Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Is it just me, or is this something we should address - Scientists making connections with the public

I was just made aware of a survey in England. Nearly 1500 scientists were surveyed about making connections with the public, such as giving popular talks, going into classrooms to talk about their work and encourage students to pursue science, and so on. The results had nearly two-thirds (64%) asy they were too busy to do any sort of public outreach, and instead needed the time to raise funds for their departments, i.e. grant writing. A majority of the respondents thought it was not important to go into schools, participate in public debates, or do media interviews. This sort of thing is viewed as 'fluffy' and not a good career move (my guess is this was the view of mostly non-tenured faculty). The Royal Society put out a statement which said scientists need to be encouraged somehow to get their work out in the public arena.

In this day and age, where science and technology drive the global economy and scientists complain about funding cuts and the lack of public knowledge or understanding of basic science, these results surprised me. Perhaps we are starting to wake up here in the U.S., where many NSF grants, for instance, require some small section of public outreach. This is actually a good time for schools to approach universities and attempt to collaborate, since many in the universities may actually consider forming a program or project with local schools in order to have it to put in grants. I've personally written four letters of support for Northwestern professors in the past year. But it sounds as if overseas this is not yet the case. My only hope is that federal funding agencies in the U.S. do not take such requirements out of grant RFPs.

I think it is true that the general public is largely scientifically illiterate, and scientists have done a poor job of getting their message out in a good, clear manner so the public cares more about what science is and how vital it is to our way of life. If scientists are unwilling to get the message out, help schools, and get involved in debate, then perhaps we should not be so miffed when a significant portion of the masses comes out and wants intelligent design in science classes and don't believe the science of global warming. I would have to think that it is in the best interest of the scientific community that the message gets out to the public, and that institutions should try to encourage it in some way. In addition, with looming shortages of scientists in the near future, one would think scientists would want to have some contact with the next generation and try to encourage them to pursue science, math and engineering, as well as science education.


Erica said...

I think one issue that's important to consider here is how science is generally received by non-scientists. For example, I've learned that one of the best ways to end a conversation is to tell people that I'm a physics major. They laugh nervously, make some awkward joke about how all the guys I'll ever meet will be Asians with tape on their glasses, and then change the subject.
Whereas humanities majors, social science majors, and even some soft science majors can easily talk about what they're working on to the general public, I've learned to keep my mouth shut about what I'm learning. In the rare case that I do attempt to explain my classwork or research to an outsider, I always get the same reaction... a look that says "I'd rather be talking to anyone else in this room right now." Society has taught me that talking about my passion will make me socially awkward, so I don't do it anymore except with other physics majors. I'm sure that other scientists have experienced the same problem.
Taking this into consideration, does it really come as a surprise to you that so many scientists seem reluctant to open up about their work to the general public when they've likely dealt with years of negative reinforcement? I don't think we can entirely blame scientists for their lack of communication with the public when the public conditions them to keep to themselves.

vonny said...

Hi Erica, good to hear from you again on the blog!

Yes, something like physics is poorly received, but that is the whole is because physicists have been so bad at communicating what it is we do. RAther than take the path of, 'Well they don't understand so why bother' I am arguing that it is up to us to change that perception, otherwise it never will change. We've done a bad job at getting to concepts and staying away from the mathematical wizardry, and we've done a bad job at getting to the absolute relevancy science in general has on almost every single aspect of modern life! Many people do care, if it is presented in a clear, concise, and, yes, sometimes entertaining way. But the thing is we need to try from time to time...that is one of the big things that drove me into teaching, as you know.

And, we are at the point where this needs to improve since there is that looming shortage of scientists and engineers, at least in the U.S. Efforts to communicate in a PR sense is one thing, but there are potential national and societal consequences if we don't get better at hooking students into some of these fields.