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Public science engagement begins at home

January 4, 2012

A fair portion of scientists may find themselves the “only ones” in their family. Holiday gatherings can provide ample practice with you elevator speech. What is it that you do exactly? Some sort of bio-scio-chem thing? With beakers right?

During a quiet moment at on such a family gathering one of my relatives slid in a much more general bomb

“So why do we do research at all?”

My relative is a fairly regular guy without extreme predilections on any direction. He just doesn’t get why we pay money for someone to just…figure things out. He wasn’t meaning to be provocative, he just didn’t get it. What’s the value in trying to figure out anything without clear immediate, important (and lucrative) applications? Why not do that stuff first? As if the ideal situation would be 100% of all scientists working on cancer research (while consulting on the side).

As a person who has been ensconced in science since an early age, that question seems so obvious and ridiculous that of course I stammered though a sub-par answer. I guess engagement with the public begins at home. Perhaps I’ll have to give my “lab tour” talk at next year’s holiday gathering. Do your relatives and friends get what you do? Not in the technical sense, but the broader impact of scientific research (applied, theoretical, and otherwise)?

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2012 9:23 am

    All of my family just focuses on the teaching part of what I do, as if “professor” = college level instructor. If they do ask about my research, it’s always about the stuff I did as a phd student.

  2. January 5, 2012 11:30 am

    Family members often implore me to start working to find a cure for the disease that someone they know was most recently diagnosed with, so most of them see value in biomedical research as a whole. What I do is far from useful in that sense, but if I take the time to connect the dots, they’ll at least pretend that my crazy-ass shit isn’t a completely valueless enterprise.

    • January 5, 2012 11:57 am

      My research definitely has a clear eventual application. But I’m a few steps away from the people who do the actual application. It’s hard to explain how many years and research steps that takes. The complexity of even the theory that is behind the application requires very incremental steps. I suppose in someway that is what they don’t get. You can’t just do it all in one big study.

  3. frautech permalink
    January 10, 2012 12:47 am

    Hi, just to let you know I pinged you: http://frautech.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/versatility-coefficient/

  4. January 11, 2012 5:45 pm

    Yea, I think this must be something we all struggle with. I most certainly do, and I’m always getting questions like “did you make a big discovery yet?” or “when are you going to cure X?”. Along with the “so, what is it that you do again?”. I usually start very high level and then slowly bring it down until the person gets to their limit of understanding (which typically happens quite quickly). Occasionally I get questions like “so how can you do that?!”, which can then get me to a few “wow’s” and “that’s so cool!”.

    I actually find the disconnect between what the public believes how science works and how it is really done quite disturbing. Reading about science in a textbook and learning about it in class makes it all seem so trite and straightforward. I think the crux of the problem is that science teachers in high school have essentially zero experience in actually doing any science outside of some highly structured lab courses in which the answer is already “known”…

  5. January 15, 2012 11:52 pm

    Family members often implore me to start working to find a cure for the disease that someone they know was most recently diagnosed with, so most of them see value in biomedical research as a whole. What I do is far from useful in that sense, but if I take the time to connect the dots, they’ll at least pretend that my crazy-ass shit isn’t a completely valueless enterprise.

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  7. March 2, 2014 7:46 am

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Trackbacks

  1. The work that you do « Bashir
  2. 12 Months of Bashir | Bashir
  3. Public Engagement Begins at Home | Bashir

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