Forget the stereotype of the scientist holed up in a laboratory with only reams of data for company.
At a time when public skepticism of science is high and unpopular findings derided as “fake news,” many researchers say their work isn’t—and shouldn’t be—a mystery. From making data publicly available to offering Skype chats from the middle of the ocean, scientists from academia and elsewhere are reaching out to the public.
Some of the divide, scientists say, is fueled by too few opportunities for the public to learn about science.
“It’s easy for people to fill in a lack of knowledge with whatever gets in their head,” said Will Sager, a geophysics professor at UH. “It’s better for us to provide that information.”
John Lienhard pioneered the idea, starting a radio program to explain engineering to the masses 30 years ago. He has learned a few things from the thousands of episodes of “Engines of Our Ingenuity,” including what works in today’s polarized world.
“You’re unlikely to change anyone’s mind on hot-button issues,” he said. “But if you want to get across the point that science and the life of the mind is a good thing, then I think there’s hope.”
It helps to have a buzzy message. Sager in 2013 reported evidence of the world’s largest known single volcano on Earth—Tamu Massif is 12,000 square miles, located in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 miles east of Japan. The news went viral.
“It was great for science,” Sager said.
And he continued the run, taking advantage of technology to share subsequent work with students from around the world via Skype while hundreds of miles from land, even taking an educator along on a research vessel to help spread the word.
Working with the Schmidt Ocean Institute and the Texas State Aquarium, Sager estimates his team reached about 4,000 students and teachers in 2015, offering video tours of the ship and talking about data they captured.
“It’s easy to characterize scientists as being out of touch,” he said. But that’s changing; some funding agencies even require that researchers find a way to communicate their work with the public, and scientific institutions have begun to make that easier.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science offers resources to help scientists communicate with the public through its Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology, for example.
Leslie Peart, vice president for education and conservation at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, has worked with Sager several times and offers three reasons scientists should communicate with the public: to inspire students to study science and other technical subjects, to ensure more people know how the scientific process works—essential for interpreting the legitimacy of an argument—and to build what she describes as “STEM literacy,” or an understanding of fields encompassed by science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“People need to understand how the Earth works, how weather works,” said Peart, who also runs the Flint Hills Resources Center of Excellence for STEM Education at the aquarium. “Science literacy is part of being a good citizen.”
Scientists bear some of the responsibility for that, she said. And while some scientists have always tried to share their work with the public, Peart sees today’s efforts as part of a cultural shift. “I’m not sure every scientist is prepared to do this, and that’s where partnerships with programs like ours can be of assistance. We’ve got an audience that’s ready to learn.”
Giving Context to Humanity
For a long time, they weren’t expected to. But attitudes are shifting.
“A lot of research is publicly funded, so it’s important to explain what we do,” said geology professor Tom Lapen. “We’re a public institution. It’s our duty to train the future workforce and to share information.”
In 2017, Lapen published an analysis of a meteorite from Mars suggesting volcanic activity had occurred on the planet for at least 2 billion years and confirming that some of the longest-lived volcanoes in the solar system are found on the Red Planet.
The media came calling.
“If you are lucky to have a discovery that is exciting enough to make the news, you need to take the opportunity to promote it,” Lapen said. “It’s not to promote me. It’s to promote knowledge in a way that an average citizen can understand.”
Promoting knowledge can help to counter anti-science sentiment, he said.
“It’s important to engage with and not disregard folks who have some contempt for expertise,” he said. And while it may be easier to promote a new technology with a direct consumer application, Lapen said basic science—the attempt to understand why things work the way they do—can capture public attention, too.
“It gives context to humanity,” he said. “There’s a lot that goes on beyond what we see on television or on our phones.”
Some scientists are going further, making the data produced by their work publicly available, both for other scientists and for the science-minded public.
Wei-Chuan Shih, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, said there is a certain satisfaction that comes from seeing your ideas in the public domain.
Last fall, Shih’s lab released an open-source dataset offering instructions for building your own smartphone-based fluorescent microscope.
The project was funded by a National Science Foundation grant aimed at encouraging scientists to share their work with the public.
“It’s not something that belongs just to the lab,” Shih said of the work, an inexpensive inkjet-printed elastomer lens that can be converted into a microscope able to detect waterborne pathogens and perform other diagnostic functions.
“I think it will have more impact if we let people play with it, rather than trying to hold it as a secret. We should make it as easy and accessible as possible for everyone.”
Building the STEM Pipeline
Lienhard, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at UH, is a pioneer of public outreach, starting the nationally syndicated “Engines of Our Ingenuity” to make engineering accessible to the public just over 30 years ago.
Aired locally and syndicated through the Houston National Public Radio affiliate, KUHF, the program grew out of a brainstorming session with the college’s then dean on ways to promote the Cullen College of Engineering.
If he hasn’t changed the minds of hard-core deniers—a recent program on greenhouse gases and the impact of human activity on global warming drew no complaints, which Lienhard took as a sign of failure to reach critics who aren’t open to learning—he can take satisfaction in something that other scientists agree is important.
High school and university students are an important audience for outreach efforts, as researchers try to build the pipeline of future engineers and scientists that will one day replace them.
“It’s exciting to have something new come out of your own mind,” Lienhard said. “That’s the message I’ve been pushing.”