Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Should Scientists Be Forced to Come Out of the Ivory Tower?

A commenter on an earlier post in this series brings up an important issue regarding scientists who are reluctant to be cheerleaders for science.  He argues that the days of scientists working in isolation in their laboratories and never having to bother with staff meetings, congressional hearings, or explaining their science to taxpayers are long gone.

I agree that we are in a different era in which there is an increasing demand for scientists to justify their research.  I do think it's important for scientists to communicate their work to a broader audience…which is why I’ve devoted numerous posts to talking about the importance of science communication by scientists (see the nav bar-- Science Communication).  Many argue that scientists can no longer afford to stay in their laboratories and never communicate with the ultimate end-users…policy-makers, land managers, and the general public.  Personally, I’ve done a complete about-face from being a scientist who does her research in isolation (never talking to the public) to actively promoting the value of my work….developing information products (fact sheets, videos) describing my research and its importance to the general public. I talk to grade-school students about science and about wetlands. I founded and edit a non-technical publication (articles written by scientists) with the purpose of encouraging scientists to directly engage the public.  I started writing this blog.  In other words, cheerleading for my own work and talking about what it's like to be a scientist.

As I've also pointed out in previous posts, however, there are dangers to speaking out in the public arena....just ask any climate scientist (see Who's Got Our Backs? and Sagan's Rejection).  Science communication also takes time and resources, which may not be available to the average scientist.  Such costs should be balanced against the need for science communication.  We should also understand that good science communication takes training and effort and is not typically taught to scientists (although this is changing).  We must also acknowledge that not everyone has the talent for science communication (see Don't Be Such a Romulan).  Many people who are attracted to science are often workers who are quiet, contemplative people and are just not very comfortable dealing with the public. 

The point of my series is to consider the hypothesis posed by the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts...i.e., that introverted people are unfairly judged and should not be prodded to be more like extroverts.  These are people who are thoughtful, who weigh their words carefully before speaking, and who process information differently from those who are more verbally facile.  In the hypothetical example I gave, Jennifer is a young introvert with a lot of potential as a scientist.  There are many like her in science, both male and female, who need help and encouragement to feel confident in their inherent nature, not criticism for something they cannot easily change.  Such people often do just fine in one-on-one interactions, but find it difficult to speak up in larger groups, especially ones dominated by loud know-it-alls. Their reluctance to speak up is often misinterpreted and mishandled by teachers, mentors, and supervisors who fail to recognize how different introverts are.

We can try to encourage such people to become more verbally skilled, but expecting an introvert to testify successfully at a congressional hearing or participate in a public debate (without extensive training) is perhaps not reasonable (or wise).  Not everyone is cut out to be a good science communicator, nor should everyone be forced to be one. We can help such people improve their verbal communication skills through focused training and similar means, but there will be a limit to how much one can change an inherent way of thinking and feeling.  Scientists who are strongly introverted can be encouraged instead to develop non-verbal communications with the public (writing popular science articles, producing/directing science videos, hosting science blogs, for example). 

The point of my series is to explore the mind-set of introverts and how they differ from extroverts and to consider how this dichotomy relates to scientists.  We are perhaps better off taking advantage of the introverted scientist's natural skills rather than forcing them to change.  We can teach students the importance of communicating their science, try to provide them opportunities to hone their communication skills, but emphasize that they can select whichever communication mechanisms best fit their nature.  Over time, we'll hopefully end up with a science community in which there are a lot of good communicators, but who go about it in diverse ways.

1 comment:

River Mud said...

It's a valid point that the majority (at least a slim majority) of scientists will continue to be introverts, well into the future.

And you're right, it's true that some of them are just not going to be effective or successful at communicating the value of their own work. That's a significant disadvantage. And, I hate to say it, unfair - at least in extreme cases of talented introverts.

Given that reality, it seems like the reasonable thing to do is to have effective, aggressive communication at the department or lab level (although nobody wants to pay for it). For there to be a bubbly PR person (male or female) who has basic science knowledge (freshman biology and chemistry, at least) and has sufficient talent to get high quality communication and promotional information out of talented by highly introverted researchers.

A human "buffer" from the public, if you will. And now we can see the true cost of all of this criticism of science and of research and university budget has a price - your departmental PR person's salary and benefits. (and someone like him in every large lab and department in every serious research university).

Very good analysis! Thanks for the response.