Plenty of e-ink has already been spilled regarding the panel on “Changing Minds Through Science Communication: a panel on Framing Science,” from this past weekend’s NC Science Blogging Conference (see Larry Moran, Rick MacPherson, Molly Keener, and Ryan Somma for examples). The panel was the least “unconference” session of the meeting, beginning with 10 min presentations from ocean conservationist and marine biology bloggers Jennifer Jacquet and Sheril Kirshenbaum followed by Chris Mooney, Sheril’s co-blogger, freelance writer, and author of The Republican War on Science and Storm World. The presentations were then followed by a vigorous Q&A discussion that ran about as long as the formal presentations (30-35 min).
At the relative last minute, your humble blogger was asked to introduce the panelists but planned to sheepishly allow the panelists to self-moderate. When I tried to sneak away, Chris Mooney said, “Well, you should at least select the questioners,” and I became the accidental moderator of the discussion. As compared to the normally staid sessions I have moderated at local and national meetings of my professional scientific associations, this was a new experience as I’ve never helped to guide such a contentious discussion.
Much of the discussion focused on ScienceDebate2008, a movement begun with the help of Chris and Sheril to enlist the support of Nobel laureates, university presidents, major professional societies, and over 10,000 concerned scientists and citizens to call for a presidential debate on science. The goal is to elevate the awareness of scientific issues in the selection of the next US president.
But more broadly, the discussion centered on how to increase public awareness of science as a topic essential to everyone’s existence in the face of media centralization and imbalanced attention to the exploits of wild, young celebrities. As Jennifer Jacquet noted in her presentation about the conflicts between scientists, journalists, and bloggers, Britney Spears is the *true* enemy.
One very astute questioner (tall, stylish white hair, eyeglasses) whose identity none of us seem to recall noted that Spears’ success has been largely dependent on the development of the wireless microphone – why aren’t we bloggers and/or science journalists using this example to help educate the public about a practical application of science and technology? In fact, the subsequent keynote speaker, science writer/blogger/author Jennifer Ouellette, noted in her Cocktail Party Physics blog that science, technology, and medicine lessons are apparent in many other aspects of Britney’s persona:
There’s a science and technology angle for you right there. How does wireless work? What are radio waves? Who invented the first wireless radio technology (a fine way to bring in the Tesla/Marconi debate)? It might even be fun to talk about microphone basics and how these two rather old technologies have been paired together and used in an exciting (and lucrative) new way. . .
. . .As for Brit’s pancaked layers of makeup — chemistry! (Also a certain degree of nanotechnology, since many high-end cosmetics now incorporate nanoparticles.). . .
. . .For health/medicine: Nobody knows for sure what’s ailing Britney, but rumors abound, and a few of them are even plausible. With the appropriate disclaimers, she certainly could serve as a useful jumping off point for a discussion of how to recognize classic bipolar behaviors, what causes it, how it’s managed and/or treated, and so forth. There’s probably some interesting materials physics involved in her hair extensions and skimpy outfits — and how the heck does it all stay on during even moderately energetic gyrations? Plus, check out those spiky-heeled boots: there’s some simple physics involved in how much pressure those kinds of shoes place on a woman’s feet. How about the physics of how she and the other dancers manage not to slip and slide all over the stage?
I gained an even greater appreciation for Ouellette’s skills after hearing her speak and going back through her blog – what a gifted writer she is to have on our side – and she uses pop culture to explain very complex concepts, such as Paris Hilton in discussing particle/wave duality.
But back to the panel discussion. I found two very strong undercurrents: one faction of the audience seemed resigned to the fact that nothing can be done to elevate public understanding of science and that a presidential debate on the topic was a futile effort; the other was a somewhat smaller group of discussants who felt that we need to work with the media we’ve got (Mooney’s words, I believe) and start back toward returning science to the public discourse as it was in the days following Sputnik. A third, less-vocal group led by Gabrielle Lyon contends that we don’t give the public enough credit for being interested in science, an observation emphasized by the fact that 79% of the attendees were not scientists.
I personally took some grief in saying that a presidential debate on issues of science that affect the public would have to be accompanied by the print and televised media enlisting qualified science commentators to help analyze the discussions. Laughter and taunts ensued. But listen, the loss of science from the public discourse did not happen overnight and even a centerpiece topic like anthropogenic global warming may not be cataclysmic enough to put science back on the national agenda.
My subsequent thoughts have been how might we increase science literacy in the US, a country where more than half the citizens do not believe evolution accounts for the development of life on the planet. Sadly, I saw a fair bit of resignation on the part of scientists in the audience at the SciBlogCon – there’s nothing we can do given the current situation of our media. But I submit that we can continue to be engaged and do what we can to disseminate scientific information and its impact on society. We can speak at local Science Cafes/Cafe Scientifique gatherings. We can get involved in the public outreach programs of our universities. We can even blog about science.
But even these approaches only appeal to people who already hold an interest in science.
I was watching Chris Matthews last night on MSNBC (really) and noted his graphic that voters have become less interested in the Iraq War and are now more interested in the state of the economy. Perhaps this is where we scientists can appeal to the public about our importance. Science fuels economic development. As Josh Rosenau pointed out the other day in comparing North Carolina and Florida, North Carolina’s economic development over the last 50 years has been aided by investment in education and science infrastructure that has helped to soften the economic blow dealt by the loss of the manufacturing sector. Florida, with its ongoing public school standards resistance to the teaching of evolution, may be unwittingly stunting its economic development down the road (although despite the current school board fights, major research institutes are infiltrating the state.)
Our challenge in transforming science into a topic as media-worthy as Britney Spears is to appeal to other issues people care about. The impact of science on the economy isn’t flashy, but it is something people care about. When people I meet at a bar learn I am a scientist, they invariably ask about whether we’ll ever have a cure for cancer or whether the latest herbal remedy on the internet can help their Uncle Leo with his lung cancer. The average Joe or Joanne really does care about science, but in ways that impact them. Health and medicine are a relatively easy sell, but I also take time to tell folks other ways that science helps us, right here in our own communities:
When I get a new research grant, yes, it pays a fraction of my salary and that of my student, technician, or postdoc. But research grants also pay the indirect costs associated with the conduct of research. This means that my research grant also pays for administrative assistants, the guy who picks up my radioactive waste, the woman who delivers our mail and boxes of cell culture plasticware, the people who wash our glassware, the custodial staff, the groundskeepers, the parking attendants, the facilities and maintenance specialists, and so on. A healthy scientific enterprise doesn’t only help the scientists themselves; it has direct impact on the economic situation of a wide range of people. That’s the local story and one that might also be used to talk to the public about the role of science before we even get to issues of gadgets, pollution, health, and the technology in your automobile.
MSNBC journalist in attendance and past-president of the National Association of Science Communicators, Helen Chickering, also shared at the conference her frustrations as a science reporter in getting airtime for her stories. However, the gem that came out of her contributions was that we scientists can best infiltrate the media by becoming friendly with our local network affiliates. Local stories often feed the national networks and cable news channels, so it behooves us to establish good relationships with our local reporters.
Here’s another example – I didn’t know Sheril Kirshenbaum before she enlisted my help in an ocean issues communications group. I am not a marine biologist but I have been a huge shellfish fanatic since the late PharmDad gave me my first plate of little necks on the half-shell. No healthy estuaries, no shellfish. Too much fertilizer run-off, no shellfish. No healthy oceans, no marine creatures that currently serve as a source for some of our most interesting cancer drugs in clinical trials. More folks than I care about these kinds of consequences.
The ocean analog is another good one to help scientists understand that every effort to educate the public, no matter how small, will have impact on somebody – you know, the story about the kid who is told that throwing beached starfish back into the ocean won’t make a difference since thousands are strewn up and down the beach; the boy then holds one starfish and says, “Well, I made a difference to this one.”
We can bemoan the sorry state of our media and the attack on the conduct of science by the current presidential administration, but we can each do our own part to elevate public awareness of the value of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. To resign to the opposing forces is to give up on our future.
Addendum: As Bill Hooker alluded to in the comments below, another way to help directly is to take up the call from a Wisconsin AP Biology teacher looking for guest-bloggers to engage with her student on prearranged topics. The details are over at Bora’s place.