Your Tax Dollars at Work (Seriously)

A long-standing pet peeve of mine is that so much academic research is funded by public tax dollars and yet the public is rarely given access to the findings of that research.

In a short Times piece today, I found a hero: Michael Tuts, a particle physicist at Columbia who, among other things, is doing work at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research:

Actually, I think scientists need to talk to people more. After all, we work for the people, all people, the taxpayers. We should do our bit to explain where your money is going and why our work is interesting, important, and what it means to you and your future.

Most academic journals, especially in the hard sciences, are entirely inscrutable to the layperson. This is of course for just cause: scientists need to present their findings to one another in the language they speak. But how is the public supposed to learn about the research they’ve been funding?

It is true that the newspapers are full of reports about the latest medical research, and occasionally even economics research. Such reports inevitably produce a lot of grumbling: from academics who say their research is cherry-picked or dumbed-down; from practitioners and policy makers who say that the public gets needlessly alarmed about the latest medical scare; and from the academics whose research wasn’t featured, and whose feelings are therefore hurt.

There are already far too many academic journals in the world, and, for my taste, far too many layers of government agencies, but I do dearly wish there was a good way for the astounding, complex, arcane, worthwhile, fascinating, or even ho-hum research being conducted by the tens of thousands of very smart people who use our tax dollars to make its way to the public in language it can appreciate.

Any ideas?


Joe D

Dumbing-down is required when a large body of prior work must be assumed to even understand the question, much less the answer, in, say, modern particle physics research.

Krishnan Viswanathan

In my field, transportation, the National Academy of Sciences's Transportation Research Board publishes syntheses of current practice in the highway, transit, and airport fields. These reports are an effective means of assembling and disseminating information on current practice that i have found useful as a one stop place to figure out what is going on with a particular topic.

Maybe something similar should be done by the various journals - offer a free synthesis of articles published by them during the year in language that is accessible to the reasonably informed reader. These journals should make this synthesis free as a return to the community which sustains them.

Krishnan

Nosybear

I just finished watching a commercial on television has a complete misrepresentation of the administrations health care proposals. I could surf to any number of news websites and find any number of distortions and misrepresentations and out right errors in reporting on science. In particular I now completely disregard any statistic given by a journalist. What is needed are science journalists who understand science, not those journalists who think they understand science but in fact are looking for a sensationalized story about Earth being hit by an asteroid or the latest fountain of youth.the business of journalism is to attract attention, not to present facts or information, to sell advertisements, not to inform.

notmelbrooks

In reply to comment by Joe D. Richard :Richard Feynman said "If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn't have been worth the Nobel Prize." But he tried.

hmmm...

How about just starting by actually giving the public access to the journals! One of my pet peeves is Elseveir and other journal companies making their archives online unavailable without insanely expensive subscriptions ($30,000 / year anyone?).

The research is funded by the taxpayers, the results (papers) are written and sent to the journals for free by the academics paid by taxpayers, and yet the journals now own that writeup and can charge punitive rates that ensure only universities and large companies get access. Some of those companies are public and one can see the high profit margins they get - on what basis do their earnings help the public good? I think SSRN (go economists) and PLoS (underused, sadly) are excellent ideas to get the research out and I further see no reason in this time of electronic journal access that the paid journals should get the sort of free ride they get now.

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Joe

Science and Nature (and dozens of Nature affiliates) have regular journalists reporting on the best science out there. Chemical & Engineering News, a trade journal for the chemical and biological process industries similarly employs journalists to write features on science and disseminate recently published work. As I'm sure journalists are aware, publishing is expensive, so most people do not have access to these wonderful resources. But the info is out there and appropriate for high school graduates.

Charlie

It's called Scientific American. Or Science. These magazines have nice graphics and better language and the articles are written by leading scientists and researchers in their respective fields. I'll give you that they still aren't quite for the layperson, but they are close.

Also, Nature has just such a synthesis of the work being published in their journal. Its on the website, http://www.nature.com/news/. Some of it is free and some is subscription. But it does exactly what Krishnan was asking for.

Good, easy to understand science news is out there people, you just have to look harder.

Bob

Isn't it the job of the science-writer to take the studies published in journals, and adapt them to the layperson? If this is so, then there's already a mechanism in place, that might just be under-utilized.

At the same time, I think reading magazines like Scientific American, Sky and Telescope, and others do a pretty good job of making science accessible. Is it in the daily newspaper? Not necessarily, but it's certainly on the news-stand.

Justin

I agree wholeheartedly that research papers should be made available to the public, whether or not they are able to understand them. However, I must respectfully disagree about the need for scientists to spend their time disseminating their work for the general public. Most scientists don't have the capability or time to translate their work into layperson's terms.

Scientific information should be disseminated for the masses by specialists. This used to be the job of the science writers at major news organizations, but those folks seem to be becoming a rather rare breed.

Nowadays, it seems the best sources of scientific news come from the internet - Britain's The Naked Scientists and the US' Skeptic's Guide to the Universe are examples of fantastic and approachable science podcasts (downloadable, on-demand radio shows), and Scientific American's website is an excellent example in science communication done right.

Old media is also starting to catch up...Neil deGrasse Tyson's Nova ScienceNOW is excellent, and though they don't teach specific findings, one could argue that the Mythbusters to a better job of communicating scientific thinking to the layperson than anyone else out there.

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Brian

The fact is, the vast majority of abstracts for research papers and grant applications can have their intent or basis expressed in lay language. To wit:

"Surfactants and cosolvents for NAPL remediation" (an actual paper published by my alma mater's geology department) translates to "Using soap to wash pollutants out of the ground".

You don't have to cover everything in the paper, just answer the questions of "What am I doing?", and "Why is it important or interesting?"

Publish each of these one-liners for every:
a) grant issued,
b) grant denied,
c) paper written and submitted for peer review (along with whether the paper was accepted for publication).

If people want to know more than an abstract summary, they'll need to train up and read the paper. But, for 99% of taxpayers, this answers the questions they have about how their tax money goes to science.

Ian

Didn't Feynman also say that you didn't really understand something unless you could explain it to your grandparents?

Dan

At the risk of making the obvious point how about actually letting people read them, for a start! From inside of academia you probably don't realize it but it is incredibly hard for non-academics to even access most research papers, which are more often than not gated (think of Jstor, IngentaConnect, WileyInterscience etc). Given that taxpayers fund the research, as you say, this is scandalous.

Ian

Require all scientists funded by the government to put out a 1-2 page summery of their research as a condition for the next years money. The summery would be reviewed by interested citizens without knowledge in the field. If they can understand it then the science is now accessible to most of the public.

AaronS

Yeah, I got an idea. Very simply, a lot of the writing that is done for academic journals is NEEDLESSLY difficult for the layperson. It is written that way, I suppose, to impress upon one's peers the academic qualifications of the author. But the really great teachers know how to simplify, simplify, simplify.

So, what's the answer? Start writing--ALL THE TIME--like a normal person. Even for the journals. I remember as a philosophy student how utterly inscrutable some of the doctorate papers were. Every one of them could have been written much more simply.

Just as lawyers purposely write in "legalese"--after all, it protects their profession and is elitist--so, too, do many scholars and researchers write in a way that insulates them from the rest of the world--and they do it by design, in many cases.

I stopped writing that way when I realized I actually wanted people to read and understand my ideas.

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jimbino

The scary thing is that this country is run by folks dumber in science and math than the average American. We have a president, 8 of the 9 Supremes (Breyer is the exception) and all but about 8 senators and congressmen unschooled in math, science or even medicine. The problem isn't that most Americans are dumb in math in science, but that the dumb Americans vote and run the country!

jep

"People just have to look harder" Well they won't look harder. The only people who read these science magazines are the few interested in science. How does the combine subscription base and newstand sales of Science, Nature, Scientific American and Science News compare to Sports Illustrated and People Magazine? Futhermore there are many people who don't even read magazines or news papers.

Mike

A few comments:

In grad school I was solely funded by the government (NIST and AFOSR) so nothing I produced was copyrightable. When I'd submit a paper to a journal, they had me assign the copyright to them, but then we'd have to send them another form stating that we have no copyright to assign to them. So in theory, anyone in the public who wanted my research could have requested a reprint from me for free (though no one cared what I did, so it never happened).

My pet peeve with scientific writing is that scientists try to make it sound more complicated and academic than it is. That makes it hard for the layperson (and even other academics) to read. So when I review articles, I reject them if it doesn't read clearly (even if it's good science). I think that no matter how complicated and esoteric your work is, you should be forced to explain it so that it sounds simple. I argue that there is NO field that can't be explained in a simple way. (Of course you may need to have complicated equations and such to be technically correct, but you should be able to explain them simply).

If more scientists would actually take the time to write a good paper, not just turn the crank and churn out crap, then science would be more accessible to the people. Of course, we need a way to disseminate that information, but right now, there's no good information to disseminate.

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David Heigham

First, a high proportion of research in the sciences is about inching understanding forward in a four little steps ahead, three little steps back process. It really is of no interst to anyone except the specialists.

Second, good as they are Nature. Sceintific American, Science, New Scientist, etc. are clearly not enough for our current rapidly growing and diversifying interest in the results of science. We have a model which shows signs of working: Wiki pedia. I think research teams should be encouraged to put up their stuff in Wikipedia to Wikipedia standards. Time spent on that should be looked on favourably by research funding agencies.

M

Such programs exist. Example: the University of Michigan Physics Dept runs a Saturday Morning Physics program for the general public. It's always full. It's not tied to grants, but presents of 1 to 2 hour lectures about physics and sometimes other science topics by researchers, usually on their own field, around 20 times per year. Other universities have similar programs -- one even has a popular physics lecture at half time during football games, and the fans listen and cheer.

Mike

@ AaronS - you said the same thing as me while I was writing my post. Glad someone else out there agrees with the rediculousness of academic papers.