Museum Blog

How to Make Scientists Not Boring

Posted 8/8/2011 12:08 AM by Nicole Garneau | Comments

I've had a collision of thoughts (mine and others) over the weekend and into this Monday morning, all dealing with scientists and communication. I love when that happens; all fronts meet in the middle and you realize that crazy idea percolating in your head is at the edge of others minds as well. My dad calls this occurrence "antennae", as in when multiple minds seem to engage it's like having your "antennae up."

 

Today, my antennae are up and tuned into making scientists better communicators. I was answering some interview questions from a writer named Thorin Klosowski at the Westword this weekend in preparation for the Sci-Fi Film series I'm a part of this Wednesday. He asked, and poignantly so, "Do you think ethical concerns would outweigh the benefits if Gattaca was ever a reality?"

 

My answer:

 

There are huge benefits to understanding our own genetics, including understanding the genes and mutations involved in disease, customized and personal medicine based on genetics (pharmacogenetics) and genealogical research. But it's not just genetics; it's really what our bodies do with the recipes that make this information so important. We haven't really reached a point yet where that type of analysis is done in a way that is efficient and cost effective.

I think in order to answer this question as a society it's important that there is always an open discourse between those to the right and left of the issue, so that neither extreme mandates what we do with technology. What is most dangerous is not having honest dialogue, because that's when genuine concerns are not considered or equally worrisome, necessary scientific developments are halted by those that don't fully understand the technology There was a quote from Dr. Chad Nusbaum of the Broad Institute in 2007 that I think hits the question on the mark."Science is moving way ahead of the ethics. We can't stop the technological advancements but the gap keeps widening. It is our responsibility to understand the implications of our work and educate the public and elected officials so that a proper dialog can take place." (Reference http://www.genengnews.com/gen-articles/1-000-genome-remains-the-holiest/2000/)

 

What I realized, is that it's all fine and well for scientists to get out there and communicate, but in actuality, scientists have little to no formal training for communication with a general audience. We kind of stay in our labs/holes etc. and crank out the data, present at conferences to peers, hopefully publish a paper, then lather rinse and repeat. It's not very often that a scientist gets the chance to really share and collaborate with their community outside the walls of their niche discipline.

 

Here's why I'm stoked, this is something that the Museum is concerned about. Our chief curator, Kirk Johnson, PhD, has been keeping this at the forefront of our minds and our job descriptions. Sometimes it feels like a losing battle, how do we compete in a cut throat world of publish or perish if we spend 1/3 of our time communicating our research and not actually doing research? He sent us this link ( http://www.good.is/post/poptech-2011-science-and-public-leadership-fellows-announced/ ) this morning, about a new wave of support for scientists who can talk in plain and understandable language and who ultimately can make their science relevant. My antennae are up and I'll be right there in line supporting this effort to get our neighbors, friends, and communities engaged in a two-way dialogue with the scientific research in their backyards.

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