Friday, 23 November 2012

Why Communicate Science?

A good read: Why Communicate Science? People Need What Scientists Have; Scientists Need People to Have it... "By “communicate science,” I mean professional scientists explaining something about science to non-scientists. My question is, “Why?” But many scientists are still debating whether we should; many see why they should not.
Communicating science takes time away from research, from teaching, from being home; from something else we need to be doing. The time is not adequately compensated. Doing interviews with reporters, or visiting legislators, has no assigned “impact factor” that boosts vitae-value. Appearing on the radio or TV or in the news, giving talks to civic groups, writing op-eds or articles geared to “popular” audiences, or even a translational book for the general public; all count little, sometimes nothing, towards tenure. Sometimes they actually hurt. Communicating science can be seen as unprofessional. Peers may think less of you. It may seem absurd that many scientists would think it unprofessional to explain science, but that thinking is a fact in academia. And anyway, communicating is the job of communicators such as professional science writers.
All the above reasons not to communicate science are valid. Next question: Are those reasons sufficient? Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein apparently didn’t think so. Granted, we’re not them. We all juggle priorities and make compromises on how we can and must spend our time. But it’s my conviction that scientists should elevate communicating science as something important and worthwhile. That brings us to “Why.”
Some scientists believe we should communicate because public support is crucial for continued public funding. That’s circular and self-serving. In the long run, it’s likely self-defeating. Simply explaining that the space program resulted in such marvels as Tang and Teflon–two oft-cited benefits of science that, in fact, everyone can live without–doesn’t adequately elevate the power of science above everything else vying for public money, such as military spending, bank-bailouts, infrastructure, etc., etc.
I believe it’s important for people to get to know scientists as people, as members of civil society in their communities. And I believe the message is not one of facts, nor reports about the latest research, but of the overarching and deeply penetrating grandeur of science: how it uniquely has the power to unlock the secrets of life and the universe–and how scientific thinking can help people evaluate claims, think for themselves, and demand proof."

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