Fieldwork in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Communicating (the soul destroying reality of) Science

After a rather inspiring lecture by Professor Ian Stuart, of BBC’s ‘How to Build a Planet’ and ‘Volcano Live’ fame, on the difficulties of communicating science to the general public, I realised that my attempts had been somewhat lacking of late and thought I best get another blog post out for my regular reader. I’m going to apologise now if this all goes a bit woolly and social-sciencey, if you know me you’ll know that’s never my intention.

Titled ’50 Shades of Grey: Communicating Rocks’, a lot of this talk was on what the public want and need to know and how important it was to tailor what you wanted to say to your target audience. However, I think he missed something, while most scientific outreach and communication is about new discoveries and interesting things that have been found out, I think pop ‘consumer’ science is focusing on the wrong things, putting out the wrong messages about science and scientists themselves.

Watching any science-based TV show, or reading many science news articles, especially those on the earth sciences and physics which appear to be the most TV friendly subjects, it is too easy to get the impression that scientific research is easy. Exciting breakthroughs come after a relatively short period of work, you bang out a few experiments, check the results, and all goes pretty smoothly. It’s bad enough that all the fictional crime investigation shows do this, sticking a sample in a mass spectrometer which reliably spits out, already analysed, results giving a nice answer to whatever question posed in seconds – anybody who’s ever worked with one of these knows this NEVER happens, without factual documentaries adding to this.
Therefore, in my opinion (which may be slightly biased thanks to the spirit crushing difficulty of getting ANYTHING working in my labs) scientific outreach should be more strongly weighted towards the amount of time and effort doing any good science takes.

A life in experimental science is dominated by constant breakdowns of sensitive, expensive equipment and hitting soul destroying dead end after dead end in your research before (hopefully) something new and vaguely interesting is found out. Even after all of this, it may take much more work to confirm your results, followed by months or even years of reading and writing before a publishable paper can be put out into the literature, when it may just be rinsed by your peers just because they don’t like your research group (scientific rivalries can get pretty nasty).

To put this in context, I finally made an interesting discovery in some samples of modern corals this week (can’t say what yet). This was able to happen as I have finally managed to get some reliable data on the trace elemental composition of these samples using a laser ablation- inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometer (LA-ICP-MS). This has taken over a year and a quarter of attempts as this machine is one of the most temperamental things imaginable, every time I manage to scrounge some time on it, it breaks.

Since (after a year of attempts) finally working out a reliable method of analysis, I was booked to use this before Christmas, however, a workman in the department managed to cut through one of the pipes for the air conditioning. The lab that this machine is housed in needs to be kept cold due to the sensitivity of the mass spectrometers and so the whole lab was shut down for a couple of weeks. Next time I got booked on the machine the lab was struck by flu and so the technician, who’s baby this ICP is, was busy doing the job of about 6 other people. Of course the machine was then fully booked up for the next few weeks until I managed to get a block of 4 days booked on it the week before last. It takes a whole day to set up and carry out a run along a 40mm long transect of coral so I was planning on just being able to run 4 samples during this period. However, out of the 4 days, one day the computer system controlling the laser ablater crashed in the afternoon and lost the settings for the run that I’d spent all morning setting up, and another day there was a university-wide blackout just after my run had started as someone had exploded something and started a fire in one of the labs over in Biology.

This kind of bad luck is unfortunately the norm in research, the other main piece of equipment I use (another mass spectrometer) has been broken for a month now thanks to a major flood in the lab it sits in. I know of another PhD researcher who suffered a major setback when a (separate) flood washed away a load of irreplaceable microscopic fossils (foraminifera) she’d spent the last 3 months painstakingly sorting through ready for analysis. And of course there was also the disappointing loss of the BLEAT space balloon I wrote about in December.

If the general public knew about all the long hours, suffering and heart break that happened in the background behind each scientific discovery they might be more inclined to trust scientists more and lose the view of the researcher as a mad scientist, down in the lab, doing crazy experiments.

Clearly we still need to put most of the emphasis in the communication on the big, exciting discoveries to keep the interest, but a bit more of the human stories behind the science is definitely needed.

Speculating wildly this, I’d hope, would lead to less scepticism and a more positive view on science. Less people reading and believing the internet ramblings of sceptics and conspiracy theorists, instead listening more to the scientist’s voice of reason, scientific research getting more funding (maybe more out of sympathy than anything) and a greater role of (good) science in governmental policy making. 

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