Friends, countrymen, constituents, taxpayers, campaign contributors, lend me your ears!
Four score and seven years ago our forefathers…were drinking bathtub gin and dancing the Charleston.
Now we are engaged in a great congressional clusterfuck, testing whether our nation or any nation so conceived can long endure such gratuitous gridlock and puerile partisan poppycock.
As a patriotic plucky Ph.D. candidate at a public institution, I have a passing interest in the fiscal well-being of my funding bodies. Today I’m taking a break from long-form
ranting writing about GMOs to play at politics. Watch out, Washington, this blogger-backslash-scientist is going to hit you harder than a sequester!
This past Friday, the University of Washington’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate took a field trip to the State Capitol in Olympia to lobby legislators in support of funding higher education. I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to rub elbows with the political elite and practice talking science to a non-technical audience, so naturally I jumped at the opportunity to tag along.
During Huskies on the Hill Legislative Lobby Day we were given the opportunity to explaining our publicly funded research to politicians. Catherine and I put up our posters and prepared to present our work to any interested congresspeople.
Unfortunately, our boundless enthusiasm for scientific inquiry was matched only by the total lack of interest on the part of any legislators. It turns out that if you want to liaison with the legislative branch, Friday afternoon is NOT the ideal time to try and locate your lawmaker.
The Capitol building was empty, with the exception of one horde of highly-motivated huskies trying to talk to somebody, ANYBODY, about our agenda.
Even though I didn’t get to meet the governor, the day was not a total loss. Catherine and I had a total blast seeing the sights at the state capitol.
I also got a chance to practice my skills as a scientific communicator by explaining DNA dynamics to a few law students. I chatted up an aide about my buddy Bacillus subtilis. I saw the world’s largest Tiffany chandelier.
The hackneyed old saying “those who love the law and sausages would do well to avoid watching either being made” contains a small kernel of truth. I don’t particularly love the law, but it was HIGHLY informative to learn that NOTHING gets done after one p.m. on Friday in the State Capitol.
As a plucky Ph.D. candidate, used to working on B. subtilis’ schedule (a.k.a. “cells grow just as well on Thanksgiving as any other day”), I must say that the hours associated with a government position seem pretty plush. I don’t think I could ever find satisfaction in being a politician.
However, somebody’s got to serve as an interpreter between scientists and the taxpayers that fund our research. The ongoing public misconceptions over vaccine safety, climate change denial, and (my latest pet project) GMOs are just a few examples where poor communication by scientists has undercut our efforts to improve the world. Anti-science sentiment doesn’t arise in a vacuum, it’s our responsibility as researchers to explain our results in a clear non-threatening manner. Unfortunately, the very qualities that make for excellent science such as careful word choice, an utter aversion to dogmatic pronouncements, refusal to generalize, and consideration of every possible caveat, make for lousy headlines on the six o’clock news.
Scientist speak in a different language of certainty than pundits. We still call gravity and natural selection theories, for crying out loud.
Occasionally our careful language gets interpreted as uncertainty. But we don’t have to be our own worst enemies. I’m not advocating for scientists to start making dogmatic pronouncements.
Instead I’m trying to carve out a little niche for myself as an interpreter between academia and the general public audience at large. I will always be devoted to science, and right now I think that the best way I can move the field forward is by communicating interesting findings in an accurate and informative manner.
So I’ll put it to YOU gentle readers! Got any questions? What controversies are on your mind? I want to explain science to anyone who asks! Drop me an email or a comment, and I’ll find out whatever answers you want.