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.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Conundrum Busting

What do young scientists say about the challenge of bringing their work to more diverse audiences? They understand the challenge:  outreach takes time and doesn't generate an immediate career payoff. But with web-based communication intrinsic to their professional lives, many 20 and 30-something scientists understand the importance of connecting with the world outside the lab. Their response to this career busting conundrum? Start changing assumptions about how science and the real world actually work.

First up:  get rid of the "science deficit model." You have probably heard this model in action many times:  the notion that if only the general public understood science better, people would believe what scientists believe. No more suspicion about vaccinations. No more climate change denial. Those policy-paralyzing controversies would be eliminated if people would just open wide and swallow bigger doses of science.

Except that the science deficit model doesn't work. People don't change their beliefs because they have ingested more facts. For one thing, people resist ingesting facts, especially from sources they don't trust. Second, as social science has pointed out, people's ideologies, religions, media choices, and overall cultural contexts determine their beliefs. On its own, no amount of science, even sensitively presented science, will change a person's mind.

Rather than bemoaning the lack of cultural literacy in the U.S., many young scientists take a more pragmatic position:  meet people where they are. Address the sources of their skepticism. Engage them in forums that allow person to person exchanges on issues that count.

It's true that these kinds of activities are not well rewarded in traditional research settings. But more and more scientists see that the ability to communicate, work with diverse audiences, and describe their work increases effectiveness in all aspects of their careers. When they have to collaborate on a multi-disciplinary project, for example. Or when they have to eloquently defend the relevance of their research to funders.

A 2008 article bore out the this connection. The article describes a study's finding that scientists who actively share their work perform better academically. The study also found that by itself, this outreach has no impact, positive or negative, on their careers. That last finding is where the next wave of change may be headed.

Traditionally, mid-career scientists have been more inclined to share their work with the public, perhaps because their careers are well established and they have more leeway to get off the rigid "publish or perish" track. Maybe we are moving toward a time when outreach becomes an institutionally recognized marker of credibility for scientists young and old.

The conversation about how this can best be achieved is an interesting one, starting with how we define and achieve outreach in the first place. The discussion is underway, and it promises to change the status quo. Evolution, after all, is something scientists know something about.

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