Recently I wrote up a little post on an issue that’s been gnawing at me–about how the data that researchers need is not in the papers anymore. I think that the bioinformatics folks get this–we see it in the databases every day, and we’ve been immersed in that for years. We know there’s some really cool stuff in there (and some crap), and that when used properly (and vetted) there is the potential for some great insights into lots of the smaller-scale projects going on at lab benches all over the world. But a lot of the bench folks aren’t aware of the new data that flows in every day that could help them. It’s hard to know this if you aren’t associated with these projects, or have someone in your department who is. Outreach by the big data projects is even more crucial than ever to reach the folks who could use the data outside of the context of those large projects.
But there’s more outreach that we all need to be doing. This article at The Guardian blogs came out soon after my other post that addressed the limitation of papers for getting the science out:
Scientists should be keen to get out of the lab and explain their findings to a wider public
I would say this is true–not only on the data side, but on the science concepts side too. For a long time (and for some legitimate reasons) scientists stayed out of the fray of policy, politics, and publicizing science. We all roll our eyes when incredible mis-representations of the data appear. We giggle at the inflated claims we see in the press. [Giggle a lot here: This is a news website article about a scientific paper]. And we all know about Saganization:
And human nature being what it is, it’s really a shame that science as we know it now discourages scientists talking to people other than scientists. Carl Sagan knew much about this. We invented a word, Saganized, or Saganization, in which your fellow scientists frown on you for attempting to talk to the masses.
Alas. Outreach isn’t valued much. We are often trying to convince scientists that they need to do intro-level material about their projects for other scientists. (Yes, we know your work is more sexy and sophisticated and that’s what you want to talk about: but people new to this really need an intro and overview, folks…)
And it’s valued even less to do outreach to the general public. And if you are in science in a field with any controversy (think of stem cells, plant science and GMOs, animal research, autism, vaccines, evolution–and climate science) you can actually get hate mail, harassment, even lawsuits. You personally need to have asbestos pantsuits even begin to try, and you need to have an employer who has some courage. Not everyone has this constitution or this freedom and support.
Yet it’s more crucial than ever. Standing apart from the public discussion of science topics hasn’t served us well. Controversies (and non-troversies) are eroding public confidence in science. Uninformed crap spreads really fast on social networks today. Mike’s post The Asymmetric Advantage of Bullsh-t spoke to this problem.
We need public support to spend tax their dollars on grants–if the public doesn’t value the research, we are in big trouble. And we need to support our allies in agriculture, public health, and politics to enact evidence-based policies and projects.
We need to get better at talking about science to everyone, at varying levels of complexity. And we need more diverse voices out there to do it as well. Start talking, scientists.