Voices: Does all scientific work deserve public attention?

Last September, I read a thoughtful post about science blogging and communication on The Guardian’s science blog by David Dobbs. Many scientists seem to think that their work is done once they’ve published a paper, Dobbs said. He argued that scientists have grown over-reliant on the scientific paper to get the word out about their findings and instead — or really, in addition — they need to communicate the importance of their work to an audience larger than the readership of peer-reviewed papers.

I couldn’t agree more. I’ve blogged about my own papers in the past, and I’ve encouraged my peers to consider starting a blog to do the same. There is tremendous value to be gained if scientists communicate their work to a broader audience. As an actively publishing scientist, I’d like to offer an additional perspective.

This quote from Dobbs is a good place to start: “Here’s the essential fact: Science has no importance or value until it enters the outside world. That’s where it takes on meaning and value. And that’s where its meaning and value must be explained.” Very well said, but there’s more to it than that.

Every scientist wants to be part of big, paradigm-shifting research — and a few get there through a combination of talent, hard work and opportunity. The more robust the paradigm, the more significant the shift. If your work is paradigm-shifting, or ends up being published in Nature or Science and then cascading through the media and the blogosphere, science writers and journalists will find you — there’s not as much of a need to go out and do it yourself. Of course, you should put extra effort into communicating meaning and value. Talk to the media, talk to the press office at your university or institution, engage the blogosphere.

But if your research doesn’t fit into that mold — like most research, for almost all scientists — perhaps there’s a better way for you to communicate why your work is important. Science writers and journalists typically don’t dive into sub-sub-discipline journals for stories because the vast majority of the studies address very specific problems and, thus, are probably not interesting to a broad audience.

And that’s the real issue here, and where I disagree with Dobbs: I would argue that not every scientific paper needs to be communicated to the public, whether it is through media interviews, big pushes from academic or institutional press offices or blogging. Heck, most papers don’t need to be. That’s because most scientific papers don’t report major breakthroughs. Science itself is the aggregate of the work of numerous individuals. It’s the summation of countless small studies that build upon each other. Thus the bulk of the scientific literature reports the results of studies, experiments or methodologies that are very specific and narrow to specific problems.

If we did not have research that addressed hyper-specific, and what might seem to others as “low impact,” questions, the structure of science would not be as robust as it is. Scientific progress is the result of numerous small increments with the occasional breakthrough.

That said, in any scientific paper, there is typically a brief introduction explaining the motivation and how the work fits into a bigger-picture problem (at least there had better be) and then some discussion about potential implications. Then we report the results of our studies. In some cases, a paper may report what doesn’t work, which is extremely valuable scientifically. Dead ends and blind alleys must be explored for science to go forward. These are the kinds of things that science journalists don’t necessarily pick up on, nor do they need to. These are the kinds of things we as scientists can communicate ourselves.

The blogosphere is a great place to discuss these non-paradigm shifting, incremental studies. But scientists need to make them relevant, to put them into a broader context. We already do this when we write proposals: We discuss the scientific and societal importance of our general body of research at a higher level. We get to the fundamental, broader questions that our work is hoping to answer. Then once we get the funding, we perform our research and write papers within our sub-disciplines. When the specific papers do come out, we can put them into this broader context as examples of new results chipping away at much larger questions. We can keep discussions amongst scientists going on our blogs — and occasionally, we’ll garner the interest of the public. Blogs can serve both groups.

I wholeheartedly agree with Dobbs’ sentiment that scientists need to communicate more and better with the public. I think blogging is one great way to do that. I encourage many more of my colleagues to get involved in the geoblogosphere. And what I’d like to see most of all is this discussion continue.

Brian Romans
Friday, January 14, 2011 - 05:22