On Science and Superheroes

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by Jane O’Hara.

Let’s talk, people! Let’s communicate with society! What shall we talk about?

Let’s talk about the things that we do in our everyday working lives that everyone else should know about: our science.

That’s not to say that what we do is necessarily more important or contributes to society in a greater sense than a nurse, a doctor, a farmer, a writer or a teacher – but the difference is that scientists’ endeavours are more shrouded in secrecy than any of these other occupations.

Both science and technology feature hugely in the lives of pretty much every person, whether they realise it or not. I must admit that I don’t know so much about the technical side of things, being a molecular biologist and self-confessed Tech-phobe. I don’t have an iPhone or an iAnything for that matter. So in fact, I would benefit from taking a spoonful of my own medicine and actively pursuing info about technological advances, therefore not making a bee-line for the familiar faces (or job-types) at networking events like the ones run by SCWIST, but seeking to be educated by those men and women who innovate and creatively improve our technological world. Don’t stick to what you know, in other words.
But I digress. The central idea of this post was supposed to be about communicating what we do in any science-related field, whether it’s lab research, psychology or product development, to wider audiences than our scientific peers. The rewards to be reaped by this process are many-fold: firstly, it reduces the mystery that is associated with science. There is a perception I have come across that we spend our time hidden away in the lab, tinkering around with things that are ‘far too complicated for you to understand,’ where the ‘you’ is the general public or lay non-scientist.

This perception could also lend itself to an idea that scientists don’t share what we’re working on because we are paranoid about our research being usurped by others, or getting ‘scooped’ in popular terminology. And as most university research is actually funded by tax payer-generated dollars, I’d say these citizens have a right to know what we’re doing with their hard-earned dough. Let’s overturn the idea that we’re all a) weird, b) antisocial or c) only interested in publishing our work, to further our own careers and hence don’t give a damn about engaging with society (*evil laugh*).

Through more open communication, I think we can turn this view of the odd, socially-retarded scientist on its head, which would hopefully incur the benefit of endearing us to the public, leading them to put greater faith in us and our drive to produce top-quality research and increase the reservoir of knowledge in general.

So how would this best be achieved? Scientific outreach is already happening all over Canada in a variety of forms, and this very subject was the inspiration for a discussion at an event called ‘How to Talk about Science’, held at the University of Victoria on May 25-27th, 2012. There we heard some truly passionate speakers including Bonnie Schmidt of Let’s Talk Science, the eminent and ebullient science communicator Bob McDonald, presenter of CBC’s ‘Quirks and Quarks’ radio program and a neuroscience professor-cum-superhero-expert by the name of E. Paul Zehr (read his book to find out if you have what it takes to physically become Batman!), which made for a diverse and inspiring panel.

The main message of this inaugural conference was to get the word out there, that science is fun and anybody can understand and get involved in its chaotic creativity. Starting by educating kids (who are the future scientists and also political representatives of this country) seems obvious but is nevertheless pertinent. Getting them excited and curious about science would hopefully foster an open-minded attitude and hunger for finding the truth that will endure throughout future generations.

The conference also focussed on the target audiences of the general public and the media, who act as the conductors of information between the scientists (or creators of knowledge) and the public (knowledge consumers). People working in science are often, though not exclusively, unashamed of their geeky enthusiasm about their field of study or work, which sometimes extends to other science / technological fields. It’s this enthusiasm and energy that needs to be transduced like a signal, into the collective consciousness, to shake up and wake up those who don’t know about (or plead ignorance of) vitally relevant information that emerges from scientific research, for example climate change science. Social media, particularly Twitter, Facebook and blogs on the web have made this process far more accessible and mainstream, though I think it’s important to be discerning in believing all information gained through these sources!

The argument for the responsible and open sharing of science can be summed up nicely, I think, by the motto of the University of Victoria (translated from Latin) – “A multitude of the wise is the health of the world.”

Now, go and tell someone about your bacterial cultures and how they regulate gene expression!

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