Monday, February 15, 2010

Sagan's Rejection

Carl Sagan was undoubtedly one of the most influential science communicators in recent decades. Most of you have likely heard of him, if not seen one of his TV series (Cosmos: A Personal Voyage) or read one of his books (The Dragons of Eden). His book, Contact, was a best-seller and eventually made into a major motion picture. The latter was one of the most effective portrayals of how women scientists can be (mis)treated by their colleagues and superiors I’ve ever seen.

The public loved Sagan. He frequently appeared on the Tonight Show and was a sought-after speaker. He died in 2006 at age 62. That is sad, but what’s even sadder is what happened to him in the latter part of his life. A group of scientists headed by Stanley Miller (abiotic origins of life on Earth) nominated Sagan for admission into the National Academy of Sciences. Sagan made the first cut, which apparently virtually guarantees entry because at that point only an objection raised by a member can stop the final entry.

Sagan was only the second person in the history of the Academy to be rejected in the second vote. The reason? Some Academy members felt he was a lightweight scientist, in spite of having published over 100 peer-reviewed papers and numerous books. Some of his science accomplishments in astronomy were major contributions. However, all the objecting members saw was his enormous popularity as a science communicator. One person referred to his efforts at communicating science as “symptomatic of an inadequacy in doing science.” Despite the efforts of many well-known scientists who defended him, the Academy ultimately rejected Sagan.

The point of this story is to convey the potential risks to scientists who attempt to communicate science broadly to the public. This negativity comes from the scientific community, not the public and is surprising considering the requirements of some government funding agencies (NSF) to demonstrate in proposals the “broader impact” of their work (e.g., outreach, education, etc.).

I’ve personally experienced this negativity from some colleagues.

In recent years, I’ve been more active in science communication to the public. I’ve given talks in local middle schools, made videos describing some of my work that are on YouTube, set up websites devoted to showing aspects of science of interest to the public, implemented non-technical publications for a science society I belong to, established a foundation to provide travel funds to students, and, of course, host a science blog.

Many colleagues are extremely complimentary regarding these activities and often ask for more information about how to go about initiating something similar themselves. But then there are the others. The ones who make snide remarks about “wasting one’s time on frivolous things” or “thinking you are better than the rest of us”. I don’t pay much attention to the latter folks. However, I bring it up because it is this fear of colleagues’ rejection that stops many scientists from engaging in science communication.

The other objection is: “I just don’t have time to do any science communication. I’ve got my hands full just doing my research, teaching, and keeping up with the science literature.” I understand this feeling, because that’s how I felt even as recently as five years ago. However, after seeing the major change in the public’s view of science and scientists and the rise of anti-science groups, I decided that it was important for each scientist to be an effective communicator.

This negative perception really must change if we are to develop a new generation of scientists who are as comfortable and effective at speaking to the general public as they are while working in their laboratories. Some universities are beginning to recognize the need to train science students in communication and are implementing informal and formal workshops and courses.

Not everyone is cut out to be a science communicator of course. But even if only a fraction of students become effective communicators, these emissaries will greatly improve the communication of science to the public.

1 comment:

Patricia said...

I commend you for your inclination to popularize science. I would today be a completely different thinking person, had I not been introduced to science early in my life with Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" . I became a science junkie, reading his books throughout my life. It was a hurtful shame that the academy of science rejected him because I can't think of any other scientist that could have accomplished more than he did. When you think about the millions of people he introduced science to, the millions of lives he changed... I can think of comparable accomplishments, perhaps with the discovery of a powerful vaccine, like polio, for example if you consider the monumental task of illuminating people's thinking. Please don't ever give up discussing and popularizing science. As a species, we need to understand who we are and where we are going.
thank you,
patricia LaRaia