17 March 2014

This would make a great Nick Kristof column

canceled due to lack of funding
My wife shared an article with me that puts a fine point on the criticism of Nick Kristof's recent column imploring scientists to show up more in public and not write all that sciencey stuff in journals that only scientists read:
Carole Vance and Kim Hopper, longtime professors at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, learned that they were losing their jobs because they hadn’t brought in enough grant money. Both, ironically, are models for the sort of publicly engaged intellectual Kristof wants to see more of.
This obviously gives credence to what so many academics have said in response to the Kristof column, and yet there is even more irony to go around. Academics are increasingly forced to work by a set of rules that journalists rightfully consider a non-starter.

So much has been written about the separation of editorial and advertising you could hardly catalogue it all.  It's written directly into professional editorial guidelines and ethical codes.

Professors Vance and Hopper have done important work that has real relevance and value - it just lacks corporate sponsorship, because it primarily serves those who lack resources.  Imagine what newspapers would look like if writers had to find a sponsor - government or private - for every specific piece they wrote.

Research just doesn't work that way.  We make new observations and discoveries.  We invent new ways of doing things. But it takes time to develop and discover applications.  Corporate sponsors want products that have an impact on next quarter's result.  Politicians mock things like fruit fly research because they don't see its immediate utility.  There is no interest in subsidizing curiosity.

It all reminds me of that urban legend, attributed to so many (my personal favorite is Ben Franklin).  A very important person asks a scientist sharing his latest discoveries, "of what use are all these toys?" and the scientist responds, "of what use is a newborn babe?"

Asking scientists and researchers to ignore the requirements of their employment isn't a reasonable thing to do.  But reframing the way Americans talk about science is an important thing to do.

There are some things that are helping.  The new Cosmos miniseries is, so far, very well done and engaging, at least according to the non-scientists I've seen in my social media feeds. Groups like Compass are developing smarter ways of communicating science to policy leaders. People like Matt Shipman are sharing the relevance of science with mainstream media in their communities.

Nick Kristof could do his part by picking a science story - any science story, really - and demonstrating its relevance and importance in his column.

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