The Fine Li(n)e

By Simona Giunta

Science communication faces stiff challenges with the blurring of boundaries between public and private science and the fragmentation of audiences. (Jean-Francois Podevin/Science Photo Library)
Science communication faces stiff challenges with the blurring of boundaries between public and private science and the fragmentation of audiences. (Jean-Francois Podevin/Science Photo Library)

‘A scientist, in a broad sense, is one engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge’. 

Scientist Definition: Wikipedia

Is the universe expanding or contracting? How did life on Earth begin? How does damaged DNA get repaired?

These are all tough questions for scientists, but are they the toughest?  Actually, no. One question I have always dreaded as a scientist is:

“What exactly do you do?”

There are two reasons why this seemingly simple question is actually very complicated to answer.  The first reason is that scientists often struggle to explain their research in lay terms. For many scientists, breaking down highly technical information in simple terms is an exercise akin to sending a probe to Mars! The second problem is the low science literacy rates in the US. For instance, terms like ‘DNA’ and ‘proteins,’ which are widely used by mass media, are neither fully understood nor appreciated by the public. Whose fault is this? Circle back to the first reason!

So, how did I handle the dreaded question? “I’m a cancer researcher” was my formula to dispel the query quickly and fully. While the reply did work to keep further questioning at bay, I was amazed to see that the reaction elicited by my answer was that of admiration. Ooohs, aaahs, and wows have been common responses over the years. I always found this appreciative reaction irritating, rather than pleasing, though I could never understand why. I had to dig very deep into my conscience to understand why it bothered me so much.

I realized that I was technically lying. I was using the term ‘cancer research’ as a crowd-pleaser instead of giving a more accurate, perhaps less exciting, description of my research. I’d subconsciously chosen to present myself in the science-boasting attitude other than in the science-explaining one.

More importantly, the awe associated with my answer involved an off base public perception of ‘cancer research.’ Through hyped research articles and scientific hyperboles, ‘cancer research’ has become deeply intertwined with the general belief that I was seeking to prevent, manage, diagnose, treat and, above all, cure cancer.

Instead, I am merely seeking to understand cancer, and how our cells behave and misbehave. So, while all of the above can be real and exciting by-products of my research, I was not directly doing any of that!

I now realize that the fear of answering that question, due to the inability to explain my research in lay terms, had always prevented me from allowing people to understand what I really did — what scientists really do, which is bring knowledge to the world that did not previously exist.

Cancer research is as awesome and as awe-inspiring as any other research in other disciplines because it aims to understand, uncover and explain something we did not know before. Whether what we find has a foreseeable application, or will impact the world in a distant future, the knowledge we are building lays the ground for human development. For this reason, research should be funded and every kind of research that sheds light onto something new is powerful and exciting, regardless of its immediate relevance or practical application.  Scientists take the first, uncertain steps into the unknown, setting the groundwork for medical professionals to build treatments, diagnostic tools, preventative medicine, and cures for human diseases.

In modern society, filled with so many expectations from science and science researchers, we cannot lie, we cannot hide behind confusing jargon or inaccurate hype, and we cannot promise magic pills, or a cure to all illnesses.  What we can promise is to search, understand, and uncover the secrets of this world, above and below, inside and out. Anyone that can value knowledge — the potential and endless possibilities that knowledge brings — should support science and all grass roots research as humanity’s way to the future.

4 thoughts on “The Fine Li(n)e”

  • I agree completely with everything you wrote here. Once, a friend asked me (at a bar, nonetheless) what *my hypothesis* was. He explained that scientists have hypotheses and was curious what mine was. Over the years I’ve gotten better at giving the short lay-version of my research, which mostly involves examining how the brain uses multi-dimensional electrical signals to process information and coordinate information processing across multiple brain regions (“ahhh.. now it’s perfectly clear!”). I’ve also learned that most non-brain-scientists, even otherwise highly educated ones, are baffled when I explain that different parts of the brain do different things.

    IMHO, every scientist has a responsibility to contribute to society. Although many people think of contributions to society in the form of medical research or technology improvements, other contributions are arguably even more important, including undergraduate teaching and explaining science to non-scientists through pop-science books and blogs, and through eloquent if drunken conversations at bars.

    Few scientists want to give up any of their precious little research time to explain their work to non-scientists (and who can blame them?), but I think particularly in these times of uncertainty about the future of basic research funding, it is becoming increasingly important and something we should all do.

    • Hi Mike, Thanks so much for your reply and especially for your support! I love your sentence: every scientist has a responsibility to contribute to society and you go on to explain the duality of that contribution. Rockefeller University is starting to embrace this duality, discoveries and communication of those discoveries, sadly many other institutions lag behind with science outreach efforts being often fraud upon. I hope the future will see more and more scientists coming down from the ivory tower and to share the wonder of discovery with the public.

  • The problem is that far too many people have no appreciation for scientific research and no desire for knowledge. If more people were genuinely interested in knowledge and scientific progress, then scientific literacy rates would not be so low in the US and science would receive more public support. Perhaps this is a failure on the part of the education system, or perhaps it is a failure on the part of science communicators in general. I’m inclined to lean towards the former as the culprit.

    • Kevin, thanks for your point. It is a very valid one. However, there has probably not been a time in history when people were interested in science as much as they are now. Sure, that’s not everybody but it is certainly very evident in people’s mind that science is all around us and that the last century has seen some major strides forward in scientific discoveries that have impacted people now more than ever and you’ll be amazed how many would love to know more about it! For sure, people may be not always active in pursuing and seeking that knowledge, but many that are can get trapped in the media representation of science, between hyped, contradictory and inaccessible information. We should certainly work to bring that knowledge to people in a clear, accessible and faithful manner and I’m sure that many people out there are thirst for the knowledge that we work so hard every day to uncover.

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