Those of you who regularly read these pieces may recall one entitled`Ethical Behavior in Science' (JCS 114, p. 1427), in which the 11th commandment stated: “Thou shalt explain thy science to lay-persons,administrators and politicians for it is they who support thy work.” I'd like to expand on this topic, public advocacy of science.
Why is it important for all of us to become involved in the advocacy of science? And I do mean all of us and not just the so-called leadership class of our profession. As the above commandment states, we all have responsibilities to the public and elected officials to explain, defend and lobby for the use of public money in our work.
First, the public does support our work. Full stop, enough said. We must be respectful of their contribution. The majority of the public's support comes in the form of taxes, which are then dispensed by governments to national and local agencies for disbursement to institutions and individual investigators. We are, therefore, directly and unequivocally accountable to the public, as they are the sponsors of our work. Few of us like to give away money,especially to the government, in the nonvoluntary form of taxes, and so the public is appropriately belligerent about their taxes being used for something that is important and beneficial (to them). In as much as we complain about how governments seemingly waste or misspend our money on transport services,health care, etc., the public has an absolute right to know what we are doing with their hard-earned money. The public also supports our work through charities. In some ways, it is even more important to explain how we use those monies. In those cases, the public chooses to give their hard-earned money indirectly to us. The voluntary nature of this giving means that the individual has identified a specific `cause' to support (e.g. cancer research)and, therefore, has the right to know that those receiving the money also believe in, and are contributing scientifically to, that cause.
Second, all of us need to get involved in the public advocacy of science to defend how we conduct science. Aside from the barb that one does not want the fox in charge of the hen house, it is important that we as scientists promulgate a scientific agenda. Non-scientists have certain impressions about what we do. Mention cloning, and they have a knee-jerk response that we are modern-day Frankensteins seeking to create monsters and mutants; mention animal research, and they immediately think of innocent animals being subjected to torture; mention research on systems other than mammals (and perhaps specifically humans), and they are perplexed about the importance and relevance of the work to human health (we may think that Drosophila, C. elegans and zebrafish are cool, but try them out on an assembly-line worker buying a six-pack at your local supermarket!). We need to communicate,let people see what we are doing and why, help the public appreciate the benefits of research and inform them of the goals and the approaches necessary to reach those goals.
Third, we need to be on the alert for legislative initiatives that affect the way that we conduct science and the way that science is supported. These initiatives come from political and often non-scientific agendas of our elected officials (e.g. recent decisions about cloning, stems cells and research using animals). That we feel that they are misguided or that we can make changes at the ballot box in the near future is somewhat irrelevant. It is important that we, a constituency of scientists, are pro-active in putting forward relevant and cogent science agendas.
So, how can you become an advocate for science? Well, you can start by getting your head out of the clouds, come down from your ivory tower and stop feeling that you are doing something so complicated that a mere mortal could not possibly understand. Take every opportunity to explain what you are doing to non-scientists. Take these interactions very seriously. Talk about your work to your family, friends, members of your gym, your women's rugby team,your all-male knitting group. Learn to speak to them in layman's terms about your work, but be respectful of their intelligence and understanding of basic issues in human health. What would you say if a reporter stuck a microphone in front of you and asked you right now what you were working on, or in other words what is it that you do that is important for the public readership of their daily newspaper? Would you start some lengthy and learned soliloquy about the signaling cascade that you are working on in C. elegansthat regulates its poop cycle (actually, this is a pretty interesting topic)?Wrong! Yes, the reporter is looking for a sound-bite, and I know that giving in to this goes against everything that you have been trained not to do, but you have a chance to communicate and educate. Identify some bigger national problem - for example, around health care - and use that as an entrée into what you are working on. If you have a chance to talk to an elected official take it. We need to expand our opportunities to talk to politicians about our science, to engage them and, in return, to support them when they want to help us.
Remember, “Thou shalt explain thy science to lay-persons,administrators and politicians for it is they who support thy work.”