From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

"Is the March for Science a good idea? Part 1: Sure!"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 16 July 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

The March for Science made big news last year, when supporters and enthusiasts around the country flooded the streets of DC and their own cities. Featuring witty signs, catchy slogans, 'teach-ins", prominent speakers, and of course lots of marching, the March has become an annual tradition.

But not all scientists and members of the scientific community joined in the efforts. The March's slogan was "out of the labs and into the streets," but many scientists chose to stay in their labs. In this two-part series I'll weigh the pros and cons of the effort, starting with the pros:

Science, in general, has faced decades of funding cuts and budgetary uncertainty. Simultaneously, public sentiment, trust, and appreciation of science appears to be at an all-time low. It's time to wake up! Science doesn't exist in a vacuum - we are embedded in our communities. If we refuse to leave our ivory towers, we run the very real risk of the towers getting demolished. We need to show our communities that we're real human beings with feelings and dreams and, you know, faces.

Additionally, scientists are surrounded by science enthusiasts and fans, who may not practice science professionally but hold the methods and results of science in a special place in their hearts. If the apparatus of science depends on public funding, then we absolutely need to engage and activate those core supporters, so that they can convince their friends and - hopefully - legislators that science is awesome and we shouldn't turn off the funding tap. Scientists are somewhat busy, and we need our supporters to aid in this essential work.

Lastly, scientists themselves are excellent communicators, but in the specialized jargon and math of their field. We need to show the world that we're not alone, that non-scientists can enjoy and appreciate our work, and that what we do is in ultimate service to the world. By showing our communities the amount of support we have, and the solidarity of that support, we can more effectively do our jobs and serve our mission.

So with all that, get out and march! Or not...

"Stop, Collaborate, and Listen"

Written by Paul Sutter on Tuesday, 10 July 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

There are many features of the scientific enterprise that we can incorporate into our everyday lives. A willingness to challenge assumptions. A thirst for well-controlled data. A desire for experimental verification of ideas. An openness to observation regardless of the outcomes.

These are all well and good, and with a properly trained mind can be wielded to great effect. But there's one more feature of science that has only emerged relatively recently: the rise of the collaboration. Back in Ye Olden Times, scientists would often work solo, even going to the extreme of writing their notes using ciphers of their own devising. They would share, of course, by writing letters to colleagues or submitting articles to journals, but revelations were kept spare until results were finalized.

As the problems that scientists faced became more complex and especially as funding sources dried up, single-author papers became the exception rather than the rule. Even a purely theoretical paper using only back-of-the-envelope calculations will usually have two or three coauthors. Some papers, such as those produced by decades-long experimental efforts, will have a thousand or more names attached to it, representing the hard work of engineers, designers, technicians, coders, lead scientists, peripheral collaborators, and all their students and postdocs.

Modern science is an enterprise; almost an industry. The challenges we face require merging diverse skillsets, frequent communication, and global coordination. It's now an absolute necessity for graduate students to learn how to work within a larger collaboration. And this spirit of cooperation - that you can't solve most problems by yourself - is a wonderful thread that we can weave into all our discussions on what science is.

"Blissful Ignorance"

Written by Paul Sutter on Monday, 02 July 2018. Posted in From The Desk of...The Chief Scientist

In a perfect world we would just open up the doors, let folks filter in to take their seats, and start talking about science. They would listen, agree that it's pretty awesome, and go home to tell their friends and family what they just learned.

But as luck would have it, we don't live in a perfect world. There are innumerable barriers between scientists and non-scientists, and between science presenters and (potential) audiences. Some of those barriers are due to societal structures that we need to guard against and mitigate. And some of those barriers are due to biases that people carry against science - I wrote about that last week.

But some of those barriers are built with our own hands. Sometimes the walls between science and society are anchored in our own biases, assumptions, and stereotypes about non-scientists.

How many times do we shame people for not knowing basic astronomy facts? Or ridicule climate change skeptics or evolution deniers? Or chuckle about those idiotic flat-earthers? How many times do we harbor suspicions that non-scientists simply don't - or can't - "get it"?

Those expressions may feel good in the moment, and get that old fashioned team spirit going amongst science communicators and their fans. But don't those biases slither into the way we communicate and share science? Don't they turn audiences off and turn people away? Doesn't one negative interaction cause a ripple effect that makes it even harder to fulfill our mission in the future?

Some people don't know basic science facts. Some harbor beliefs that we may find repugnant. But they're also people. We must overcome what we *think* they might be in order to find ways to build genuine bridges. After all, if we allow our biases to cloud our judgement, we can't very well claim to be accurate representatives of the scientific worldview, can we?

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