To my delight as a research communicator, the American Association for the Advancement of Science chose “Bridging Science and Society” as its theme for its 2010 meeting. And, I was heartened by meeting’s call “on every scientist and engineer to make their work both beneficial and understandable.”
And indeed, as I scanned the program I found that many sessions were devoted to helping scientists communicate their research to a broader audience.
Unfortunately, the meeting also revealed evidence that the scientific community still clings to the myth that it is the public’s lack of respect for scientists that hinders their communication, and not science’s own lack of a culture of explanation. Witness President Peter Agre’s statement in his opening address that
“I think we have a big challenge in science because the public often views us as nerd-like individuals in lab coats, consumed with equations, data-driven, and actually less than the humans and the passionate humans that scientists really are.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, as I demonstrated in my article “Scientists are Heroes.” While the lab coat is, indeed, a badge of scientists, and their data-driven nature is a part of their public perception, those are symbols of honor not derision. As I demonstrated in my article, public polls and Hollywood movies from Avatar to Indiana Jones overwhelmingly depict scientists as dynamic heroes. And popular televisions shows including the CSI series and Numb3rs also portray scientists as “passionate humans.”
I contend that scientists use this myth of the denigrated scientist as one excuse to avoid confronting and correcting their own serious lack of a culture of explanation in science, as I discuss in the introduction to Explaining Research. They argue erroneously that “Since the public doesn’t respect us, why should we fight an uphill battle to explain our research?”
Besides this myth, there are other fundamental reasons for science’s cultural deficit of explanation, and since writing the book, I have come to understand them better:
For one thing, science and engineering are unlike such professions as law and medicine, in that there is no immediate need to explain their field to lay audiences in order to have a successful career. Imagine what would happen to a lawyer who couldn’t effectively explain principles of law to juries or clients. Imagine what would happen to a doctor who was inept at explaining medical problems to patients.
In contrast the career success of scientists and engineers depends almost completely on their ability to communicate to technical audiences–colleagues, deans, laboratory heads, etc. Even scientists who teach undergraduate classes are not judged heavily by their success at lay-level communication to those classes. At least, I have never heard of a researcher denied tenure because his/her teaching was not up to snuff.
So, it will take more than the fear of career failure to prompt scientists and engineers to reach out to the public. They must take a broader view that such communication does ultimately help their career, as well as their field and their society. For example, a greater public appreciation of science and engineering helps persuade donors and legislators to support science. And it helps the voices of scientists and engineers be heard in public debates over such science-related issues as childhood vaccinations.
But an important first step toward creating a healthier culture of explanation is for scientists to abandon the corrosive myth that the public doesn’t respect and admire them.