Posted by: Dan | January 25, 2007

Reminder: Chris Mooney talk on Friday

I went to Donald Kennedy’s (the editor-in-chief of Science) talk last night – it was an interesting perspective, themed in terms of the “Commons” and economic/property-rights issues surrounding the problem of climate change. By the “Commons,” Kennedy was referring to various competing interests of commuters and industries, and a looming problem (climate change and carbon dioxide emissions), that are based on resources that are shared by everyone – those resources being energy, transportation, and the atmosphere. It was an interesting talk, but dealt in abstractions. Kennedy hinted at cap-and-trade solutions to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Personally, I’m a strong fan of bringing back safer and better regulated nuclear power – it’s hazards have been exaggerated in the past, in my opinion, and other forms of CO2-free power face technological hurdles before they can affordably support the world’s energy needs. I’m not an expert though, so don’t take my word for it.

In related talks, Chris Mooney will be on campus tomorrow for a talk. It’s at 1:30pm, Friday January 26th, in 211 Kennedy Hall, here at Cornell. Check the link for the talk abstract from Chris himself.

I’ll be there – I just hope that I’m not a few minutes late. (I’m leading a group meeting discussion from Noon to 1pm, that could run overtime). I was there, and Chris’ talk was great. Of course he maintained some of the themes that he expressed in his first book, The Republican War on Science, and on his blog. Chris emphasized the need for scientists to be aware and active in framing the science that they publish, and reach out to the media establishment. And, while this was necessarily the emphasis given the audience – academics and scientists – he acknowledged that communicating science is a two-way street, where journalists also share some of the responsibility for responsibly conveying science to the public.

Perhaps most interesting to me was a question asked by an audience member afterwards, on the incentives (or lack thereof) for scientists to be active in the public debate. Afterall, there are primarily only two things that scientists do, which make or break their careers, and those are to publish results and get funding. The public discourse does nothing to advance scientists’ careers; in fact it may reduce their capacities to publish and acquire funding. So what can be changed to help scientists communicate more, if anything? For most scientists the incentive structures (for results and funding) are just fine the way they are, and the controversial areas of science – such as climate change, evolution, stem cells, etc. – are the exception.

But in general, it’s true that scientists get so absorbed in the details that they lose sight of the big picture, fail to be able to express their knowledge in lay terms, or otherwise fall short in their communication abilities. For myself, I’m not much of a scientist (admittedly), and so I don’t have a need to communicate my results in simple terms to the wider public. But if I were to try, I fear that I would fail miserably – at least that’s the impression that my advisors have told me in the past.

Blogging, while completely different (it’s not my work that I blog about most of the time), may give some potential forum for scientists to communicate their thoughts and ideas, just as politicians these days are finding out. Maybe. For this humble blogger though, a mere struggling scientist, there’s probably little impact. I sometimes wonder why would the average reader, who comes across my blog, would care what I thought about such-and-such. But I don’t give too much heed to such thoughts, because I blog because I’m sharing those things that I enjoy and am passionate about. And I can’t imagine anything having more impact for science than someone’s passion for it.

Maybe that’s the solution for providing incentive to scientists to communicate better with the public – to simply provide outlets for their passion for science.

PS – for the talk, I even got a book signature out of it! Thanks Chris!


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