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What is “science” communication?

December 10, 2011 Leave a comment

According to Thompson-Reuters, eight-thousand and seventy-three science and engineering journals published just over one million peer-reviewed articles in 2010. Another two-thousand one hundred and seventy-six social science journals published over 200,000 papers. This works out to two peer-reviewed journal articles being published every minute of every hour of every day for the entire year.

At the start of the millennium, there were “only” seven-thousand three-hundred and eighty-three journals. So in a mere ten years, almost three-thousand new journals were formed. This trend will surely intensify as more nations invest in science. Brazil, China, Korea and Turkey are all publishing at least 10% more scientific papers every year. Even tiny countries like Tunisia and Qatar are getting in the game, more than tripling the share of GDP spent on research since 1996 (see here).

So what does it mean to be a scientist anymore? Is it fair to group theoretical physicists with observational ecologists? Should these groups have the same label when scientists in the same discipline don’t always overlap? I have attended several annual meetings of the American Geophysical Union. It always struck me that the soil scientists are separated—physically and intellectually—from the space physicists. The near-Earth space physicists are separated from those studying Mars, who are in turn separated from those studying Venus.

Looking at this motley array, it’s hard not to conclude that there is no “science.” There are only sciences.  It’s also hard not to conclude that “science” communication is a problematic concept. Given how vast, diverse, and balkanized research has become, what exactly are individual scientists communicating? How does any single person have the authority to speak for a $1 trillion dollar, seven million person global enterprise?
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Categories: Communication, Disunity

Worst. Analogy. Ever

December 5, 2011 5 comments

I’m all for activism and outreach, but what does this quote mean: “Teaching science without evolution is like teaching sentence structure without the alphabet.”

I was ready to address the flaws from a science literacy framework, but brainlogist is much better (emphasis added):

As a scientist, I’m terribly disappointed in the quote that opens this post. It may seem like it’s clever, highlighting the fundamental importance of evolution by relating it to the “basic” units of the alphabet; unfortunately, the analogy falls apart completely, and in fact a bit self-destructively, once you know a little bit about the science of language.

Sentence structure (syntax) has nothing to do with the alphabet.  There is no natural human language whose syntax depends at all on an alphabet.  Moreover, there are numerous examples of languages (say, the Chinese languages) that have no alphabet, but whose syntax can still be described.

Alphabets are arbitrary ways of encoding the sounds of language in static, visual form.  What’s worse, alphabets are invented by humans as a tool for recording language. It’s a dangerous analogy to make to suggest that evolution is invented by people.

Let me hazard another analogy in the same form as the quote above “Teaching science without teaching evolution is like teaching calculus without Roman numerals.”

Although the intent is noble, and the video is otherwise one of the best I’ve seen for conveying fundamental importance of evolution to science, the rampant misinformation people have about linguistics is always disappointing.

(For the people at home playing “irony bingo”: syntax is an evolved capacity of the human mind, whereas alphabets are intelligently designed…)

Ha! Love the closing.

Categories: Intelligent Design

Scientists and the economic crisis yet again

December 3, 2011 4 comments

David Bruggeman’s sharp comment is worth reprinting in full:

From where I sit, both Stilgoe and Macilwain are attempting to remind the community of two things.

First, the large opportunity they are missing to be opportunistic. If the changing political environment changes the emphasis in what funders are looking for, researchers (at least those who eventually get tenure) tend to exploit those trends. If you go back a decade, researchers adapted to the increased emphasis on security in part by trying to fit their work into the ‘new normal.’ That’s not happening now.

Science and technology advocates are appealing to the soft bigotry of low expectations: they always complain about funding, so that’s all science and technology policy is about. I work in science and technology policy, and funding is at most 5 percent of what I work on.

Secondly, science and technology advocates, frankly, are rubbish at doing anything to improve themselves or the research enterprise. There’s no questioning of the status quo, no conception of doing things differently than before. We could use a little creative destruction and the economic crises provide the possibility. Does the post World War II method of organizing, funding and performing federal research still make sense?

Of course, since the folks in the U.S. failed to properly manage a damn thing after the NIH doubling effort ended and the system couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to a decline in the rate of growth for funding, I expect most will ignore the new reality of flat or declining funding (not rate of growth, absolute dollars) and pine for the good old days of excess building capacity and way-too-long periods of time as postdocs.

But hey, if we’re just an interest group, no problem. We’ll just do like everyone else and continue to think our ‘successes’ of the last decade validate our tactics and strategy. My mind still boggles at the persistent lack of imagination amongst those that were supposedly encouraged to conduct original research as part of their ‘training’ in science and technology.

There’s a lot to unpack here: scientists’ response to a changing environment, the content of S&T policy, improving the research enterprise, and the early 2000’s doubling of NIH funding. I’ll attack these points in turn.

I first question whether funders will change their priorities, and if they do, in what direction. Republicans have historically supported basic research at the expense of applied, a tradition the leading Republican candidate maintains. Obama consistently advocates for doubling basic research, Bush II also called for more science funding, and Clinton started the NIH-funding binge to begin with. It’s not at all clear that a “new normal” is upon us anytime soon.

Along those lines, I’m not sure the DOD-analogy applies. I’d love to see a more fine-grained analysis, but I get the impression scientists reoriented their priorities after funding became available. There was no period of introspection that led to scientists’ wanting to protect the nation. Rather, they saw some money and went after it. That’s why I suggested new funding streams would change scientists’ behavior more than anything else.

And since funding is the life-blood of scientific research, we should expect when S&T advocates to focus efforts there. They advocate on behalf of the research community, not science writ-large. People like Bruggeman and (to toot my own horn) me fill other necessary roles. We recognize science is more than research and policy is more than funding. Researchers have other concerns.

As for creative destruction, I suspect it rarely occurs with the consent of those being destroyed. I welcome David’s input on this as his knowledge of economic history is much greater than mine. But as I understand Schumpeter, external pressure and competition induces creative destruction. If the economic crisis won’t produce such pressure (and again, Presidential statements don’t support that view), then that pressure has to come from somewhere else.

This is getting long already, so I’ll close with a couple points. First, I largely agree with Bruggeman’s goals. I would love scientists to reexamine their priorities and question the status quo. But it’s not easy for them to do so. The neuroscientists I know are well aware of the funding dynamic Bruggeman describes. But they also know getting tenure means publishing papers and receiving grants. Successful grants tend to focus on narrow research questions and call for grad students and post-docs, perpetuating the the PhD bubble. Even if they wanted to change, they couldn’t do so without sacrificing their careers.

And that’s why I harp on interests so much. I’m not sure the policy community appreciates that scientists are simply acting in their interests. Us in S&T policy have to deal with this reality and propose practical solutions.

Categories: Academia, Special Interest

Maps of Science

December 2, 2011 Leave a comment

David Bruggeman highlighted this pretty graphic from Wired showing connections between research fields:

David believes such maps can help policy-makers identify potential connections between clumps of research. I’m a bit skeptical they’ll ever be used in this way. But there’s nothing wrong with creating something just because it’s pretty to look at!

Categories: Misc

Scientists and the economic crisis, ctd.

December 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Via the Jack Stilgoe post I just discussed, Colin Macilwain exhorts scientists to deal with a world in crisis:

Those involved in science policy sometimes seem to me to be sleep-walking through the greatest crisis to afflict the West since the Second World War. True, from the point of view of the scientist at the bench, grants continue to flow and results continue to be published. Perhaps this is why wider discourse about science’s role in society has hardly budged an inch.

For the past three years, I have grown steadily more impatient with this ‘business as usual’ approach. Whenever an academy president or research chief stands up to speak in public, I have been waiting for them to explain how they will do things differently. They never do.

Macilwain doesn’t seem to understand that scientists are already dealing with a crisis. From their perspective, less science funding is the crisis to be dealt with. Why should scientists meekly accept they change their ways when everyone is trying to maintain business as usual? Scientists see a shrinking pie and want their portion to stay the same. It’s self-preservation, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Scientists genuinely believe more science funding serves the common good and addresses the economic crisis, just as the Chamber of Commerce genuinely believes the same about lower corporate taxes. Scientists do in fact care about basic research. Asking scientists not to lobby for what they care about is asking them to abdicate their democratic responsibilities. It’s not a fair request.

Going forward, a better approach may be to stop narrowly equating science with academic basic research (something I’m guilty of in this very post), and instead try to direct funding to different kinds of science. Academics will always study what the Macilwains and Stilgoes out there are not satisfied with. So rather than attacking this type of research, Macilwain et. al. should do their own political lobbying for the type of science they want. A world in crisis demands it.

Scientists, the economic crisis, and special interest strategies

December 1, 2011 5 comments

Jack Stilgoe criticizes scientists for not doing more to address the economic crisis:

Much of the rhetoric of the scientific community has been about protecting its short-term health when public funding is under attack on all fronts. This was the correct tactic, but there has been little strategy… Now, surely, is the time to ask the science policy questions that are so important but rarely get asked – What science do we need and why? Who should benefit? Who should decide? – and leave open the possibility that the answers might call for a radical redesign of the scientific enterprise.

I think this attitude severely misreads the situation. Why should scientists sit quietly while their funding is being attacked? Are bankers strategizing, or are they calling for lower taxes and fewer regulations? How about teachers? Construction workers? The military? Opposing funding cuts is what interests groups do. That is their strategy.

The notion that science is a human institution created by real people, with all the flaws and biases of human institutions everywhere, is perhaps the central insight from science studies. So I’m always confused when STS scholars expect scientists to act differently than anyone else. It’s almost as if STS want their ideas to be wrong!

We are not surprised when unions and business groups fight for their members. We shouldn’t expect otherwise from the National Academies because they too are a special interest. If Stilgoe and I want to change scientists’ behavior, we’ll have to make it in their interest to do so.

Categories: Special Interest