Science Festivals, Science Books, and Science Funding

The World Science Festival happened while I was at DAMOP (I missed getting to talk to Bill Phillips, because he left shortly after his talk to go to NYC), and by all reports it was a success– they claim 120,000 attendees on their web site, and sold more tickets than expected for several events, and favorably impressed journalists. Good news, all.

Of course, at the same time on the opposite coast, the annual Book Expo America was going on, and as Jennifer Ouellete reports, science was shut out:

Every conceivable genre was prominently represented — sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, romance, foreign language, business, self-help, New Age/spiritualism, general fiction, the classics, nonfiction, children’s/YA, comic books/graphic novels, manga, you name it — except for popular science. I could pick up autographed copies of Michelle Whitedove’s She Talks to Angels (said angels have apparently told Ms. Whitedove all the secrets of the Afterlife), and something called Inner Paths to Outer Space, "an investigation into experiences of other realms of existence and contact with otherwordly beings." (Apparently psychedelic drugs and "other spiritual technologies" were involved in the author’s "experiences.")  But the work of popular science authors like Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, Janna Levin, Alan Lightman, Dava Sobel, Mary Roach (actually, come to think of it, I did see a poster for her new book, Bonk), Chris Mooney, Carl Zimmer, Natalie Angier, etc., etc., was nowhere to be found. Talk about being marginalized! The biggest book event of the year, and science wasn’t even invited to the party. Maybe the invitation got lost in the mail.

Meanwhile, Gordon Watts is miffed at the relative state of US science funding.

You will be unsurprised to learn (given that these are pet peeves of mine) that I think these two issues are connected.

The science funding cuts in the US, and the general apathy toward research funding in general, is a direct consequence of the fact that we don’t do enough as scientists to promote public understanding of science. And we don’t support the people who are doing things to bring science to the masses enough.

As I said, I missed getting to talk to Bill because he went off to NYC right after his talk (I saw him just before his talk, but didn’t want to interrupt his preparation). When I mentioned that to other people, several people said “Oh, yeah, he was going off to some science festival thing…” in a tone that suggested this was an early indicator that the Brain Eater was getting to him, as it does many Nobel laureates.

Similarly, a few years ago, when Carl Wieman moved to Canada, and donated part of his own Nobel winnings to fund physics education research, people practically made “screw loose” signs when talking about his move. Everybody thought he was crazy to care about teaching undergraduates enough to leave his research lab.

These reactions are typical, but exactly wrong. We ought to be celebrating the people who reach out to a broader audience, because they are the backbone of what we do. Science is a tremendously expensive endeavor these days, and paying for it requires the continued good will of the populace and government. Selling science to a general audience isn’t some side activity to be pursued by senior scientists who have gone a little loopy, it’s an absolutely essential part of what we do.

But that’s not how modern academic science is structured. Science outreach won’t advance your career, and may, in fact, sink it. Scientists are rewarded for producing technical publications aimed at the narrowest possible audience of other scientists, and it’s no surprise that the result of this reward system is a culture that looks down on people who attempt to do anything other than produce narrow technical publications.

And the result of that is a general culture in which science funding is a luxury item, to be supplied or cut on a whim, because there is not a large and vocal constituency of people who are excited by science and want to see it funded.

We don’t have adequate science funding, because we don’t have enough good popular science books. And we don’t have enough good popular science books, because we don’t reward and encourage scientists who are interested in writing them.

What I’m calling for here is a general change in the culture of academic science, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done now. Grand changes won’t happen overnight, but they start with small actions.

Buy popular science books, and celebrate them. Don’t just write pissy blog reviews complaining that the book was “dumbed down” and didn’t get some technical detail right. Find what is good in the books, and promote that. If there are deficiencies, steer people to better sources.

Support events like the Science Festival and science cafes. Take part in local outreach activities– if somebody from your college or university asks you to take part in some event for the broader community, do something to help them (if you don’t have a talent for public lecturing, send a student or post-doc). Don’t just complain that they’re taking you away from your research– this is ultimately what makes your research possible.

Support science education, across the board, not just on hot-button political topics. It’s not enough to scratch and claw to get correct coverage of evolution, or global warming, or the Big Bang– we need to do a better job teaching kids about everything in the sciences. It does no good to teach biology correctly if we don’t also teach math and chemistry and physics.

Make a stink when science is “put in the corner,” as Jennifer puts it. Ask your local library and bookstore to get more science books. If the New York Times book review shafts science again this year, express your displeasure.

And above all else, support the people who promote science to the general public. You don’t have to do it yourself– writing for a general audience is hard, and not everybody will have the skill or patience– but recognize it as a valuable endeavor, and encourage people who are good at it. If you’re an academic, and have a student or colleague with an interest in outreach, support them. Don’t crush them, or tell them to stop blogging and get back in the lab, but encourage them, and push them to do a good job with it. If you’re in a position to evaluate junior academics, don’t just ignore their general-public writing and outreach, or count it against their research productivity– it’s a plus factor, not a negative. If you want to get really radical, start asking people who don’t do outreach why they aren’t contributing– and not in some lame, NSF-grant “Broader Impact” checkbox sense, where “If funded, we’ll train some graduate students” discharges the obligation.

The good news is, as events like the World Science Festival show, there are people out there who are receptive to science, and willing to turn out in large numbers for well-done science events. All we need to do is reach out to them, not look down on them.

9 thoughts on “Science Festivals, Science Books, and Science Funding

  1. Good points, all. Your comment re: reviewing pop science books strikes particularly close to home, and I will keep it in mind when I write up the pop science book I am currently reading.

    Part of the problem in that regard, I’m finding, is that as a scientist, I approach the material differently from the intended, non-scientist, audience. All the things that are meant to make the material accessible to the general public–use of metaphors, anecdotes, emotional appeals–not only go against how I’ve been been trained to process scientific material, but actually made it difficult to even understand what information the author was trying to convey. So, I’m not even sure that scientists are best-equipped to review popular science books. Fact-checking, sure, but not necessarily suitable for judging how effective the book will be for a layperson.

  2. Hear hear! And this raises an issue that I have been trying to get across for years. There is sometimes a “hierarchy” in physics that puts primarily undergraduate faculty on the bottom of the ladder and thus at an inherent disadvantage, and yet this is where we have some of our greatest advantages at reaching both potential future physicists as well as non-physicists.

    Would you consider allowing us to reprint a slightly edited version of this post in the next issue of The Quantum Times (which is the newsletter of the APS’ Topical Group on Quantum Information)? If so, send me an e-mail.

  3. Nicely said. Ever thought of trying to do a piece for somewhere like Nature, Science or Scientific American in this vein?

    I have, but I haven’t gotten around to figuring out the logistics (what the proper way is to submit that sort of thing, etc.). The term ends Friday, though, so maybe next week.

  4. An excellent post, Chad.

    It seems to me that one of the small things that you and other SciBlings could do is to convince the Seed overlords to open up the new Science Book Club, so that any science blogger (not just those on ScienceBlogs) could propose and organize a book club “meeting” on any worthy new popular science book, including YA books. The book club should also compile and have easily found links to recommended reading lists on various science subjects, and maybe even sponsor an annual popular science book fair.

    In turn, I’m sure that the good folks at NCSE would help publicize the book club to science teachers, school and public librarians, and their national organizations.

  5. Incidentally, I note the Boy Scouts don’t have a merit badge for physics. Astronomy, chemistry, nuclear science, and energy, but not physics.

  6. Yeah, Watts is miffed. He also knows f@#$ all about one of the main talking points of that post (the R&D tax credit).

  7. Yeah, Watts is miffed. He also knows f@#$ all about one of the main talking points of that post (the R&D tax credit).

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