“You work on what?”: Talking (basic) science
For me, these last few years have driven home how crucial—and yet how challenging—it is for scientists to communicate how we know what we know and why we do what we do.
When it comes to explaining our own work, it can be especially tricky to convey the value of basic research to listeners who cannot easily relate to the topic (cellular signal transduction, anyone?). Making matters worse, many of us use simpler organisms as experimental systems such as yeast, worms, flies, and fish. We face an additional conceptual chasm—even a “yuck” factor—that can be hard to bridge.
But there are many who want to understand what we do and why we do it. Or rather, as I learned from a recent SciPEP conference on communicating basic science (a new research field in itself), many want to know why we do it (the goal) but are less interested in how we do it (the process) 1. I was particularly struck by a survey that showed differences in word association between non-scientists and scientists, with respect to basic science. The non-scientists associated basic science with “hope”—a word linked to an eventual outcome, while the scientists associated basic science with “joy”—a word linked to the process. Indeed, much of our effort goes into the process and its rigor, a key aspect of how we know what we know.
No wonder, then, that the value of our work is difficult to convey to listeners who—unfamiliar with the exciting, if tortuous, path of rigorous discovery that consumes us—want to know the endpoint, especially when the direct benefit of our work may be both unanticipated and years in the offing.
And yet, we all know how incredibly important our work is. We know that we are part of a large scientific community where our results both build on prior knowledge and enable future discovery. We must continue to communicate the value of basic science to diverse audiences, including funding agencies, colleagues, students, legislators, friends, and family. The good news is that studies show that if we engage people’s curiosity, they will want to know more2. History tells us over and over (peas! phages!) that discoveries from simpler organisms lead to major scientific breakthroughs that affect people’s lives (e.g., pathogen vector control, mRNA vaccines, cancer therapies, siRNA-based drugs, and understanding genetic diseases). And it is not just history; today’s discoveries will undoubtedly impact our lives well into the future. All the more important for us to have many examples and clear explanations at the ready to help illustrate the value and promise of our work.
As president of GSA, I want to promote initiatives that will invigorate the discussion of the value and promise of basic science. I especially want to raise awareness of basic science that uses simpler organisms, be they the so-called “model organisms” or less familiar organisms that offer special insights into specific scientific questions. (In a future Frameshifts blog post, I will open a discussion on how we might rethink our use of the term “model organism.”)
I draw your attention to three ongoing activities, all of which seek to help you to discuss with people in your lives the value of basic research, especially as it capitalizes on the “awesome power of genetics” of simpler organisms.
First is the continued GSA collaboration with pgEd, the Personal Genetics Education Project (pgEd) of Harvard Medical School. Last year, we partnered to build public dialogue about genetic technologies. Our joint programs aim to better equip scientists to engage in discussions about genetics with all communities, with special emphasis on those who have been marginalized, economically disadvantaged, or excluded from conversations about science. This year, we are planning virtual events that will bring together experts from the public engagement ecosystem, highlight ongoing work of GSA members, and open dialogue on your perceived challenges and strategies for engaging effectively with others.
Second is the work of the new GSA Committee for Public Communication Engagement, which I chair. We are developing several “basic science to human impact” case studies as information, tools, and templates for you to use. We welcome your ideas and participation in this new initiative, and we will continue to reach out with requests for information and feedback.
Third, stay tuned for “SNPets,” where we will share short written posts and audio clips of conversations with colleagues, starting with several whose creative and impactful work has been recognized by major awards. We will delve into their thoughts on basic science, on the experimental systems they use, how they achieved their big discoveries, and how they communicate their work. We hope these clips will reinvigorate the conversation about basic science and also provide examples and inspiration for your own communication efforts.
Keep your eyes and ears peeled for these and other GSA announcements coming to your inboxes and social media. GSA is an amazing organization, and I encourage you to become familiar with all our activities and to get involved.
Wishing you all a very happy, healthy, flexible, and resilient 2022, despite the inevitable uncertainties and challenges.