Recently I was talking to a non-academic friend about life, the universe, and everything (tip of the hat to Douglas Adams), and as the conversation wound down its path, she brought up how often scientific experiments not directly related to human health are derided as big wastes of government money. Forgetting the fact that NSF and other science funding agencies make up a miniscule portion of total government spending, the fact that scientific programs are pointed at as hilarious wastes of money tells of a bigger problem.
We (and here I mean me and other academic scientists) suck at communicating. We suck at making things relevant. We suck at abandoning jargon ““ hell, we sneer at any attempt that removes our precious, precious jargon and replaces it with regular English. We just really suck at talking.
And OK, I am using “we” in an exaggerated sense. There are many wonderful scientists who work with their communities and the broader community to talk about their research in transparent, clear, ways. I am not knocking on Carl Sagan (though several high-power science organizations certainly did for his efforts at communicating science): I am pointing to a larger problem. It really burns my buns when I hear scientific experiments get laughed at, pointed to as frivolous, and seen as unnecessary. I strongly believe in the value of scientific research. At the same time, the fault lies with us, the scientists ““ we need to talk to people in real, sincere, open ways, without “dumbing down” or any of that pretentious bullshit.
It’s great to be enthused about learning for learning’s sake. That’s incredibly important and valuable and I don’t think that there are many people in academia who think that’s a total waste. On the other hand, academic scientists have a duty not just to increase knowledge but to find uses and applications for that knowledge, whether it is a patent, a new way to get kids interested in science, or a joint effort with the community to monitor and manage lead levels.
Funding keeps getting cut. Year after year budgets are slashed at the state and federal level, and times are dire even at private universities. There’s going to be less money for research in the foreseeable future and there’s no way out of it. But in my typical bullshit-Pollyanna way, I want to see this time as an opportunity for science communication specifically (and academic communication in general) to flourish. Now is the time to make our work relevant, either by explaining our relevance to others or by listening to what needs to be done and doing it. Working with the community requires conversation by both sides ““ this means both sides must speak and both sides must listen.