My approach to work is shaped by where I live—across the street from an ill kept New Orleans cemetery. Outside my front door I see plants sprouting over crooked gravestones. It’s a contradictory but grounding view, one that shows how beginnings and endings feed each other and create something new in the process.

Local geography drives the point home. There are spurs of relatively high ground in New Orleans, ridges a few feet above sea level where the old city flourished, and where homes stayed dry after Hurricane Katrina. Mississippi River floods built these ridges, laying down successive layers of sediment centuries ago. Floods creating dry land? Paradoxical but true.

Facts like these have altered the way I think about innovation, reminding me that sometimes the best way to make progress is to remember how things all began.

For essays on subjects close to home, see www.amyclippwriting.com.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Buzzards and Brickbats

In the late 70s, I read an unforgettable article in The Washington Post.  I was a teenager and not prone to remembering columns from the "Week in Review" section. But this article was different. The author used a great story to make a point about science communication. His thesis:  that scientists had been trained to fear the very thing that would make their work valuable—public sharing of research. The article's author claimed that scientists had come by their fear honestly; they had been taught that talking about their work brought trouble.

By way of illustration, the author told a story from the making of the movie "Hud," starring Paul Newman. Filmed in the early 1960s cow country of Texas, the movie has a dusty, sun baked feel. For one scene, the crew wanted to shoot a flock of buzzards flapping off a dead tree. To get the right effect the crew had to keep the buzzards still until Paul Newman's character pulled out his rifle and shot at them. At that point, the buzzards were supposed to fly off the tree in unison.

It all sounded easy enough, except that the buzzards didn't cooperate. Hours passed as the crew struggled to keep them from flying off the tree prematurely. Finally, someone tied the buzzards' feet to the branches with wire. That solved one problem and created another. It turned out that buzzards lose their sense of balance when they can't move their feet, and the birds began toppling over and hanging upside down like mutant vampire bats, dangling by their wire fetters. Not the effect the movie crew wanted and awful for the buzzards as well. As the ordeal continued, the buzzards learned that if they struggled, they would end up in a compromised and painful position. So they stopped moving and cowered on the tree, motionless.

The director finally got the shot he wanted, and it was time for Paul Newman to take out his rifle. The crew untied the buzzards' feet, and Paul Newman shot off his rounds. You can probably guess what happened next. The birds were afraid to move. They wouldn't fly away on cue, because they'd learned that trying to do so would hurt. Indeed, if you look at this scene in the film, you can see that the vultures just sit there despite the gun blasts. They had been scared into immobility.

According to the article I read all those years ago, scientists behave the same way when it comes to sharing the implications of their work. As young scientists, their instincts might lead them to share ideas with diverse audiences. But if they do so, they are punished. Non-technical readers misunderstand or misuse the scientists' conclusions. Or their colleagues scorn attempts to "dumb down" complex ideas. Worst of all, fellow scientists use the higher profile of the presented work to publicly shred its argument. And so, according to the article's author, scientists huddle on dead tree limbs, keeping their ideas to themselves, sharing them only with small communities of fellow specialists. Meanwhile, policy makers and citizens remain uninformed.

The article was written over 30 years ago. Have things changed since then? At a recent conference, I heard groups of young scientists discuss barriers to public outreach. Their list was familiar:
  • Outreach is separated from what goes on in the lab. This is true even for taxpayer funded research, which would seem to (and often officially does) require a public accounting of results.
  • There are few academic rewards for doing outreach. University administrators and funding agencies don't make it a priority.
  • Scientists don't have time for outreach. Their schedules are full just trying to perform research and publish their results.
  • Scientists who pursue outreach despite these obstacles can be accused of neglecting their "real" jobs.
The wires around their feet might have been palpable, but unlike the buzzards, these young scientists weren't content to huddle on a tree limb. Instead, they were eager to explore innovative ways to make their work accessible. Stay tuned for more.

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