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.