Saturday, October 03, 2009

Ambassadors for Science

Much as I aspire to have a paying job with the word "ass" in the title, the truth is that as a PhD, I think it is already part of my "job" to educate the public about science and scientists.

I probably spend too much time wondering how much more we could get done, how many rockets sent to how many planets, how many diseases cured, how many electric cars invented, if only we were valued by our taxpaying citizens as much as wars and wall street already are.

I probably spend too much time wondering why we can't have high-paying contracts the way rock stars, lawyers, and ball players do to live the wonderful lifestyles they live.

But what I think it really comes down to is this: as a group, we are terrible ambassadors. Scientists themselves are responsible for not educating the public about science.

Just witness the comments on my last blog post.

Most scientists are more concerned with their own comfort than with the bigger picture. The one minute it takes you to get out there and give science some visibility by saying Hey, I'm a scientist! This is what a scientist looks like!

Is it really too much for you to give?

We love to talk about K-12 outreach and educating teachers, yada yada, when claiming we'll have a "Broader Impact" in our grant proposals. But let's be honest. It's too late by the time kids are in school. The truth is, their parents don't value science as an endeavor, and they don't see their kids as potential scientists. I know mine never in a million years would have guessed I'd want to work in a lab. And they really had no idea what scientists do as opposed to, say, medical doctors or engineers. I'm pretty sure they still don't quite get it.

I really hate seeing these surveys they claim "most" US citizens think science is important. I think it's complete bullshit. My own parents have zero interest in visiting my lab and seeing what we actually do there. We do some pretty freaking cool stuff, but somehow we've failed to spread the curiosity or excitement.

In real life, most US citizens are freaked out at the thought of meeting a scientist, and they'd rather pay more taxes to protect them from terrorists than they would to protect them from H1N1 flu, even though their chances of catching the flu are orders of magnitude higher.

You might have seen the "Americans sure are stupid" video floating around recently. Do you really think the people on that video value science? Of course not. They think we are all still the kids they picked on in school. The nerds. Nobody respected us then, and they don't really respect us now. They have no idea what our jobs entail, why we do them, or how it affects their daily lives.

Do us all a favor and get out of your comfort zone when you're out running errands or at a party meeting new non-scientist people. If somebody asks you what you do, DON'T LIE. Just say you're a scientist.

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At 4:47 PM, Blogger Interdisciplinary Introspective said...

I agree with you. I was so excited when my Aunt, Uncle and cousin came to town for a softball tournament and were able to swing some time with me. I took them to see my lab, and they couldn't have been more unenthusiastic. My cousin just kept asking to go see the gym. The other day, I was telling my sister about how I was trying to pull together some data to show my advisor why we should be doing our experiment one way versus another and my sister responded, "So, what you do is kind of like being a lawyer." And I thought, no, what I do is kind of like being a scientist. We don't even have a single lawyer in the family, but somehow she felt she understood better what a lawyer was than was a scientist was. So sad.

At 2:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" a PhD, I think it is already part of my "job" to educate the public about science and scientists."

Why does a PhD obligate you to do this? Either EVERYONE involved in science as a profession - whether high school science teachers, or college professors, or lab techs - has such an ambassador-for-science duty, or no one does. What is so special about PhDs having this obligation?

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Random said...

If you really want to see how afraid Americans are of scientists, try being a single female scientist (which sounds like a bad movie) and then try to do internet dating. Even the most benign version of "I'm a scientist" or "I do research in science" is enough to make half the men run for the hills, I have to hide the fact that I have a Ph.D. like its some deep dark secret! Turns out, to the general public, a PhD is NOT hot.

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I think what we do IS kind of like being a lawyer. If that analogy works for them to understand what it means to need evidence to support your case, then I'll take what I can get. I usually tell them it's sort of like CSI. But in reality, the law and forensics require much LOWER standards than science does. The legal definition of "evidence" does not require any kind of controls, does not require the same kind of documentation. It's all based on perceived expertise. Which is somewhat similar to scientific publication and grant funding, but not necessarily the same as doing real science. ;-)


I think a PhD does obligate you to this. That's not to say everyone else involved in science shouldn't also do it. But as far as I can tell, most people in teaching do scientific outreach by definition. Most lab techs are not afraid to say what they do. Or do you think they also lie about it?

I see more hypocrazy among the PhD-carrying set. We want prestige, and we like to think we've accomplished something just by getting the degree. And yet, we're terrified of people finding out what we do, because there's so much stigma attached- especially for women (see the comment below yours). So we tend to act like the snobby elite who can't be bothered to interact with "normal" people. It's a really damaging attitude and just makes everyone hate us!


I think you're on the wrong dating sites. You don't want the men who are scared you might be smarter than they are, and you're not going to find the right men by lying to them about what you do.

Even if things go well at first, eventually, they're going to find out who you are.

You sound the classic case of someone who doesn't love herself enough. Do that first, and then you'll find other people who love you, too.

At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK-- case in point. I was at my cousin's wedding last weekend. I was without my SO (we aren't married and don't live in the same state). One of my cousin's former college roommates (married) comes up to ask me what I do. He is without his wife, but seems to start to tell me how I shouldn't tell people (men) that I am a scientist, as it might affect my 'datability.' LOL! There it is, fellow young female scientists (single or not single). Clearly, this person was not afraid to speak his mind.

At 4:31 AM, Anonymous a physicist said...

No profound thoughts, just wanted to say I liked the original post.

Sadly, I've heard other stories like Random's post.

At 8:14 AM, Anonymous ennuiherself said...

This is a subject near and dear to my heart.

I am baffled and disheartened by the scientific illiteracy in this country. Most people have no idea of what is taking place in labs; what their hard earned taxes dollars are funding.

On my old blog, I spoke of my desire to obtain a job educating the public about science. My dream job was/is to basically stand on a street corner preaching about the glory of science and how it impacts society. (Oddly, no one was willing to pay me to be crazy scientist on the corner so here I am stuck at the bench for a postdoc . . . but that's beyond the point.)

Like you pointed out, K-12 outreach is going to be ineffective if we can't reach their parents and the general adult population. If I go speak to a classroom and get one student excited, that's terrific. But if there's no one at home to help them pursue that interest, then what was the point? I specifically wanted to extend the science outreach programs to adults but these kinds of programs are few and far between.

I feel like there is a general lack of respect for science. Sure, everyone recognizes that science is "important" but in the grand scheme of things but I don't think most adults are aware of how much science impacts their lives.

I guess I was lucky because my family always supported my goals and showed interest in what I was working on. They may not always have understood my work, but they cared enough to ask.

At 2:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is a resource for scientists who are thinking about engaging, at some level, with our schools...

and free stuff that (might) help you here...

At 3:23 PM, Anonymous Dan said...

Hmmm. As a science teacher for 30 years I know where you're coming from. Always be proud of your science training and tell people in lay terms what your currently into.
But, did you ever ask about other's professions? Or visit their place of work with interest? Are you in your own world like they are?
You said "They have no idea what our jobs entail, why we do them, or how it affects their daily lives."
What do you know about
Teaching (beyond your school experience)
40 hr assembly working
Pushing cash register buttons all day
litigating a claim
managing a large group of workers
picking crops
counseling an abused victim
etc and so forth......

When your toilet won't flush suddenly you realize of plumbers "They have no idea what our jobs entail, why we do them, or how it affects their daily lives."

Like my mom used to say, "you're not the only tin can in the dump".

At 6:54 PM, Blogger Helen Huntingdon said...

On having a PhD conferring obligation -- I agree. I didn't reach this level of education on my own. I got this far because our society finds value in having some members educated to this level, to the point of supporting that view with tax dollars.

I've pushed a lot more towards giving my work away to the public than some of my professors thought necessary, but to my mind I was just repaying the investment my neighbors made in producing someone like me.

At 11:58 PM, Anonymous Term Papers said...

Great comparison never thought like that before..!good post..!


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