“How many living scientists can you name?” is often a question asked in science communication articles opining about the lack of scientific literacy or the lack of interest in science among the general public. I have come to realise that this perhaps is not the question that ought to be asked nor even the conclusions to draw from this. I think it shows an absence of scientists. The question that ought to be asked is, “When was the last time you saw a scientist?”.
For me, I see scientists all the time. It’s to be expected. I’m a scientist so I work with other scientists. I am also a science journalist and this involves interviewing scientists. I also have friends who are scientists, and my boyfriend is a physicist. I eat, live, and breathe science.
What about for people who aren’t scientists? I don’t know the answer. I like to
think, assume, hope that people who aren’t scientists see scientists on television, hear them on the radio, in magazines, in social media like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Google+, or somewhere on the internet. I hope that people know where to find science information but how can I or anyone really know that this is the case.
Scientists need to be seen and heard, not hidden in laboratories needing swipe card access. What ever happened to keys anyway?
I said in my last post:
“Science outreach is something that is close to my heart because I think that there is immeasurable value for people to see scientists enthusiastic about their work and science. The job of showing the benefits of science is a task that has fallen largely to teachers, journalists and science shows and museums. They don’t do a bad job but it makes me wonder, “Where have all the scientists gone?”.”
What I didn’t do was explain what this immeasurable value is. I also think that time has run out for diplomatic and polite discussion on what needs to be done when it comes to science communication by the scientific community. You would think that a scientist would love nothing more than to talk about their work. They do, usually to another scientist. The general public is an afterthought or not even considered. I have been told by PhD candidates that they have decided to never talk to a journalist or the public about their work.
Let that sink in. Never. When reminded that their research activities are probably funded by the taxpayer and/or donations from charities and that this is a reason that they should talk about their work to the public there is some uneasy shuffling and a concession to give a public talk or two. Yet a small minority still protest on this with exasperated phrases like, “They won’t understand it anyway!”.
Fine. People may not understand but I think that it is the duty of a scientist to talk about their work to different sections of the public. I do believe that if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough, and so did Richard Feynman*.
You know what really makes me angry? Scientists complaining that the general public don’t care about scientific research and/or achievements and then in the same breath state this as a reason for not interacting with the public. It is madness. How can anyone know of what is done in the laboratory if you don’t tell anyone about it? Celebrating your success in science journals like Nature, Science or Cell don’t matter with the public. They are not sold in newsagencies. There is internet access to peer reviewed science journals but paywalls are really good at stopping people from accessing the articles. These articles in question are often ones that even seasoned scientists struggle to read while caffeinated no matter how brilliant. There. I said it.
It is alleged that Albert Einstein said, ”Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” and I do think this applies to science. No matter what is achieved in the laboratory and this includes Nobel Prize winning stuff, if you don’t tell people outside the lab, no one will know about it. If your work is the stuff that is going to change the world for the better, you will need people on side. A Nobel Prize no matter how much golden light it throws off won’t convince anyone to institute change if they have never heard of you. Seriously. How many Nobel Laureates can you name off the top of your head? One? Two? Five? Ten? How about 20 names?
It is time for able and willing scientists to be allowed time away from their research and be involved in the public engagement of science. Science communicators no matter how brilliant are not the representatives of scientists. They can make science easier to understand, and so too can scientists. Science communicators cannot copy the quiet passion in the long hours invested for a discovery or the excitement of sharing a discovery. This is what it comes down to. Scientists can only be the ones to speak for themselves.
This couldn’t be done without some form of training by the organisation that the scientists come from. These days there is the corporate image and policies to abide by. And not to mention IP. These are details but this doesn’t prevent scientists from speaking generally about their work. I am speaking from experience. The specifics in my current role are ones that I cannot discuss with a third party but that doesn’t mean outside of this I can’t describe what I do. Still think it’s impossible? You probably shouldn’t apply for another position elsewhere because you’ll be asked about your current job in the interview.
I also think that incorporating a component of science communication and outreach in funding grants isn’t going to change anything. It will lead to scientists who would not ordinarily interact with the public the opportunity to do so. However I doubt whether this will develop a passion for science communication. Let’s face it, not everyone who will take part will want to and this is incredibly easy to spot. You can’t replicate passion and authenticity. Just last week I was told by a teacher that they did not expect to work with a scientist who genuinely wanted to spend time with students. This teacher expected to work with a scientist who had a science outreach KPI target to meet. This was so sad to hear.
There are only a handful of awards around that recognise science communication in Australia. The Tall Poppy Awards, the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes has a category and as do the state science awards. I note that the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes does not have a science communication category. Prizes are nice shiny things that recognise achievement. This should not be the only form of recognition science communication receives. A scientist involved in science communication is free advertising for an organisation. This should not be taken for granted and nor should it be expected.
A reward system in place would not only encourage scientists interested in outreach but also give them the confidence to sign up for such activities. It would also begin the work in discouraging shortsighted scientists admonishing those who choose to interact with the community. The definition of research impact in Australia is beginning to include things other than publishing research in peer reviewed science journals for other scientists to read. It’s starting to include activities like public engagement. These things will require time away from the laboratory but these things support research activities. Organisations clearly recognising and awarding this would go a long way to encourage public engagement and dispelling the belief that it’s just a KPI box to mark off at the end of each month.
*The preface to the 1989 edition of the Feynman Lectures on Physics contains the following paragraph:
Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin 1/2 particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. He gauged his audience perfectly and said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But a few days later he returned and said, “You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.”