We Need to Talk: Why Science Communication Is Vital to the American Future
This is a crowd-sourced blog post, created at the 4/18/12 #nsfmessenger conference in New Mexico, to explain the importance of scientists engaging in public communication.
These days, it is fair to say that science communication has a lot of advocates. This workshop—Science: Becoming the Messenger—has now crisscrossed America and trained over 1,000 scientists in communication so far, and our effort is just one out of many. University courses on science communication are proliferating, as are panels on the subject at scientific meetings. Most prominently, a cadre of science communication leaders—top among them Neil deGrasse Tyson—are growing in popularity. This science celebrity-hood itself reflects a culture that is coming to view science as considerably more than mere nerdiness.
Why is this happening? Scientists are activating as communicators because they think what they do is fascinating, and want to share that passion. But it’s more than that. They’re interested in policy and the future. They’re convinced that more public communication efforts about science have such beneficial consequences that they could be considered vital to the future well-being of the U.S.
One of their arguments? Smarter people, smarter policies. A more scientifically literate electorate is crucial to informed policy-making regarding science-related issues like water use, climate, infrastructure, energy, and food production. Here in New Mexico, for instance, a recent study projected that by the year 2050, 19 out of the state’s 33 counties would be at either extreme risk or high risk for water shortages and attendant consequences, such as crop damages. (More detail here.) There’s just no way to manage this type of risk without understanding—scientifically—its magnitude and where it is coming from. If scientists can help citizens gain and retain this knowledge, then they’ll be better able to act upon it—we all will.
Science communication is vital to policy in another way, too. Science brings prosperity, as research leads to patents and the growth of jobs and industries. So legislators must understand the near- and long-term economic value of scientific research, so that they not only keep funding it but, in the future, fund it even more than they did in the past. And scientists have to explain to them that need.
Here, the statistics are compelling: We’re in a global race to stay competitive in science, and our rivals are pushing hard. China tripled its number of scientists from 1995 to 2008, and South Korea doubled its number between 1995 and 2006. These countries know research has a dramatic economic payoff, and the data support them. Consider a few figures from the National Academy of Sciences: In 2009, 51 percent of U.S. patents were actually given to non-U.S. companies. And: China is now leading the world in high-tech exporting, having surpassed the U.S. in this area. The argument isn’t just international: When you return to New Mexico, you find that STEM graduates remaining in state had earnings that were $33,633,455 higher than would have been the case without a STEM degree. Indeed, an additional 285 jobs resulted from the higher earnings of STEM graduates, producing $9,496,311 in labor income in the state.
The continued vitality of our scientific institutions–as well as U.S. competitiveness–requires convincing young people to pursue STEM careers. Alas, our K-12 education system is notorious for lagging behind the rest of the world, and the data reflect that: U.S. students recently ranked 23rd in science among the students of 65 countries. Let’s turn again to New Mexico: According to the American Institute of Physics, which compiles the Science and Engineering Readiness Index (SERI) on all US states in 2011, the state is severely lagging behind in terms of high school student readiness to become scientists and engineers. New Mexico is ranked 46th in the nation, and last out of all states west of the Mississippi. (The index measures things such as students’ performance in physics and calculus, significant precursors to science literacy.)
Given all this, the critical necessity of science communication becomes clear–to policy, to the economy, to the students of the United States, who desperately need better scientist role models. Ignoring all of this is a gamble that New Mexico cannot afford.