Benjamin you are right. The job of ‘science communicator’ needs to be part of the science budget.
I am a bit lost as to how/who we need to reach out to, to make necessary changes. It’s true that celebrity scientists do a lot of good: we still need loads more of accessible science communicators.
The numbers I cited before were from NASA and the NIH. I’m not feeling overly optimistic about the budget of NASA or its ability to engage in more outreach and education over the next four years. I’m not even sure what their budgets are going to look like at all, let alone whether they will be able to carve more out for communication.
That said, perhaps the coming years represent a time of desperation, where the scientific community realizes it absolutely needs public interest and public support to thrive, and the best way to achieve that is through effective science communication. It’s ironic that something like NASA is at such risk in a “make America great again” environment, when perhaps the most iconic moment of “American greatness” was the Moon landing. Can you imagine the greatness of a Mars landing?
In 2012, NDT had the following to say on this very topic: “”Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice that — a penny on a dollar — we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.” This was in response to decades of NASA budgetary declines:
NASA hasn’t even been able to get all the funds it needs for scientists to do science, much less science communication. I think it’s possible scientists do not perceive how interlinked funds for science and successful science communication are, but I also don’t see them grounding a flight program so that they can afford to tell the American public about all their other programs that haven’t been grounded.
I think we need something actionable. Let’s keep this conversation going to see if we can brainstorm some good ideas.
I’m obviously torn about how to approach our major scientific bullwarks like NASA and the NIH. Could NASA run a kickstarter to fund a science communication department? Maybe. I don’t know how in the world they are going to get funds and be able to direct them toward science communication in the coming administration, which, given all available data on the subject, looks like it is not going to improve things for NASA or science or education.
There is also the world of business to look to for help in science communication. Business doesn’t tend to do much unless it’s good for business, but I have to imagine that scientific communication could be very good for companies like SpaceX (or Tesla, or Solar City, for that matter) or Google (which actually owns a big chunk of SpaceX).
Companies are used to spending money on advertising as their means of communication, but I would argue that science communication is advertising. If people know how solar panels work, they might be more interested in using them. If people know how rocketry works, they might be more interested in seeing public money used to improve it. If people understand how an electric motor works, they might one day think to themselves, “why would I want to use a combustion engine instead of this!?” What’s more, if companies like this want to have a future, complete with skilled scientists and engineers working for them in years to come, it would behoove them to make sure kids today care about science. They can’t just rely on NDT to go solo on this one; they have to get involved.
In terms of what is actionable in the private realm, I’m not sure how to get SpaceX to redirect a bigger chunk of its budget to science communication. SpaceX has a YouTube channel, for instance, with a total of 82,838,962 views across 178 videos. I see a lot of room for improvement there. I’m not saying they need to have PSY in an astronaut suit dancing on a rocket to really turn things around; they just need to devote a little more time and effort to their output. Just as a hypothetical example, why not partner with Kahn Academy, which has nearly a billion views across thousands of videos, to do an explanation of what we are seeing in a SpaceX video, complete with equations and graphs? Why not do the same with Tesla to explain torque or electric motors or aerodynamics or anything else you want to talk about related to the science of Tesla? This is how you invest in the future of science and engineering.
I realize this IS rocket science we’re talking about, and rocket science translates roughly to “extremely hard” or “inaccessible,” but the science of tomorrow is not going to get easier. It’s going to get harder. Fortunately, our tools for learning and communication are better. We didn’t have the internet or YouTube back in the early days of rocket science. Now we do. We can share more knowledge, faster and more effectively, than we ever could before. We can make things accessible that were not accessible before. This goes both for science and science communication.
Another front where we can improve is in the education system itself. In higher education, we are seeing science communication programs emerging here and there, but they are nowhere near universal, and they are often geared toward environmental science which, admittedly, is one of the most crucial areas of science communication right now.
It’s hard to justify pouring money into science communication programs when the likes of NASA doesn’t even have an area of its budget officially dedicated science communication, and science communication doesn’t seem to be much of a priority for companies and institutions in general, but universities could at least offer a minor in science communication, or offer science communication courses as electives that can count toward a major in science or engineering. My own undergraduate degree was in astrophysics, and I got zero education in science communication. Zero. I learned a lot about how scientists communicate to each other, but nothing of how scientists should communicate to everyone else.
If I were designing a science communication program for higher education, I would also keep primary and secondary education in mind. Your “experiments” and “projects” in a science communication course could easily involve going to the local elementary school and teaching the kids there about some of the research going on at your university. Does the idea of trying to hold the attention of a room full of fourth-graders with a discussion of protein folding sound challenging? Yes. That does sound challenging, like maybe harder than rocket science, but, odds are, you didn’t get into science because you thought it was going to be a cakewalk.
I’m sure some of this is happening already but, for instance, my alma mater doesn’t have a science communication program (you’d have to do some sort of special major) or even a class on science communication (as far as I can tell), and my guess is most other places don’t either. These colleges and universities could get the ball rolling by hiring just one science communicator who can offer just one class on the subject. That would be a good first step.