by Katherine Wu
My freshman year of college, I was given a choice: techie or fuzzy?
And, before you ask, no, it wasn’t about creepy role-play. It was worse: my major.
At Stanford, there were two kinds of people: those who studied the technical, hard science, and mathematics-based majors were “techie,” and those pursuing the humanities, arts, and social sciences were “fuzzy.” I chose biology as my major, and joined the ranks of the techies.
As my techie powers grew, so did my skepticism of the vegan, flannel-sporting, often-nude fuzzies. Stanford culture dictated that the two groups were, and should be, separate. You couldn’t be both a techie and a fuzzy – bridges didn’t, and couldn’t, exist.
At the time, I happily drank the Kool-Aid. I loved logic, data, and equations, and thought this by default excluded me any careers that dealt with politics or social science. In the years since graduating, however, I’ve come to wish I’d given that intersection a little more credence.
In graduate school, we are trained to be scientists – at least, where the definition of “scientist” encompasses work at the bench and the skills to interpret and produce scientific literature. But not much attention is given to our responsibility to interface with the public. Given that science has now become embroiled in political controversy, this is a massive oversight. Outside my involvement with Science in the News, I have had no formal training in science communication or education. As most science-related careers progress, this issue isn’t resolved; if anything, it’s even more likely to be pushed onto the back burner. And as we continue to train new generations of students and scientists, the gap between science and society continues to widen.
But what’s in that gap, anyway?
As a scientist, I am not immune to politics or socioeconomic change. The broader community may someday be able to use my skills as a scientist, but in the present, I often feel frustrated at my inability to effect change as a busy student. And when I’ve brought up my desire to be more sociopolitically involved, I’ve consistently received two pieces of advice: go into science policy or run for local office.
Personally, I don’t really want to do either of those things.
Policymakers and science-conscious politicians are people whom our country sorely needs. But some of us, myself included, can’t commit fully to a life of politics. Does this really have to be a binary decision? I want to stay in science. I also want to make a more direct and tractable impact on the people and issues around me on a daily basis. Both are possible, and even complementary. In reality, techies and fuzzies are all sitting at the same table – everyone has just gotten used to the sight of their own feet.
Whether you’re an engineer or an artist, being socially conscious doesn’t limit you to studying policy or running for local office – nor should it. There are opportunities to be more involved at every level, with any amount of commitment you can swing. For anyone, scientist or not, here are just a few:
Increase scientific literacy – in yourself and others. A big part of being a socially conscious science communicator is spreading knowledge. Introduce your friends, colleagues, and family to the resources that you utilize, keeping in mind that searches on PubMed (an online database for biomedical science papers) may not be for everyone. At the same time, equip them with the tools to dissect articles that (claim to) contain scientific information. Does the headline actually match what’s in the piece? Are they citing sources that are credible (or at all)? Are the writers’ personal biases coloring the presentation of the work? The people behind the Ask for Evidence campaign are excellent resources for this.
Exercises like these are also an excellent opportunity to increase your own scientific literacy. If you’re a scientist, read about fields other than your own, and make an effort to communicate with friends and colleagues who have different expertise. Even if science isn’t a part of your job, it can be a daily commitment. Read science blogs – popular ones include Scientific American, the New York Times, and NPR (though one of our personal favorites is admittedly on this very website). It’s perhaps less widely known that scientific journals like Nature, Science, Cell, and PLoS publish blogs and news articles targeted to the general public. If you’re constantly on the go, download some podcasts (other favorites include Radiolab and NPR Science Fridays). And finally, if they’re available to you, seek out opportunities where you can meet similarly minded people or, even better, people who might give you the opportunity to challenge, rework, and further develop your own ideas. Go to TED Talks or free lectures at universities, attend a screening of a science documentary, or check out your local science museum – Boston in particular has a pretty fantastic one.
Correct misinformation. Whether it’s through Facebook or well-intentioned emails from your grandmother, inaccurate reporting finds its way into each of our lives on a daily basis. Don’t just let those things go or dismiss them as silly; make an effort to set the facts straight when possible. It’s not about being pedantic, or even about being right – the idea is to emphasize facts over opinions. And, even though it’s tough, it’s okay, and often better, to admit that scientists still don’t know everything there is to know on a topic – cancer, mental illness, and life on other planets, for instance. However, we do feel very comfortable drawing firm lines about other issues: the urgent reality of climate change, the safety and utility of GMOs, and the absence of a link between vaccines and autism, to name a few.
Donate time or money to worthy causes. What these causes are is, of course, up to each individual. But a choice to support anything from the battle against climate change to AIDS vaccine development can make an enormous difference. Many of these research-driven organizations welcome volunteers that are willing to make phone calls to residents in swing states or local politicians. If you’re pressed for time, donations big or small can help fund these projects for future teams. For instance, Science for 2020 is currently raising money for resources for public school science classrooms across the country.
What’s more, a “worthy cause” doesn’t have to be supervised by an established organization, or be directly linked to science. Never hesitate advance a more personal matter. For instance, underrepresentation of women and minorities persists in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Simply encouraging the young women in your life to seek out these opportunities or pointing out positive examples (like yourself, perhaps) can make an enormous difference.
Seek out opportunities in your own community. Boston is doing pretty well as far as science-friendly communities go. But if you hail from a city – or a state – that has fewer resources, poorer education outcomes, or is lacking in strong science, pay your hometown a visit and give back. Join (and keep up with) an organization that promotes science education and outreach, like Science from Scientists. Connect with your high school and judge a science fair. Contact local universities and community leaders and ask what scientific resources or opportunities may be lacking in the broader community. AAAS is a particularly good resource for state- and nationwide programs, big and small. Even within Boston city limits, there are countless opportunities to bridge resource gaps, from mentoring underprivileged high school students to setting up interactive booths at the annual Cambridge Science Festival.
Write and publish your opinions. Okay, this one sounds super intimidating. But I promise it’s easier than you think – after all, if some sleep deprived, poorly socialized grad student can pull it off, you certainly can! The Boston Globe, the New York Times, Huffington Post, and many other high profile publications often welcome guest writers covering topical issues, or letters to the editor. If you’re a student, there’s a good chance your school has a publication that would be glad for your input. And there’s nothing stopping you from starting your own blog, by yourself or with a few friends. For inspiration, check out a few blogs started by science enthusiasts looking to share their thoughts, both politically neutral and very, very not (I’ll let you figure out which are which).
If you’re a student, be involved in your education. It can begin anywhere. Get to know more teachers, professors, and deans, and share your thoughts. You might be surprised to find out how much they value your opinion. If you are disappointed by the lack of science communication courses at your university, there are often many opportunities to start your own. Recruiting like-minded faculty members to your cause is a good way to bolster your chances of success. Or, if you’re game, found an organization that is committed to these goals. Here at Harvard, Science in the News is far from alone – HGWISE and HPREP, among many others, also seek to promote science communication and outreach in our community.
And finally, support science, regardless of your political affiliation. Science is not a partisan issue. It is not an agenda; it is not a party line. However, much of the recent turmoil in our country has muddied the public view of scientists and their work. But I hope I can still remind you that supporting science means supporting discovery, technological advancement, and the exchange of knowledge. Science is about unveiling facts about our world. I’ll happily admit that sometimes the information we put out there is wrong, and it needs to be corrected. But that can’t happen if science and the scientific process are not supported by the surrounding community. So, what exactly does it mean to support science? For me, it means keeping an open mind, having faith in the integrity of scientific research, and holding scientists and their allies to the highest standards of effective communication. Without the rest of the world, there is no point to the scientist’s job.
The more I learn about science, the more I realize I need both the techie and fuzzy halves of myself. I went into science not for the advanced degree or the prestige – I pursued science so I could make a career out of learning – having my beliefs challenged, my perspectives widened, my boundaries broken. I chose science to better understand the world around me. That knowledge means nothing if I limit myself to numbers and figures. Society is a part of science whether we like it or not.
So, from either side of the table – if you’re ready to bridge the gap, there’s good news. It was never there at all. Just look up.
Katherine Wu is a third-year graduate student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at Harvard University.
Cover image from Wikimedia commons.