By Charlie Fehl and Emily R. Theisen
Scientists today are precariously perched. Our livelihood pushes the boundaries of human knowledge and technology, but is enormously expensive. We do not pay this bill. Troublingly, most of our benefactors have no idea how or why we spend these funds, a situation that understandably signals for discord. Others acknowledge this and call for a more transparent breakdown, targeted for the political arena, of how science funding fuels social and technical progress. However, a fundamental shortcoming persists: scientific conversation deserves a more prominent role in the cultural mainstream, beyond the specialized sections of our news.
Are we as scientists inept at sharing our stories? This is a complicated question, as many of us are not. But I believe there is an uncomplicated way to effectively touch those around us, people who we may not expect to understand our pursuits.
Simply, people pay attention to issues they care about. I recently highlighted how my hobby, homebrewing, links biochemistry into light conversation. My father, an avid photographer, recounted similar conversations about reagents and reactions with his dark room buds, none of whom are chemists. However, sharing hobbies with enthusiasts has limited potential.
What else can be done? Fortunately, ways to connect the public to the excitement of discovery and the stunning theories we take for granted are numerous. The public, after all, includes us, minus the jargon we use after years of focused scientific training. We easily forget that others also wonder at feats of technology, such as near-instant communication with loved ones across the globe at the touch of a device carried around in our pocket.
Cutting through the jargon requires focusing on the crux of our explorations, paring away the technical minutiae and connecting with society as a whole. So what compels us to strive beyond the bounds of knowledge? Human nature! For better or worse, curiosity is instinctual. And the resulting innovations help those in need. But it is the passion driving us that should be genuinely shared with our friends outside the scientific community. This involves skimming over the details and, instead, illuminating the heart of our endeavors for others to see. Not the Nature version, the New York Times one.
The public often holds mixed views of pharmaceutical research. In order to better engage, we should share both our aspirations to cure diseases that directly or indirectly affect us all, like cancer and Alzheimer’s, and what motivates us to march on facing great frustration. For those outside biomedicine, we can start by sharing the incredibly clever and useful tools we have invented. Talk about how OLEDs will revolutionize the home. Emphasize how the artificial leaf will bring energy to 1.3(+) billion people living with unreliable access to electricity.
The hope for the long game is to reverse the trend of ivory tower isolationism, bringing science back into popular culture. Everywhere, research desperately needs support. To continue doing what we love, it is our responsibility to ensure that the once-vaunted backing of cutting-edge science, technology, and healthcare remains popularly, and thus politically, enshrined. Perhaps just making a point to share how we as scientists care about the same things as those around us, just with additional quirks, will turn on (and keep on) new lights, literally as well as figuratively.