Science: For the People, By the People

By Sam Sander Effron

When you imagine a scientist, what do you picture? A nerd in a white coat hunched over petri dishes? An eccentric elderly man with frizzy hair, a la Einstein, ranting about dark matter? While these are the clichés that dominate pop culture, we are all scientists, and we use the scientific method all the time. As Rae Wynn Grant pointed out in a panel discussion at the 2019 AAAS Conference, we rely on science in our day-to-day activities. For example, when we choose what clothes to wear in the morning, we rely on previous assumptions and data (today’s weather forecast) to guide our decision-making process. We then conduct an experiment (wear those clothes throughout the day) and interpret our findings (were we comfortable with the clothes we wore?) to refine our model (maybe we need to dress more warmly to account for wind chill). And just like that, we’ve worked our way through the same scientific method we learned in high school. 

This is far from a hard and fast set of rules, as we are all guilty of violating this process from time to time. We know that walking out the door without looking at the forecast might leave us drenched by an unanticipated thunderstorm. In turn, we update our assumptions to rely less on the current weather in the morning and more on the professionals’ predictions.

There is a common misconception that science is a niche field exclusively occupied by researchers, or that if you don’t work in a lab, you’re not a scientist. Although only some people professionally identify as scientists, we can all think like a scientist. Anytime we are confronted with a problem that requires critical thinking, we act as scientists. Simply taking an educated guess implicates the scientific method. To relegate science to the researchers is to ignore our natural scientific inquiry of the world around us.  

Cartoon by Tom Dunne

Cartoon by Tom Dunne

Academics have the tendency to isolate themselves in ivory towers, compromising accessibility and integration in society. Scientific dialogue is a critical component of our global community yet remains guided by a select group of intellectuals that seek little input from the public. Tenured professors and endowed researchers lack the incentive to wade into the murky waters of the uninformed public to realize the needs of society, when they have plenty of their own pressing questions to address. Further, much of academia endorses a “publish or perish” culture, in which professional success is dependent on conducting novel research with significant results, neglecting the importance teaching and popular communication.

There are few systems in place to counter this divergence. The ‘Broader Impacts’ statement for grant proposals to the National Science Foundation, which urges the applicant to consider the societal implications of the proposed research. Unfortunately, these statements are still judged by internal experts, perpetuating the separation from non-scientists’ perspectives. This contributes to frustration from the public, as they remain largely unable to affect the institutions responsible for the technological advancements and development of knowledge that are important to everyone.

Beyond the moral imperative of sharing science, there is a financial obligation. About $150 billion of the US Federal Government’s FY 2019 budget is appropriated for Research & Development. These funds are allocated to agencies such as NASA and the National Institutes of Health, which go on to distribute this money to researchers through grant awards. While the research studies funded through this process are paid for with taxpayers’ dollars, their results are far from accessible to these taxpayers. Many journals that publish academic research are for-profit organizations that erect paywalls around the knowledge that they hoard. 

Past the financial barrier lies another obstacle that is not often considered: jargon. Surpassing a journal’s paywall is useless when the underlying content is linguistically uninterpretable without specific knowledge in the field. Academic papers are written for fellow academics, and there is rarely supplementary material included that is readable to the general public. 

Surprisingly, the federal government was ahead of the curve and has already begun to address this. The Plain Writing Act of 2010 requires federal executive agencies to use “plain writing” in every covered document. If the government has an obligation to be transparent and accessible to the public, or “lay” audience, why shouldn’t the scientific community have this same standard?

This is a call to do better by supplementing the text of our scientific communications, rather than dumbing down the content, for those outside the field. Publications such as Cell Press allow authors to include graphical and video abstracts of their reports, which extend the reach of a primary research article. The AAAS has launched an initiative, Science in the Classroom, in which scientists annotate hallmark papers with multimedia, clarifying definitions, and “plain writing” figure legends.

This doesn’t need to stop with scientific reports, as we can go even further by contextualizing the larger picture of our work through active science communication. Through podcasts and YouTube channels, we can reach out and give our audience another way to interact with our science. In disciplines of both the microscopic and telescopic worlds, visualizations are crucial to convey information that we can’t readily see, and can be worth well more than 1,000 words. There are plenty of readily available resources, such asHHMI BioInteractive, which provides a free repository of high-quality animations, videos, virtual labs, and lesson plans spanning dozens of disciplines, and awaiting application.

There is a great deal of responsibility in being a scientist. This profession is defined by the testing of hypotheses to uncover new and valuable knowledge, and is accordingly highly regarded. It is critical to remember, though, that science is not external to society, and cannot be treated as such. It is a paradigm of methodological, critical thinking that we must all employ. Ultimately, science is a building block of the community and public discourse, but it is incumbent upon scientists to bring the conversation from the lab bench to the park bench, in order to include everyone in the scientific dialogue.