I

’ve recently been thinking about this: There are a lot of Americans who don’t know a single scientist.

This is one of our biggest failures as a community. When we March for Science in April, we’ll be fighting for our right to freely communicate with the people whose taxes fund our work and the legislators who we hope will use our work to inform policymaking. But we haven’t done a good job of actually communicating with people about what we do.

As a first-year graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, I’m spending the year trying out different laboratories before picking the one where I’ll do my thesis work. Along with observing experiments, I get to watch how senior scientists interact with the public. The depressing truth is that many don’t.

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They’re busy. They’re running labs, teaching students, applying for grants, and communicating their work to other scientists. Sharing what they do with everyone else falls by the wayside. And this matters, because when researchers don’t explain how we do our jobs and what the scientific method means, it’s harder for you to compare our conclusions and how we got there to stuff that’s dreamed up on the internet.

This is how it plays out: As a nation, we cannot separate the community consensus that vaccines are safe and beneficial from voices hawking the disproven idea that vaccines cause autism. It’s easy to dismiss climate scientists talking about the impact of global warming when the people who profit from it constantly assure consumers that one source, fossil fuels, isn’t really that bad.

Even worse, scientists are often quick to judge those who don’t agree with them. When people don’t want to reckon with the role of their cars in fueling climate change, when they can’t believe that we share a common ancestor with gorillas, we often treat them with disdain.

It’s been nice to see the #actuallivingscientist movement gain steam on Twitter. I’m hopeful that it will put more faces to what we do every day.

Explaining the way we actually do science, especially to people struggling to come to terms with what the evidence points to, is challenging. The science most of us learn in high school and even college is foundational, but often not enough, because it gives you a conclusion and not always the trial and error of getting there. The science performed on TV shows gives people an idea of the types of technology we use to ask questions about nature and the universe, but it leaves out experimental design, synthesizing information from multiple sources, troubleshooting, and repeating experiments again and again to get information.

I sometimes wonder if explaining research is hard because there’s an experiential gap that helps me understand, for example, that the technology used to create GMO food is more or less the same technology used to create certain medicines. I’ve used that technology in my research. Knowing the latter is safe makes it easier for me to reconcile that the former is safe.

And now we have a president who has questioned the overwhelming evidence of vaccine safety. A president whose policy keeps brilliant minds out of the country for fear of the corrupt ones. And he is supported by people who far too easily dismiss what we do in favor of “alternative facts.”

So, to protect what we do and its value in society, more and more scientists are becoming activists. This, again, is a hard thing to do, and not everyone thinks it will help. We’re having to set aside the dispassionate observations we make in the lab for passionate arguments for our freedoms. This is the battle for the legitimacy of science, a battle we helped create because we still haven’t figured out how to show people what we do, why we do it, and why it’s important.

So we’ll march. And then we have to get to work. Going forward, we have to be stewards. We have to share without condescension and be patient and helpful as people balance uncomfortable truths. We have to integrate into our communities as voices on the ground. We’re people who care about the health and well-being of the human race. That’s why we sequester ourselves in our labs working for cures, or in front of computers trying to understand weather patterns, or out in the ocean, gathering samples of water, fish, and plants. But we have to do a better job of communicating if we want the default to be evidence-based policy for us, the people, and not for profit. I hope it’s not too late to reverse our failings.

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  • A few years back, after talking to our Congressman, we (Vanderbilt PhD students) started a project you guys might be interested to see (?) The project has been on hiatus for a bit, but we are willing to get back on it, as we believe it might be more important now, than ever. Please feel free to use the site if it helps in any promotion for science. We managed to reach 600K people through Facebook and the actual website. The response was overwhelmingly positive and cut across all demographics Facebook measured. We even managed to be sent and shared across the world. (Not extensively, but we even made it to a guy in Laos.) We had hoped it would turn into a powerful tool for outreach. We did not abandon it, but needed to get some science done! Let me know if we can help.
    Victoria.s.cavener@vanderbilt.edu

    http://www.wewillnotgiveup.org

    https://www.facebook.com/wewillnotgiveup.org/

  • “There are a lot of Americans who don’t know a single scientist.”

    Great post, I agree with your all points. Not to nitpick – but is there a reference or data source that supports your first sentence (quoted above)? ?

  • I respect your point and I admire your ability to put it in words, but I can’t help but think the problem is more profound.

    Science has been co-opted by other forces. There are websites offering dietary supplements for fatal diseases with “scientific publications” in support. There are a few scientific publications denying climate change and hundreds of “scientific publications” doing the same. How do you teach non-scientists to discern?

    I suppose, in the end, you’re right. The answer is only to befriend them.

  • My graduate advisor did not attend a creationist v geologist debate because he said creationism was a dead issue. In 1978.

  • Thank you for making an effort to reach out and connect w/ the public. It is troubling to realize the extent of mistrust and misunderstanding that exists today. Having to do your work and also having to explain it in terms that lay people may understand and appreciate it is a dual burden, but evidently very necessary in today’s contentious atmosphere. Keep up the good work.

  • And we need tenure committees to value researchers’ community outreach. Too many promising faculty don’t get tenure because they “spend too much time” on outreach.

  • I honestly think you (as a science community) should include physicians. We (outside of the Cleveland Clinic :-)) have science backing us everyday in what we do. I am following this with interest and as a physician-scientist am willing to help.

    • Add all healthcare providers. Physicians are not the only ones who conduct research. An a nurse practitioner and PhD student, I am surrounded by nurses who are conducting extremely impressive research.

  • Thank you for adding voice to the growing movement to humanize scientists. In working as program staff for a climate science research consortium I witness the thoughtful ways that scientists try to garner media attention for the problems they research. Effective communication is important and I wish for greater interest on the part of the media (writ large) in covering the myriad topics in a dynamic like climate change. There are organizations such as Yale Center for Climate Communications, COMPASS Communications and Climate Access, working diligently to both train scientists and communicate science for broad audiences.

  • For me, it’s hard to fathom that there are Americans who can’t name one scientist. Albert Einstein, Johann Kepler, Marie Curie, Louie Pasture, Nikola Tesla, Sir Issac Newton, Michael Faraday, Alessandro Volta, René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye the Science Guy for fuck sake, and those are just off the top of my head.

    • I believe her larger point was that many (most?) Americans do not know a scientist personally either directly through interpersonal relationships (your neighbor, your friend) or indirectly through interest in a topic or information via some form of media (news article, sites like this). This is likely true though as a scientist I’d like to see the statistics on it.

      As Whitlock makes clear above, most American don’t come in contact with most American scientists. This make an unfortunate sense. Think of your day to day. It may involve some driving, some talking to salespeople, some computer time, a Facebook post every now and again — what it probably doesn’t include is getting to discuss with an actual scientist/engineer an actual question about actual science (with each “actual” being yet another layer in between Americans and their science).

      And while the march is one means of remedying that, Whitlock is right that we’ll have to do more. It means more walking, more talking, more convincing, more ingratiating ourselves. The dream, of course, is something akin to the “science section” becoming more like the “sports section.” Not necessarily in presentation, but at least in anticipation: a place for a review of the data, updates on general trends, and overlaying a human story to the deluge of information (with what intensity/curiosity/banality did the Zhang lab strive for characterizing CRISPR/Cas system?, how has the influence of Feissel’s work in guiding fluid therapy in the ICU influenced him?, etc).

      Science has people, it has stories. Now it needs to tell them.

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