In comments to last week’s rant about the low esteem in which science is held, taffe writes:
Ok then, what should scientists be doing, individually or as a community? Maybe the masses just plain find political info more interesting. I mean hell, you had to use dog fans as a hook for your popular book, right?
One of the maddening things about blogging as a medium is the way its ephemerality leads to repetition. I feel like I’ve written this before, but it’s unreasonable for me to be peeved about it, because there’s no reason why anybody commenting last week would’ve seen the earlier post. So, let’s take another whack at it.
In the talk I gave back in September (slides, video, live-(micro)blogging), I had a slide (#21, for those following on SlideShare) titled “What to Do” listing a bunch of things that professional scientists, particularly academic scientists, can do to help improve public interest in and understanding of science. These can all be lumped together under the heading “Support the people who bring science to the general public.”
Improving the standing of science in the public mind does not require every working scientist to become Bill Nye the Science Guy. That would be a disaster– some people just don’t have the skills that would be needed to get a lay audience excited about science. Even if you can’t do it yourself, though, there are things you can do to support those who do have the skills and the desire to bring science to the broadest possible audience.
One thing to do is to support and demand science in the media. Make and effort to buy and read books about science, and recommend the good ones to other people (by, say, writing reviews of them on web sites or in print). When you run across a general-audience book in your field, try not to get hung up on the way that it glosses over fiddly details, and look at the bigger picture. Ask yourself whether it would be a good book for someone who is just curious, and not trying to be an expert– too many book reviews by scientists spend most of their time harping on minutiae (“This book would’ve been good, but it fails to acknowledge the seminal contribution made by my thesis research in 1973…”), and give an unfairly negative impression to people who might actually enjoy and benefit from the book.
When the media fails to do right by science, demand better. When the New York Times and Publishers Weekly, and let them know that you’re disappointed by the absence of science books in their best-of lists. Write to CNN and let them know that you think dropping their science coverage is a terrible idea. Scientists and fans of science have every bit as much right to control tv programming as people who get off on humiliation comedies, but you have to speak up if you want to be heard.
In the education arena, support science education across the board. This means more than just turning up to vote or protest over attempts to insert religion into the biology curriculum. That’s important, but teaching biology correctly doesn’t mean squat if the schools aren’t teaching math and chemistry and physics correctly.
If you’ve got kids, get involved in their schools. Find out what they’re learning in science class, and offer to help if you know something relevant. If you don’t have kids, offer to help whatever local schools you can. This can take lots of forms, everything from organizing professional development workshops for local teachers and students, to volunteering to speak to classes or judge science fairs, to donating old equipment to be used for demonstrations and labs.
If you’ve got teaching responsibilities, take them seriously. Don’t sleepwalk your way through the classes with the minimum possible effort, so as to save everything for research. Some of the students you’re boring to tears could be great potential scientists, if an effort is made to reach them. Better yet, some of them could be great science teachers.
If you’re in a position to advise students, encourage them to go into education. Or, at the very least, don’t discourage them from going into education, if they would be good at it. A big part of the image problem of science stems from bad experiences people have with bad science teachers, and the way to fix that problem is to get better people into the field.
For that matter, if you have students who are interested in careers other than the “traditional” Ph.D. to postdoc to tenure track faculty position route, encourage them to pursue their interests. There are very few career fields that wouldn’t benefit from more people with a scientific mindset. We should get rid of the stigma of leaving academic science– somebody who gets a degree in physics and then goes to law school or business school is not a loser because they decided not to chase a tenure-track faculty job. Encourage them to do what they want, rather than forcing them onto a career path that will make them miserable, and give other people a bad impression of science.
Finally, if you don’t have the skills or temperment to do public outreach yourself, support and encourage those who do. When you run across a student who is a gifted communicator, encourage them in that. Don’t just order them to “get back in the lab and do some real work”– give them encouragement and opportunities to talk to the public. Hell, tell them to start blogging as a hobby. After all, the public they’re going to talk to is ultimately going to be voting on the funding for your research grants. It’s in your interest to have them be interested in science, and interested in funding science.
And if you’re in a position to evaluate candidates for hiring or promotion, don’t punish outreach, reward it. Scientists, particularly in academia, all too often regard time spent doing public outreach as wasted time– if you’re not spending every waking hour in the lab, you’re obviously not serious enough about science to deserve tenure. That’s nonsense– again, the funding that makes modern science possible ultimately comes from the public. It’s important for the general public to know about science, and why it’s improtant.
When you see outreach activities listed on a job application or in a tenure file, count those as a positive factor, not a negative. That’s a valid professional activity, and it should be rewarded as such. If other faculty members on the committee give you grief about that, stick to your guns. And, if you really want to get radical, start trying to treat a lack of outreach activity as a negative factor.
You may or may not have the skills needed to speak effectively to a broad audience about science. If you do, I hope you’ll do it, because, as the song says, what we need more of is science. If you can’t do it yourself, I hope you’ll at least recognize that this is important work, and support the people who can do it, and not try to force them into some more conventional mode.
They’re out there, in your labs and classes, in high schools public and private, writing books that appear in your local bookstore, and making programs that turn up in your tv listings. They need your support and encouragement, to help them do what they want to do. And what they can do will ultimately benefit everyone, far more than yet another beaten-down lab drone will.