You may be wondering whether the recent spate of blogging about science in popular media and peer review (by the way, you should definitely read Janet’s two posts on these issues) has any connection to my talk next month at the Science in the 21st Century workshop. Yes, yes it does– I figure that I’m going to be getting so little sleep in the next few weeks that I need as much of a head start as I can manage. Of course, this also means that I will continue to go on and on about this topic for a little while yet…

The thing that I think is most critical here is to recognize that the poor handling of science in our general culture has consequences that go far beyond silly lifestyle articles that piss scientists off. And these consequences are as much the fault of scientists and science supporters as religious leaders and ignorant politicians. When Thony C. writes:

The scientific community is a closed shop that exercises the right to determine membership of the community and also to determine the content of that which we call science.

It’s hard for me not to see that as the first step toward the outlawing of chemistry sets. After all, Science is only for professional scientists, and we can’t have kids or civilians fooling around with chemicals, now, can we?

But the bigger problem is, as always, money. And as I’ve written before, I think that the funding problems facing science today are due in part to a failure on the part of the modern scientific community to take our work to the general public. This shows up both in the actual amount of funding, and also in the funding instability that Jake Young rightly notes is a major problem.

Basically what happened when NIH funding doubled between 1998 and 2003 was that academic institutions went hog wild to gobble up as much of the new funding as possible. They expanded their graduate programs, hired new professors, and invested in new buildings. That is all fine and good, but when funding stopped growing as fast it resulted in something like a market bubble in academic scientists. New professors were much less likely to get new grants — putting themselves in funding trouble, and newly minted graduates students were unable to get new postdocs. The problem is especially acute because the training scientists is such a long process. Individuals starting at the beginning with a reasonable expectation of academic jobs are hurt when much less of those jobs are present than were at the start of their training. Considering the length of the process, it may be unreasonable to expect new students to incorporate this uncertainty into their decision about entering graduate school. No one can predict 20 years in the future.

(Actually, Jake’s getting that from an editorial in Science, but the people at Science don’t see fit to make their editorials freely available, so I can’t link to it.)

You see the same dynamic in other fields as well– the “America COMPETES act” is, like the Clinton-era doubling on NIH’s budget, a response to a perceived crisis in physical science funding, which was allowed to slip while they were working on doubling the NIH budget. Even if it gets fully funded, we can probably expect that funding to lapse again a few years down the road, when the issue is no longer front and center.

The problem here is that there is no broad and consistent constituency for science in this country. Everybody’s generally in favor of the idea, but hardly anyone (other than professional scientists) sees it as a core priority, so science funding tends to float on the whims of politicians. When somebody identifies a funding crisis, they’ll shuffle some money our way, and when the crisis has passed, or times get tough, science funding goes on the chopping block, because it doesn’t upset that many people.

This is partly because (contrary to the impression you may get from ScienceBlogs), scientists are generally pretty apolitical. They mostly just keep their heads down and do science, and don’t organize big rallies or fund large lobbying efforts on a consistent basis. When funding gets cut, the various professional societies will put together some frantic letter-writing campaigns, and may even win some short-term relief, but it’s not the strong, sustained effort needed to get stable funding.

But more than that, the problem is that there’s no large public consitutency supporting science funding, because we do a miserable job of communicating the importance of science to the public. People are generally in favor of science, but they lack a good understanding of how it all fits together, and why it’s important to spend money on basic research. This happens because professional scientists do an absolutely miserable job of communicating science to the public.

It’s hard to blame them, though– the whole modern system of research science is set up to reward only high-level technical publications for a narrow audience. You don’t get tenure by writing great layman-level explanations for Scientific American, you get tenure by writing papers in specialized technical journals. Writing for a non-academic audience may even be held as a negative factor when it comes time for tenure and promotion reviews. Public communication is for journalists who washed out of Ph.D. programs, or distinguished elder scientists who have lost their edge.

Put this together with the all-too common attitude reflected in remarks like Thony C.’s, that science is by and for scientists, and insignificant journalists should keep out of our “closed shop,” and it’s no wonder that science doesn’t have the strong political support it needs. Not only are the results mysterious, confusing, and badly presented, but the researchers themselves come off as arrogant assholes who think they’re better than everybody else.

If we want to improve the status of science in our society and the funding for science in our labs, that attitude and those practices need to change. As a community, we need to start recognizing the important work done by people who write for a general audience, and reward their efforts. We need to encourage a wider range of people to take in interest in science not necessarily as a career but as an approach to understanding the world, and get them to see how it all fits together.

The opportunity is there– look at the success of things like the World Science Festival in New York, the science cafe phenomenon, or the popularity of science-y shows like Mythbusters. There’s an audience out there for this stuff, if we’re willing to provide it, and encourage the people who can do a good job with it.

But it’s not going to happen while people in the scientific community continue to sneer at journalists and other non-scientists as unworthy.

Comments

  1. #1 chezjake
    August 13, 2008

    I agree with you completely.

    Not sure what’s wrong, but neither Firefox nor Safari is able to open either of your links to Science in the 21st Century.

  2. #2 Kim
    August 13, 2008

    *applauds*

    The attitude that science is for scientists might also be one of the reasons why your (and my) humanities and social science colleagues consider it ok to not know about science. When people tell me that introductory science courses are designed to weed out the unworthy, I get cranky and argumentative (because mine certainly aren’t). But then I see comments like Thony C.’s and think that maybe scientists really are a big part of the problem.

  3. #3 Moshe
    August 13, 2008

    Everything you are saying is correct, but it still seems to me that the funding instability has mostly to do with your political system. This lack of long term planning you are describing (which is probably not confined to science funding) is not that common elsewhere, and I can assure you that scientists in other places (at least in Canada) are on average not any better (or worse) in their attitude towards public outreach.

  4. #4 Jennifer Ouellette
    August 13, 2008

    Nicely put, as always. We need more voices speaking out against the marginalization of science in general — and physics in particular — in the broader culture. And the attitude you describe is a big part of the reason for it. Funding will become more stable when science is viewed as essential by the public, a top priority for tax dollars, and that will only happen when folks start to feel welcomed to the conversation by scientists.

  5. #5 Thony C.
    August 13, 2008

    Put this together with the all-too common attitude reflected in remarks like Thony C.’s, that science is by and for scientists, and insignificant journalists should keep out of our “closed shop,” and it’s no wonder that science doesn’t have the strong political support it needs.

    The second part of the quote is yours and not mine. Science is a closed shop because in the end only scientists have the training necessary to judge science. Being a physicist yourself you are fully aware of the amount of education and research experience you needed in order to reach the level where you became capable of commenting intelligently on new work in your own chosen field of study. If a scientist publishes a new major discovery/breakthrough/theorem or whatever all a journalist can do is to find another “expert” (scientist) and ask him what does this mean? He cannot take the paper published in “The Journal of Micro-Nuclear Physical Chemistry” (in case anybody is stupid enough to ask what that is, I just made it up!) read it for himself and write an intelligent article on it. He can’t even go to a specialist in another field of physics and ask him to explain it, as he will almost certainly answer, “I don’t really understand it myself”. I am a historian of science whose area of expertise is the mathematical sciences in the early modern period. I have read and do read Newton’s Principia and can and do cope with that but give me one of your research papers and I would probably be lost by the middle of the second sentence.

    Having said all that I certainly do not believe that journalists should stay out of science. On the contrary I firmly believe that all scientists have a social obligation to explain their work in a way that can be understood by a moderately well educated non-scientist, exactly because the non-expert is not capable of understanding that work in its original scientific form. I too am a small part of that process in that I hold public lectures on the history of science aimed at a non-specialist public.

    You are quite right to call for more support for good scientific reporting but that means that considerably more effort must be made by working scientists.

  6. #6 Gordon Pasha
    August 13, 2008

    Hi

    Funding for R&D, at least in the US, has been remarkably constant as a fraction of government’s discretionary spending (12-14%, at least if you exclude the Sputnik anomaly). Given how chaotic funding for science is in the US (there are over 20 different government agencies funding science), the only conclusion I can reach is that the chaotic system has found a fixed point. I doubt that “taking the work to the general public” will make a dent.

    Regards
    Gordon

    http://www7.nationalacademies.org/bpa/SSSC_Presentations_Apr05_Funding.pdf

  7. #7 Hugh Miller
    August 13, 2008

    I agree with the author that science in general has done a poor job presenting itself to the public. The other issue is that we do a poor job at educating students about science from K-college. Many freshman I have taught over the years come into science with a false idea that science is a collection of facts that have to be memorized! And the authors of the textbooks on the market also support this incorrect view by loading down the textbook with many bold-faced terms that students think need to be memorized. A colleague of mine recently counted 2000 terms in a freshman biology textbook!
    Science needs to first, establish better methods for teaching science, especially approaching science from the conceptual framework. Maybe once we do a better job at educating everyone, we can provide public with better reporting and explanations. But, given that many adults are scientific illiterate, it would be hard to provide good, solid explanations.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    August 14, 2008

    Moshe: Everything you are saying is correct, but it still seems to me that the funding instability has mostly to do with your political system. This lack of long term planning you are describing (which is probably not confined to science funding) is not that common elsewhere,

    I’m not that familiar with the funding situation in other countries, but thanks to Physics World’s news feeds, I know that the UK is is a very similar state– there have been a number of major program (programme?) cuts in physics in the UK, some quite similar to US cuts (I think the British abandoned ITER as well, for example).

    Gordon Pasha: Funding for R&D, at least in the US, has been remarkably constant as a fraction of government’s discretionary spending (12-14%, at least if you exclude the Sputnik anomaly). Given how chaotic funding for science is in the US (there are over 20 different government agencies funding science), the only conclusion I can reach is that the chaotic system has found a fixed point. I doubt that “taking the work to the general public” will make a dent.

    Two things:

    1) The money may be relatively constant, but the cost of doing experimental science has increased dramatically over the years. Science is getting bigger and more expensive at all levels, and that money doesn’t go as far as it used to.

    2) What would you call the “Sputnik anomaly” other than the result of a public demand for more science? It’s an exceptionally dramatic case, to be sure, but it shows that when a large fraction of the public sees a clear and immediate need for more science, the money will be found.

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    August 15, 2008

    You are quite right about the importance of science education and outreach, but to grow beyond a certain point you have to have something real to sell. There was a really effective sales pitch for the SSC, but a bit too much hubris caused it to implode. Physics funding grew due to the important demands of the cold war and its surrogate, the space race, and in recognition of how important practical research had been to winning WW II. It fell when the answer to “what have you done for me lately” came up a bit empty. For biology, it was the war against cancer and AIDS, which is running up against that same wall that fusion research did. (You will have it solved in 20 years … from when?)

    I feel a tiny bit of sympathy for the folks in NIH-funded areas and the universities that hired them, but not much. After all, the same thing happened in physics in the 1960s so they would have known the inevitable result:

    http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/07/physics-jobs-part-1.html

    That collapse in PhD production in 1970 did not result from a major cut in funding. It resulted from a modest drop that indicated there would not be any more growth, and flat funding (and passing the baby boom peak) cannot justify continued hiring.

    A bubble (like this or even “peak oil”) happens when an exponential function meets a finite one. In oil, it is exponential demand and a finite earth. [It can be fun to calculate how long it would take to use up the entire mass of the earth in coal if coal demand grew at, say, 5% per year. That is a 14 year doubling time.] In academics, it is an exponential supply (as biology faculty, in particular, reproduce themselves like rabbits) meeting a finite demand. [Extreme upper limit might be 1 biology prof for every high school graduate.]

  10. #10 agm
    August 16, 2008

    I believe the historians of the era can point out that “the Sputnik anomaly” was NOT the result of public demand for more science. It was a part of a national drive to outcompete Soviet Russia, but it wasn’t millions of people saying “Give me more physics, dammit!”

  11. #11 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 16, 2008

    I so very clearly remember Sputnik [anecdote omitted]. As a beneficiary of the revolutionized American public school education, when rivers of Federal funds poured into Math and Science, so that we could beat the vodka-swigging godless commies in thje space race, I have to say that there were both supply and demand issues. Yes, the US government pushed. But millions of people DID, de facto, say “Give me more physics, dammit!” And the fiction of Robert Heinlein was consciously intended to make millions of young people make the same demand.

    Paradoxically, it was the best thing for the USA that the USSR beat us in the first round of the space race. Without Sputnik, there would have been no Saturn/Apollo.

    Having been a teacher for a long time, it is agonizingly evident that the public school momentum of the Sputnik shock has vanished. That there are other spacefaring nations (such as China) is not the equivalent. 9/11 is not the equivalent. Putin invading Georgia is not. Global Warming may or may not be. I hope that China or India beats us back to the Moon. But when I suggested that to Caltech professor, former JPL director, Planetary Society co-founder Bruce Murray, he sighed and said: “History does not repeat.”

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