Over in Twitter-land, Josh Rosenau re-tweeted a comment from Seattle_JC:
It is a bad sign when the promotion of science and science education has been reduced to a grassroots movement in this society.
It’s a nice line, but it doesn’t entirely make sense. When I hear the term “grass-roots movement,” I think of something that has widespread popularity among the public at a low level, with that public support forcing political elites to take notice. Things like organized labor back in the day, or antiwar activism in the Vietnam era.
That’s almost the opposite of how the term is used here. If we had a grass-roots movement in support of science, that would be a Good Thing. What we have, instead is a small and scattered collection of mid-level organizations working against elite opposition and general public apathy. And we have no-one to blame for this situation but ourselves.
By “we,” here, I mean scientists. Because as I’ve said before, there is no monolithic Science, only the collective actions of scientists. And the end result of the last century or so of these collective actions has been the marginalization of science.
If you want the public to care about science, you have to talk about science to the general public. And time and again, scientists have shown active disinterest in this. Chris Mooney likes to use Carl Sagan as an example– Sagan was put up for election to the National Academy of Sciences, and lost the vote, in part because members felt that he spent too much time on popularizing science.
But the problem goes deeper than that. Our entire academic system is set up to reward everything but talking to a broad public. At major research universities, teaching is something to be actively avoided as much as possible, particularly at the undergrad level. And as Sean Carroll pointed out, writing a textbook, let alone a popular book, can be a problem for someone seeking tenure at a research university.
If you get a job somewhere other than a research university or a national lab, people within the field will cock their heads sideways when you tell them, like a dog hearing an odd noise. Actively seeking to be at a smaller school that gives greater weight to teaching is often regarded like some sort of character flaw, and forget about outreach to the general public. Too much involvement in education and outreach activities is often looked at as a sign that you can’t handle “real” science.
People are generally in favor of outreach activities, of course, but in the same diffuse way that the general public is in favor of tax increases. If you ask them whether they’re in favor of outreach to the general public, they’ll say yes, but pressed to support it in a concrete way, they’ll find reasons not to. Any discussion of outreach requirements like the NSF’s infamous “broader impact” criteria invariably includes the argument that forcing scientists to do outreach as a condition of receiving government research funding is a wholly unreasonable imposition. But nobody’s willing to hire and promote outreach specialists who want to do that sort of activity. Directing any significant money toward outreach activities is questioned, because it could’ve been spent on “real” science.
And while a great many scientists will bitch at length about how the media gets everything wrong, and what few stories do make it into the news are hopelessly “dumbed down,” if you ask them to provide a general-audience description of what their research is about, that’s also treated as an unreasonable imposition. But hiring people to do that is out of the question, because the money could be spent on “real” science rather than PR flacks.
This is the system that’s been in place in academia longer than I’ve been alive. And then people wonder why there isn’t a more vocal constituency for science out there. But there’s really no mystery to it at all– if you want a public constituency in favor of science and science education, you need to work to make one. Instead, we have built a system that pushes people in exactly the opposite direction– when talking to the public is punished by loss of prestige and decreased chances at tenure, it’s no surprise that scientists are so bad about talking to the public. And it’s no surprise that the public doesn’t consistently and vocally support science.
The opportunity is there, and the audience is there. The general public can get fired up about science issues but at present that’s kind of a stochastic process. Every now and then something bubbles to the surface– a planet gets demoted, a robot explorer finds something cool, a local or state school board gets packed with wing nuts– and you find that there really is a wide interest in science out there, but there aren’t enough people working to keep science issues out there in the public consciousness.
The good news, however, is that as I said above, there is no monolithic Science, just the accumulated actions of lots of individual scientists. Which means that this situation can be changed through, well, a grass-roots movement within science.
If you want to see better support for science and science education, support the people who advocate for these things. And that means “support them within your scientific community,” not just “send a check to the NCSE every now and then.” If you have a colleague or a student with a strong interest in outreach, support that: give them the time and resources to do what they want to do, and when it comes time for hiring or promotion, make an argument for outreach as a positive factor, not a distraction from “real” science.
And support science education across the board, not just on the fun culture-war topics. It’s not enough to make sure that the biology books have correct information about evolution, you also need to make sure that biology teachers have the resources they need to do their jobs. Getting climate change units into science classes doesn’t do that much good if they don’t also learn how to do math. And make sure they start young– high school biology isn’t going to make much impression if kids are being turned off from science in elementary school.
To circle back around to the start, then, a grass-roots movement in science is what we need, not what we have. We need to change the minds of large numbers of low-level people, and through that effort force changes in the elite structure. It can be done– God knows, there have been mass popular movements around much, much stupider things, as anyone watching the news lately knows– but it took a lot of work to get where we are, and it will take a lot of work to get us back out.