Girl, Interrupting

May 27, 2010

Ivory towers, science and society

why it takes all kinds

Ok it appears there is no more money – I mean science, research, business innovation, technology and higher education money, where both the US and the UK governments are making cuts. (see my previous post) I think everyone knows this and there are probably going to be more cuts, more cuts, and more cuts.

So those lucky enough not to be made redundant in science research and academia are going to be under more pressure than even before to find grant money, while doing MORE teaching and oh, yes, publishing more high-impact papers. (The point the research scientists are going to become ‘administrators’ has been made excellently by Austin Elliot from his blog about the real problem with elitist funding.)

And at the same time, there needs to be a big push to increase scientific literacy and science in society. The sector does need to promote itself better undoubtedly – but the sector may not necessarily mean every working scientist. Just like the US government is not necessarily representative of everyone in America.

Or does it?

Both the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and European research council funding bodies have a broader-impact portion to their grants, where they want to make this much more prevalent in years to come. What is entails is that to get funding you as a research scientist need to address the broader impacts your specific research has to society. But as was pointed out by Corie Lok at Nature, this may not be the most efficient way to actually increase scientific literacy.

But the original idea was, according to the NSF, ….established to get scientists out of their ivory towers and connect them to society.

I think its a good idea to get ‘SCIENCE’ out of the Ivory tower but not necessarily all scientists…

For 2 reasons

1 – Science really takes all kinds. Scientists are humans and humans aren’t necessarily good at all things equally. We all know how this works. Its like sports teams. Most good prop forwards in Rugby are pretty bad fly-halves, just as a good offensive lineman in American football is probably pretty crap as a wide receiver.

Why does anyone think that scientists are different? Some scientists need an ivory tower environment to be good at what they do, some need more input from others, some are inspired by and for teaching, some are good at connecting with the world at large and increasing scientific literacy. And sometimes a person trained in communication who works WITH scientists can be more effective than scientists themselves, because this after all is what they are trained to do.

Just because you are a good scientist, doesn’t mean you are a good administrator – to pick the most often used example I have heard in research science. And this idea that every scientist can excel in all of these functions is ludicrous.

and 2 –

Many working scientists already have too much to do. And they will have even more to do with all of the budgetary cuts in the UK universities – because not only are faculty members being made redundant but so are technicians, secretarial staff and graduate student places who often do a lot of demonstrating and teach.

Using the example of say a senior lecturer in the UK (or associate prof in the US) – they teach, they write grants to do research, if they are lucky and can get grants they supervise graduate students, they do admin, they do secretarial work, they do IT, then they run out of research money and have to write grants again…

But then we want scientists to produce stuff and discover great new things and which have obvious benefits to society. But in reality there are sometimes no obvious benefits to society, at least in the short term. Some science is technology driven, and produces in the short term but big chunks of science is pretty slow and but can potential have HUGE impact in the longer term.

AND to reiterate the first point, some scientists work on short-term technological research, some on fundamental (long term) research; so not only have we forgotten that there needs to be different roles for different people, but we are trying to get scientists to all of these roles at the same time.

What is needed in the scientific and higher education sectors is a massive re-think of how things are done. Perhaps a massive restructuring, and I don’t mean in the way that restructuring is currently done, when universities chop around research and divisions, but an actual revolution in how we work and how we accomplish all of the tasks at hand both societally and scientifically. We need to seriously assess not only who would be most useful where but how we need to as a community increase scientific literacy

I don’t really have any answers, but I do think its time to open this discussion in a different more productive way, where we assess different roles, rather than just assuming if you are good at getting research money, you are good at administration and a good teacher.

The goal, I think, might be to get people in the correct roles where they could achieve more, and it might also increase scientific literacy, allowing science as a sector to descend from the Ivory tower and leave the scientists who work better there right where they are.

Advertisements

1 Comment »

  1. So true, that we need to be allowed to specialize, that the best use of human resources is to assign people’s work based on their talents, let us do what we are best at. And so, to solve the ivory tower predicament, let those few scientists who understand the work and the concepts, but can also speak simply about it to lay people, to do so. Some scientists have forgotten common language, and speak only in the language of their field. Those individuals should not be asked to explain their work on TV, because they will only increase the perception that science is irrelevant to common people. Some people have the ability to speak about science without resorting to jargon. Carl Sagan lit me up about science when I was in 5th grade. The more Sagans we can generate to bring the light of science day to regular people, the more interest and support science will find.

    Comment by Teresa — May 29, 2010 @ 4:59 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: