Just what does science know? Does science even matter? Where does wonder and curiosity fit into a world where science now often seems to play the role of wet
blanket? And just what are the best practices for communicating science to fellow scientists and other audiences alike?
Those are a few of the questions I left the AAAS annual meeting with. After 6 days in Washington, DC, four of them at the conference for the most part and largely following the science communication track of sessions each day, it is confusing to know exactly how to move forward as I pursue more science communication in my career.
Engagement isn’t easy
There seems to be a lot of pressure, and not a lot of money, in scientists communicating their science as broadly as possible. Or at least telling people that they are scientists, that we are people, quite human (and diverse humans at that), and doing our best to put out solid work to explore nature, wherever that takes us. Often in the wake of curiosity, someone, often a scientist, asking a “silly” question and dedicating themselves to it, the modern world of applied science comes into being. Sometimes it goes the other way with someone trying to solve a very specific problem they see in the world in a new way and discover a very basic principle of nature. A yogurt company contributed to the discovery of CRISPR, as Jennifer Doudna noted in her plenary. Norman Borlaug’s quest to feed as many people as possible led to knowledge about disease resistance in plants and factors involved in dwarfing plants.
Science that gets reported, that we talk about most, is the newest and latest. The most uncertain. The frontiers. I can’t help but feel that the focus on the present makes people doubt science in a lot of ways. The newest things are also the most likely to be overturned or, at least, be put into a bigger context after more research is done that is lost in the reporting of new results. Tracing the dots back, the history of something we take for granted today often leads back to those initial curiosity-based researchers asking “silly” questions in their labs. Curiosity-based research has a way of not mattering until it does.
Curiosity-based research has a way of not mattering until it does.
Recent discoveries usually matter most to those in the scientific community. The direct detection of gravity waves announced on February 11 changes the universe for physicists. Everyone else went about their days and perhaps saw a blurb on the news (if that– just how far does the story go? To those in disadvantaged communities? Those that are subsistence farmers around the world? Does it inspire wonder in them too? For many scientists and science enthusiasts, It’s nice, but doesn’t “do” anything for anyone outside the sphere of physics other than a “huh, I’m glad you’re excited, that seems like a good thing”. Most may not even take note and ask “so what? What does it do for me right now?”. It does absolutely nothing for anyone’s day-to-day life right now, but obscure physics experiments probing the depths of nature have side effects, ripples, in the wider world. The technology that went into LIGO may well end up being important in some other future industrial application that will be as important as the world wide web is today (a product of CERN, the particle accelerator for those not familiar with the history of the web). And though this may not be true for all, for many, the deep dives into nature provide a sense of wonder, of perspective, and realizing the universe is much bigger and wider than our everyday experiences.
Looking back at curiosity based research through time, it has provided a lot or answers from sometimes surprising places. A rare exception that was recently discovered that is having a huge impact in the life sciences and very soon beyond is CRISPR. Jennifer Doudna gave one of the plenary lectures and told the tale of CRISPR and how curiosity based research led to a technology that is revolutionizing life sciences. Basic, curiosity-driven research doesn’t matter until it does. Applied research doesn’t matter until it works– and getting it to work for everyone possible all at once is difficult (The Internet started in the US, largely. Did the engineers behind it think it would be a worldwide network? I’m not sure that they did. And now researchers are trying to figure out how to make the web globally inclusive and preserve languages of those languages not prominent enough to be on the web).
Doudna didn’t address the ethics of CRISPR in her talk, or the patent dispute(s), which some were upset about, but I’m not. I’m sure she has and will make her thoughts on CRISPR known, but it is also not fully up to her to make that decision and expounding about the ethical uses of CRISPR from a stage doesn’t sound like the best way to go. Ethical questions are often hard to answer and one point of the theme of global engagement with science is just that, it is not up to a lone scientist with a pulpit to discuss/speak from authority. It’s a broader based decision than that. It has to be. The only thing she can really confidently relay is the science.
Inclusion and Transparency
Geraldine Richmond, the president of AAAS, hammered home global engagement by talking a lot about partnering with scientists from around the world, particularly the less well-off world to engage in research. Particularly engaging young women in these countries matters so the best method humans have devised to solve problems can be available to all. That does require listening, learning from, doing things differently, perhaps, and really going beyond just investing money in the partnership.
Becoming more inclusive is something science the world over needs to work on as Richmond noted. She specifically cited the cases of sexual harassment that have been reported in science the last few years. There are certain to be more, and this speaks to the barriers that exist for too many to getting into science. It may be unrealistic to expect no barriers in science, but they should be ones that are surmountable– doing the work, learning your field, and asking the best scientific questions possible. The barriers to entry can’t be implicit/uncocncious biases that exist now. Some under-represented people in science that have success note that the biases, the discrimination, can fall away when they are just doing their work, perhaps even with colleagues. It’s all the same method, being used by human brains in the end (albeit with unique lived experiences that make each of us unique knowledge workers).
Science can be a great equalizer (nature tells all of us we’re wrong a lot). the dogged pursuit can impose values that aren’t shared by all. Namely that people matter, not just the work. Taking time away from the lab, away from work to exercise, have a family, to be bored (& inspired), experience something beyond your immediate world, can all make people better scientists, and that is simply not recognized in science right now. Only the work matters. The more of it, the better. Mostly in the form of publications. Otherwise, that scientists does not count. People do matter though and that is a message that seems yet to pervade scientific culture in the US, at least (not that there aren’t signs it’s changing or that many scientists manage to figure out some integration of work and life). If a scientist cares about being a human doing all the usual– and unusual– things humans do, that scientist is too often seen as being an inferior scientist or not caring enough. That is depressing (and this aspect is likely not unique to science, but to any competitive, tournament style, human endeavor).
The implicit biases that many scientists have (all of us probably have on some level), institutional biases, the harassment cases being brought to light, as well as certain segments of the population outright rejecting some parts of well established science can make science seem under attack from within and without.
I’m not going to pretend that a sitting US Congressman issuing a FOIA request to NOAA over emails and asking for data that is publicly available anyway is not aggressive and deriving from ideology, not information. It is. Transparency is important, but if the rather obvious goal is furthering your own political agenda, only selling doubt without a way to resolve it, that needs to be equally brought to light. Other examples, such as anti-vaxxers or those that think the Earth is flat or was created 6,000 years ago can be frustrating and can have real consequences in society. Bethanny Brookshire shared a quote in the session on scientists having opinions pointing out that the point of getting people to accept scientific consensus is to have better disagreements, not to always agree. Climate change is well supported, and the debate needs to focus more on whether- or not- to take actions to mitigate it. The consequences of doing nothing have some severe implications for humanity, but that does not mean we *have* to do something, it would just be really, really, beneficial to do so. And if climate change really is a hoax and all we do is create a cleaner, more resilient, and sustainable world? Well, that’s a place I would like to live.
The State of Science
Science as an enterprise, as a verb, is unlikely to go anywhere. It’s too interwoven into our lives to go anywhere- and not just to those of us that are scientists. The fact that science provides a way to test our ideas against nature’s standard. Over time, it’s been one of the most robust ways for human advancement (not the only way, but a big way). The “war” on science may only be perceived by scientists because scientific consensus is a relatively new. The modern synthesis, the structure of DNA, the accelerating expansion of the universe, global climate change, are all relatively new as having a consensus (despite many scientists really being onto these things pretty early on). Perhaps it’s more that scientists have gotten more and more certain over time on these topics over time and that the world of being able to pose any idea as possible exists less now.
And though scientists as a group are powerful, individually we are much less so, we’re humans. In fact, for global engagement, we have to be humans first, scientists second. As the session on using humor to communicate science panelist Brian Malow pointed out, “you are the presentation, not the data you’re showing. People would rather hear from a person than get the entire message from a slide (though visuals are important too, as they do engage people– that was another session on using visuals that talked about the challenges of producing compelling visuals). A classic example of a science communicator being the presentation and using great visuals might be Humphrey Davy and his Royal Society lectures in the 19th century.
Communicating Science and Listening
Science lives and dies by the mass testing of falsifiable statements. Even better, falsifiable statements that overlap. By seeking to disconfirm what we think we know, we’ve made a lot of progress on understanding nature and applying that knowledge. Scientists and other scholars are all trying to create an integrated picture of nature that explains as much as possible. Conspiracy theories may explain some small part of the world, but fall apart as soon as they try to explain more than they would need to explain too, but can’t (thanks to Brian Cox on ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’ for this idea). And scientists go where the results take us. This can mean both discovering the wonders of nature or challenging a belief many people have held for years.
When someone questions the hard-earned consensus of science, it can seem like a dismissal of centuries of standing on the shoulders of giants. As if not just the life’s work (that as I note above, many scientists care about a lot, perhaps to an unhealthy level) of the scientist, but the entire history of knowledge work that went into the established science just don’t matter. Similarly, it is a challenge for scientists to condense their messages down into short memes or elevator pitches, there’s a lot to compress, though it is possible. As the AAAS public engagement staff say (@TiffanyLohwater, @JeannBraha, Erin Heath) make it miniature, memorable, and meaningful.
Listening to people and seeing what they value or care about can be a good way to introduce science to an audience. There is a hook there, almost certainly. This task may be easier when the audience is those that are in other areas of creativity, knowledge work, or the simply insatiably curious. The connection is there, though. Of course, there are two sides to science. it ushered in the modern age! And it…ushered…in…the..modern..age. It’s not all good news, but there are a lot of compelling stories. The people in Flint, Michigan had a scientist actually listen to them and test the lead levels in their water. The problems there are now being addressed, or at least brought to light, because of science, but were also brought about by science. Lead pipes, lead paint, and leaded gasoline used to be everywhere. the regulators believed industry that it wasn’t harmful. Then Clair Patterson came along as part of a research group trying to figure out how old the Earth was by measuring the ratio of lead:uranium in tiny zircon crystals that were billions of years old. His lead analyses kept getting contaminated, leading to the first clean room and the realization that lead everywhere may not be a good thing. It eventually got phased out of most products and monitoring lead became routine. Those measurers really fell down in Flint. Worse, they didn’t listen to residents telling them something was wrong. Thank goodness another researcher was, and was findable to the citizens of Flint.
The full story of science has to be told. The good, the bad, the weird, the fascinating. Even though communicating science, say debunking health myths, for instance, can alienate people (thanks @juliaoftoronto). People at the AAAS communications track sessions all drove home the point that deficit models are often not sufficient. I would say they can be necessary as there are times when people truly just have no background in some area of science whatsoever (this happens a lot to me as a plant developmental biologist). If you’re talking to someone that opposes the scientific consensus view, be they anti-vaccine, anti-climate change, or anti-rotund Earth, the deficit model is obviously going to fail, or backfire. The better approach is to get curious about why they think what they do and perhaps supply the integrated approach science would take to address their concerns (or better yet, show them that science has already).
There are lots of ways to go wrong communicating science, but that doens’t mean we shouldn’t try, iterate, and do better the next time.
What if someone does not trust scientists or science at all? In that case, get curious about why they distrust science and listen. Then relate your connection to science & why you find it credible, and why you interpret it the way you do. Why you think the scientific approach is a valuable one, and then walk away, not trying to convince them. In fact, with all forms of engagement, the idea is not to convince, but to get an audience to take something away from having talked to you; A story. Perhaps you can create a positive interaction with a scientist that that person, one of the few they’ve had in their lives.
Some of us choose to communicate science or are thrown into it by circumstance. I don’t quite agree with Jad Abumrad (@JadAbumrad) that scientists have an ethical obligation to communicate science– it is not something every scientist is good at nor do they want to (in that case, they can find those interested in communicating their research– especially to ) Science communication is a hugely broad term that to my ears can mean education, collaborating with colleagues, talking to policy makers, or engaging people in citizen science, science festivals, incorporating science in popular culture, and more. The voice of science is an important one to get out as solidly as possible, especially when there are ethical, political, or cultural implications of the products of science (even when it might just be fun). There are lots of ways to go wrong communicating science, but that doens’t mean we shouldn’t try, iterate, and do better the next time.
Where is the Wonder?
The wonder and curiosity that science can inspire can be easy to lose sight of in light of all people have going on in their lives. Even scientists. That next grant is due, that manuscript. Career uncertainty, pressures to get more and more done in the same amount of time with less resources on a crowded planet. It can be easy to lose sight of the natural world that every so often yields something extraordinary.
On some level, wonder requires space, a distance between the wonderous and observer. Amongst working scientists, this distance often occurs after getting a result and stepping back to think about it some more, and put it into a context. I know starting my blog last year has rekindled a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. There’s so much amazing science being done and the network of things that science can be connected to.
The session from NASA on the JWST, the next orbital telescope was incredible. The technical feat they are pulling off is incredible. The materials, sensors, etc. all had to be developed and built as well as tested. The JWST will have to be folded up to fit in the rocket that will send it into orbit because fully deployed it would be too large to send up. They will ship it by barge from California, through the Panama canal to South America where it will be launched. NASA will then navigate the JWST to the Lagrange point 2, 1,000,000 miles away from Earth before it will unfold. The JWST will not be serviceable like Hubble, so they have to ensure it works on the ground first. And it will have a cold data collection side where the mirror will be sheltered from a hotter side where a 5 layer sunshield will block the sun as well as house the instruments for the telescope. It’s incredible.
What will it do? With the Beryllium mirror, it will explore the universe (and solar system) in the infrared part of the spectrum. It will look further and with more resolution than Hubble– able to resolve a bee on the moon from the Earth. Beryllium is element 4, one of the lightest and earliest elements formed. So the JWST will use a mirror made from it to look further than we ever have before as well as explore exoplanet atmospheres and visualize our solar system in new detail. It was an inspiring session and I hope the risk of building it pays off.
There was an event at two days of the conference, Family Science Days, where kids and parents engaged with a lot of different science activities. All the kids I saw run by were excited to be there.
Wonder doesn’t always have to be present in science, but it is certainly one aspect that can shift perspectives, change our view of what can be for ourselves. I went into AAAS hoping it would be a good experience. It exceeded my expectations. I feel engaged. And gave me a sense of possibility, or curiosity, and wonder. Meeting people I know from Twitter in real life was a real thrill. And I feel like I barely scratched the surface. There’s a lot out there to explore. I left feeling engaged. Thanks to all I met (there are too many to list) that made it a great experience.