And why should scientists care if the general public cares about science?
Last week I wrote about the importance of science community engagement in public education and the role of science journalism. The implicit assumption of the post is that it is important for the general public to be engaged in science. In case you don’t share this assumption, let me outline a few reasons why you should.
Scientific developments affect us all, whether it’s the development of new cancer therapies, understanding what causes drug resistance in ‘super bug’ bacteria, or evaluating the safety of genetically modified foods (we all consume them).
Having a better understanding of how seemingly small contributions in very specialized areas by a large number of scientists (which includes some disagreements), over time and across the world , collectively help fields move forward will help the public understand why science is slow.
A general public that understands how discoveries in a fruit flies or yeast can help human health and innovation in general will hopefully generate more support for research. Public support for research may translate to an increase in funding.
Beyond financial support, an informed general public can better judge science news without the sway of politics (think global warming).
As you can see, the benefits are many for both scientists and non-scientists alike!
Recently I had the privilege of meeting Joe Palca, a science correspondent for NPR and creater of Joe’s Big Idea. I had invited Joe to come speak to young scientists at our institution about science writing. In addition to picking Joe’s brain for career advice, this was an opportunity for us to learn more about science reporting. Most scientists will tell you they feel that main stream media science stories leave out important details and often misrepresent the impact of scientific findings.
Joe, who has a PhD in sleep psychology from UCSC, seemed like the perfect person to have this conversation with since he knows the worlds of science and journalism well. I expected him to echo some of our frustrations and maybe vent about limitations of reporting to a general public that has a limited science education or gripe about colleagues who don’t pay attention to detail. To my surprise, the conversation went in a very different direction. When asked if Joe feels like it’s his (and other science journalists’) responsibility to educate the public about science, he responded “no” and said that his responsibility was to report on science, which is different. He pointed out that most science reporting pieces usually have no more than one or two sentences actually describing the science—the story is often about the people doing the science, not the science itself. This was a surprising and interesting perspective to hear. Thinking more about this, Joe’s right. He’s a journalist, not an educator. His job is to report on the story. Why do we as scientist place the burden for educating the public on the shoulders of journalist?
If it isn’t Joe’s job to educate the public, whose job is it? Regional and national science education centers like the Pacific Science Center in Seattle do a great job of educating some of the public. But can we, as scientists in the trenches, do more? I think we can. And we should. Most science in this country is funded by the government which means tax payer money. We routinely give progress reports in the form of scientific publications to the scientific community, but isn’t it our job to give a progress report to the taxpayer as well? Having said that, I do concede this is a really difficult task. Most of us are great at presenting our most recent findings in auditoriums full of experts but when it comes to explaining what we do to grandma, we can find ourselves at a loss for words!
Science makes it into the news if there’s a huge discovery in a particular field. But, there’s a lot of cool science going on all the time! I know because my friends are work on it—human evolution, anti-freeze proteins, genetic engineering, just to name a few. Now, let’s see if we can find a way to tell you about it. Stay tuned!
Photo: By Philamer Calses, University of Washington PhD Candidate