Girl, Interrupting

January 3, 2011

Science Funding cuts are political not a reflection of elitist science

In the US and the UK governments are making or threatening science education and funding cuts, is that partly the fault of scientists being ‘elitist’ ?

Today is the first day of the new Republican Majority Congress in the US – with Eric Cantor taking the reins as House majority Leader …

One of Cantor’s first ‘targets’ of attack to stop the ‘overspending’ by the US government is the National Science Foundation – which is roughly equivalent to a research council in the UK – that is scientists write for competitive grant funding from the NSF to do a variety of scientific research. Cantor and Co. have set up a website called You Cut which asks the general public to search on the public NSF website here to find funding which they deem ‘un-necessary’ – Why Cantor chose the NSF if he really wanted to cut money is beyond me – the 2011 budget request for NSF is $7.4 billion out of a total of around $3.5 trillion is about 0.2% of the total US budget – as opposed to say Social Security or Defense (both around ~20% of the US federal budget) – so if you cut two or three $1 million projects (at 0.00002 % of the federal budget each) then you can work out the real financial savings this makes – zilch.

Similar to the budget cuts in the UK – the reasons for this attack are almost certainly political not financial. Cantor himself says that much of what the NSF funds is ‘useful’. Both deficit reducing policies want to be seen as tackling the deficit and ‘looking’ out for how government wastes money, thereby saving the tax-paying electorate from profligate spending. There are obvious similarties with the US Republican Congress under Gingrich (after Clinton’s first mid-term in 1992) with its attack on the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). The NEA, which has a relatively tiny budget (155 million as of FY2009 – 0.004% of the US federal budget), was attacked because, in a nut shell, some of the funded art was deemed to have anti-family and Christian values.

But the NSF doesn’t really cross loggerheads with many social conservative issues, so why attack the NSF? Why attack science budgets in general? (as has also been happening in the UK – see all of the coverage of the Science-Is-Vital campaign)

One of the arguments for WHY science is under attack is because there is a public perception that scientists are ‘elitist’. The last UK government was concerned about this perception, Labour launched a campaign to reduce the public perception of scientists as elitists in January 2009. Science, like art, should be for all and for the benefit of all, but is this why it is under attack? Because it is perceived as an elitist activity? Because people feel like you have to be a ‘genius’ to engage in science? Is it the fault of scientists, who ‘don’t communicate’ but stay in their ‘high-brow’ ivory towers, feeling so superior to the rest of the plebeian world?

I don’t think that science communication or scientific elitistism (Yes some scientists are ‘elitist;, but I would argue most aren’t) has much to do with it, except in the sense that the arguments for science funding may lack public support. It is a political attack and may or may not work in the next US congressional session (it is too early to tell), but because it is something that is not seen as ‘essential’ to the public it is an easy attack. It is also a tiny bit of the budget, but a single program which could be cut and not effect but a few (in the short term) in comparison to say Medicare which has a big chunk of the budget and its dissolution would effect alot more people in the US.

Do scientists need to communicate better? Absolutely, but we are working on that, and science communication IS getting better, especially with the advent of social media and the blogosphere. It needs to get better because science is important and needs to garner support when these crazy cut ideas come from any government but, again, I don’t think ‘elite science’ or bad communication is responsible for the current cut scare, short-sighted governments are and it is indeed more political in flavour than purely anti-scientific.

The good news is that the NEA has survived, since attacks since the 1980’s; let’s hope the NSF does too.

November 10, 2010

It’s not about you, its about the data!

Or why I think the passive voice is actually GOOD for science

There are advocates of ‘plain language for scientists’ for example Harvard Health blogs who suggest Med journals should write more like Micheal Crichton and Evidence Soup who wants medical journals to ‘stop with the passive voice, already’. The summary being that scientists write far too much in the passive vs. the active voice (in English that is) and science would be easier to understand if it were written in the active voice. There are also suggestions that ‘passive-voice science writing’ is elitist.

I disagree on both counts but first a quick grammar review, what is the difference between active and passive?

In the active voice the object receives the action of the verb as in:

“Cats eat fish (active).”

In the passive voice the subject receives the action of the verb:

“Fish are eaten by cats (passive).”

Which is great for cats and fish but what about scientists?

One of the arguments for ‘active English’ in science writing is that if English isn’t your first language, reading in the passive voice is more difficult. A couple of French, Bangladeshi and Dutch friends have confirmed this. On the other hand, an Italian scientist friend of mine told me it is actually easier to read in the formal passive voice, because it is closer to the way science is written in Italian. In her opinion, ‘plain English’ initiatives never help non-native English speakers, she believes it is mostly for those of us that already speak English. So I would say just from my unofficial straw poll that active English being easier for foreigners is still up for debate.

Regardless of which is easier to read, the passive voice is a construct of English, not of science and for better or worse English has become the de facto lingua-Franca of modern science, at least in the West. If we based the ‘language of science’ on the most abundant language in world-wide science, that would be Chinese, which may be preferable as Chinese has no verb tenses.

And English, well, is odd. English is written and indeed spoken in a complex combination of active and passive voices. This doesn’t only happen in science articles; this even happens in the Daily Mail. Take for instance the following excerpt from an article published in the Daily Mail:

EastEnders star Steve McFadden has been arrested and bailed (passive) over claims that he harassed a woman (active) believed to be the mother of his baby girl.

The 51-year-old actor was picked up by police in Haringey, north London, on Wednesday (passive).

After being questioned by officers he was released on bail to return to a police station early next year (passive) .

It is understood that McFadden – who plays EastEnders hard man Phil Mitchell – was arrested following a complaint by former partner Dr Rachel Sidwell (passive).

The pair have a daughter, Amelie Tinkerbell, now 17 months old

Now if you translate that all into the active this is what you get::

Police have arrested Steve McFadden. The court released McFadden on bail. The police and the court acted on claims that McFadden had harassed a woman believed to be the mother of his baby girl.

The police picked up the 51 year old actor in Haringey, north London, on Wednesday.

Police questioned Steve McFadden. The court released McFadden on bail to return to the police station early next year.

It is understood that the police arrested McFadden – who plays EastEnders hard man Phil Mitchell – following a complaint
by former partner Dr Rachel Sidwell.

The pair have a daughter, Amelie Tinkerbell, now 17 months old.

OK so this is ‘plain english’ but in the active version the story becomes all about the police not about Steve McFadden which is what the story is intended to be about – Steve McFadden is the object receiving the action by the police, who are the subject.

And this is the point! As scientists we teach our students to write about the data – which are the object of any experiment. Why? Because the science is about the data and the data are INDEPENDENT of who did the experiment (well except if there is fraud). Science is about the physical world around us which is exhibited by the data and not the person doing the experiment.

Explicitly, in technical science journals you will see things like:

‘The data were collected’
(passive) which is about the data.

Rather than ‘I collected the data’ (active) which is about YOU collecting the data in the first person
or if you prefer the 3rd person ‘The post doctoral researcher collected the data’ (still active) which, again, is about the person collecting the data.

And about the charge of being ‘elitist’ I would say no more than the English language is elitist. Let me repeat, data should be written about as if it is independent of the people doing the experiment. Science is and should be about the data and it is damn nigh impossible to write about data in the active voice because data don’t collect themselves. (N.B. Data is plural, unlike Data the Star Trek dude who is singular) Of course someone collects it and makes the figures for papers, but, again, science isn’t about the researchers, its about the data.

If you are a native English speaker I challenge you to speak only active English for the day. Or even write entirely in the active voice. In reality science papers, like most English writing is a hodge-podge of active and passive English.

Maybe advocates of the active voice in science writing really need to just teach scientists better English writing skills. I would argue that perhaps technical scientific papers are difficult to read because they are simply badly written regardless of voice.

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