader and making your case that helps to give you clarity about your own project. If you can't make a compelling case for why your work is relevant to the public, well, maybe you shouldn't be doing it. I was taught by my dissertation advisor that I should be able to explain my thesis in one sentence that others could understand. That is harder than you might think, but it sure forced me to focus on keeping my argument tight, and well-supported. And it also allowed me to get others excited about what I was doing, even though it was a specialized topic.

    So, working to translate one's research to the general public can be a benefit for the researcher as well as for "the public." And for "the public," wouldn't it be great if more people could understand what is currently being explored and how that matters to what they are doing?

    I think I'm rambling a bit, but all this is to say that yes, more public education is good for everyone, and may actually contribute to knowledge in other fields without you realizing it.

    Elizabeth Corrie, PhD

  3. How many people do you know personally outside of the academic community?

    My suspicion is that if you politicize science with public initiatives, that the academic community will be treated even more as just another special interest group with its own agenda which is presumed corrupt until proven innocent. When I read...

    "4) becoming engaged in our community..."

    I thought you were going in the right direction. But when you followed that with...

    "...through informed voting and writing to politicians"

    I lost some hope. Voting and writing to politicians isn't being engaged in the community. Nor for that matter are you ever likely to be successfully engaged in the community if your view of the community is something like, "And so, I think scientists are right to be concerned that decisions about the value of research might be influenced by people who got their talking points from FOX News."

    However rightly concerned you might be about political bias making the funding of science selective, I think you are getting off on entirely the wrong foot by challenging such calls with angry statements denouncing the publics right to review how their money is spent. That's just poor diplomacy, especially considering that the general public already believes that there is significant political bias to how science is funded. It makes it sound like you have something to hide or fear, and it makes you sound really condescending. You are far better off striking a confident note and saying, whatever you may privately feel, that you welcome such scrutiny because you are confident that you can make the case that what you do is important and valuable and relevant to the daily lives of 'the general public'. Rather than denouncing the general public's ignorance and lack of intelligence, you are far better off asserting that you are confident of the general public's ability to make wise informed decisions. It might not be true, but if you begin by insulting the people you are trying to convince, you can forget about informing them of anything and then it will certainly be the case that they won't make wise decisions.

  4. Let me link to something I wrote more than 4 years ago that I think is just as relevant now as it was then.

  5. Thanks Karen & Dr. Corrie for the great comments!

    To Celebrim- thank you for being assertive with another point of view. Only thing is that we actually agree in principle- I must have failed to make my point clearly. You suggest that I was "denouncing the general public's ignorance and lack of intelligence." That's absolutely not true- I merely said that scientists know more science than do politicians. This is as true as that politicians know more law than scientists. It's a simple fact (assuming that our years of training were not COMPLETELY wasted), and not derogatory or suggesting "ignorance."

    You also suggested that I was "denouncing the publics [sic] right to review how their money is spent." That's exactly the opposite of the point of my piece above, but I take responsibility in that I can see how my wording may have been misinterpreted. In fact, we are beholden to the public because, as I said, "their, and everyone's, tax dollars fund the science that we do."

    In terms of informed voting, I was thinking in the context of researching and interfacing with school board candidates, and otherwise contributing locally. I disagree with you in that I very much think this IS part of becoming engaged in the community.

    I'll not answer your question about, "How many people do you know personally outside of the academic community?" as that's merely insulting.

    Overall, though, I think we're basically making the same point- scientists are beholden to the public and should make a better effort at clarifying the importance of their research. No insult was intended, and I sincerely apologize if my wording sounded like that.

  6. I'll claim responsibility for saying "scientists are right to be concerned that the value of research might be influenced by people getting their talking points from Fox News." Mohamed didn't say that (he is much more diplomatic and nuanced than I am). But I stick by it, because I said MIGHT (not WILL) which intended to suggest that this is not true of everyone, but may be true of some, and definitely has been increasingly true in out political culture. Now that there is simply no barrier to the amount of money that can be spent on negative political advertising, with no accountability for accuracy of information; and considering the undeniable influence of certain media figures and politicians in shaping the terms of debate, we must acknowledge that many people make judgments about the "value" of certain policies and government funding priorities using flawed logic and inaccurate information. Not everyone does this, but the ones who DON'T do this tend not to be the ones who write their congresspeople. The squeeky wheels get the grease, and the squeekiest wheels are the voices of people who are talking out of fear or hate rather than out of a wholistic sense of what is good for our society.

    And as someone who studies the K-12 education system and has worked in schools, I am indeed quite concerned that there is a growing trend away from critical thinking. And, call me old school, but I agree with John Dewey that a democracy cannot function without an educated public that understands how to critically assess information and make sound decisions. We should be concerned--all of us, regardless of our professions.

    It doesn't need to be a liberal-conservative issue--I receive plenty of "action alerts" from groups on the left that give me my talking points and urge me to call my congress person and complain about this or that. If I don't have a way to access information in non-jargon language to be able to make my own decisions, I am dependent on someone telling me whether to support or condemn something.

    So, again, I'm all for scientists communicating to us in generally accessible language why they are doing what they are doing and why I should care, and I am for that being publicly accessible. I am also for scientists acting, like every other citizen, AS CITIZENS, and being engaged in our communities and helping us to see the world more complexly because of their research, AND hearing from members of the community what sorts of questions still need to be explored. Dialogue across all sorts of fields and social-locations would make us a richer society indeed.

    Any and all of Mohamed's suggestions are good ones, and I bet we can come up with more. Thanks for starting this conversation, Dr. Noor.

  7. Mo,

    You might find this feature on science envoys to be of interest: