The Changing Face of Science: Part One

Keyboard

While waiting for the L train to attend the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting this week, I came upon Nicholas Kristof’s latest New York Times op-ed: “Professors, We Need You!” In his piece, Kristof portrays professors as out-of-touch intellectuals who study esoteric fields and hide their findings in impenetrable jargon. He also says that academia crushes rebels who communicate their science to the public. I admire Mr. Kristof for his efforts to bring awareness to injustices around the world and I agree that academic papers are often painful – if not impossible – to read. But my experience at the AAAS conference this week highlights how wrong he is, both in his depiction of academics and of the driving forces within academia itself.

AAAS is the organization behind Science magazine, ScienceNOW news, Science Careers, and the AAAS fellowship programs. Among the goals in its mission statement: to enhance communications among scientists, engineers, and the public; to provide a voice for science on societal issues; and to increase public engagement with science and technology. So yes, you would expect their conference to focus on science communication. Still, the social media sessions (Engaging with Social Media and Getting Started in Social Media) were full of scientists of all ages. Another well-attended session taught listeners how to use sites and services like Google Scholar, Mendeley, ORCID, and ResearchGate to improve the visibility of their work online.

Throughout the conference, scientists were live-tweeting interesting facts and commentary from the sessions they attended using the #AAASmtg hashtag. I saw a particularly wonderful example of this at a Saturday morning symposium called Building Babies. All five of the speakers at the symposium have accounts on Twitter and four of them were live-tweeting during each other’s presentations. Three of them (Kate Clancy, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde) also have popular blogs: Context and Variation, BANDIT, and Mammals Suck, respectively. After the symposium, Dr. Hinde compiled the symposium-related tweets on Storify.

I won’t claim that this panel of speakers is representative of scientists as a whole, but I do believe that they are representative of the direction in which scientists are moving. And contrary to Mr. Kristof’s claims, I would argue that their public visibility and embrace of online communication have probably helped rather than hindered their careers. Increased visibility can lead to more invitations to give talks, more coverage from the science press, and added connections outside of one’s narrow field of expertise. The first two of these can fill out a CV and attract positive public attention to a department, both pluses for a young academic who’s up for tenure. Moreover, while hiring and tenure decisions are made within departments, funding comes from organizations and institutions that typically value plain-speaking scientists who do research with societal relevance. For these reasons (and, I’m sure, others), it’s becoming obvious that scientists can benefit from clarity, accessibility, and visibility. In turn, many scientists are learning the necessary skills and making inroads to communicating with the public.

Of course, public visibility offers both promise and peril for scientists. As climate scientist and blogger Kim Cobb explained in her wonderful AAAS talk, scientists worry about appearing biased or unprofessional when they venture into the public conversation on social media. Science writer and former researcher Bethany Brookshire mentioned another potential peril: the fact that thoughtless or offensive off-the-cuff comments made on social media can come back to haunt scientists in their professional lives. It is also certainly true in academia (as it is in most spheres) that people are disdainful of peers who seem arrogant or overly self-promotional.

In short, scientists hoping to reach the public have their work cut out for them. They must learn how to talk about science in clear and comprehensible terms for non-scientists. They must be engaging yet appropriate in public forums and strike the right balance between public visibility and the hard-won research results to back up the attention they receive. They have good reason to tread carefully as they wade into the rapid waters of the Twitterverse, the blogosphere, and other wide-open forums. Yet in they are wading all the same.

There have already been some great responses to Kristof’s call for professors. Political scientist Erik Voeten argued that many academics already engage the public in a variety of ways. Political scientist Robin Corey pointed out that the engagement of academics with the public is often stymied by a lack of time and funding. Academics are rarely paid for the time they spend communicating with the public and may need to concentrate their efforts on academic publications and grant applications because of the troubling job market and funding situation.

Still, many academics are ready to take the plunge and engage with the public. What they need is more training and guidance. Graduate programs should provide better training in writing and communicating science. Universities and  societies should offer mentorship and seminars for scientists who want to improve the visibility of their research via the web. We need to have many more panels and discussions like the ones that took place at the AAAS meeting this week.

Oh, and while we’re at it: fewer misinformed, stereotypical descriptions of stodgy professors in ivory towers would be nice.

____

Photo credit: Ian Britton, used via Creative Commons license

Cuddling Up with a Scimoir

1688897198_28302e8ce6_oYou might call it a Frankenstein genre – two quite different literary genres stitched together and brought to life. For the moment, I am calling it the scimoir. The rare science memoir can be found tucked away in the Science section, in Memoir or Biography, even sometimes in Health, Psychology, or Self Help. It defies categorization, flummoxing librarians and booksellers alike. Science and memoir, memoir and science. It just doesn’t seem right.

At first glance the two genres seem incompatible. Science is the study of the immutable and absolute while memoir is the most personal and subjective of all genres. Yet somehow they can go together, and when done well, they resonate with honesty and relevance. They tame each other. Memoir reminds us that the whirring mechanics of science play out on the scale of our individual lives, while science reminds us that the memoirists’ struggles and stories reflect something of the universal. Moreover, the drama of memoir adds the narrative kick that science writing so desperately needs. It’s a match made in genre heaven.

Why am I waxing poetic about a literary genre? I suppose because I recently discovered that I’m drawn to this combination, both as a blogger and as a reader. The majority of my posts are amalgamations of personal experience and scientific theory. This was never my intent; somehow the combination fell out of my interests and whatever spark motivated me to write about a given topic. I’ve also discovered that I’ve read and enjoyed a number of scimoirs, even though I didn’t consciously seek them out and scimoirs are none too common.

In point of fact, I shouldn’t be surprised that book-length scimoirs are relatively rare. To write a compelling one, an author generally has to be a scientist or science writer who has also personally experienced something dramatic that is relevant to the topic. You might be both a leading researcher and lifelong sufferer of a particular illness, like Kay Redfield Jamison in An Unquiet Mind. You might be the researcher behind an infamous experiment, like Philip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect. Or you might be able to approach the topic through your experience with ailing relatives. In Mapping Fate, Alice Wexler wrote about her mother’s battle with Huntington’s disease and her sister’s scientific quest to isolate the culprit gene. In Acquainted with the Night, the science writer Paul Raeburn documented his children’s struggles with mental illness in the context of the current state of juvenile psychiatric knowledge and treatment.

I am on a quest to identify other books in this wonderful Franken-genre and I need your help. Here are the other scimoirs I can think of that I’ve already read (aside from those listed above): My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, The Double Helix by James Watson, A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky, and several of Oliver Sacks’s books. I’ve come across a few more that I plan to read: Memoirs of an Addicted Brain by Marc Lewis, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, and What Mad Pursuit by Francis Crick.

Please let me know what other scimoirs you’ve read, want to read, or simply know are out there. And do share any other ideas for naming the genre. Scimoir sounds like a half-android, half-alien monster, and who wants to cuddle up with that?

______

Photo credit: Karoly Czifra

%d bloggers like this: