There’s a mythology that looms large when it comes to science in this country, that science is a frightening and scary thing, far too complicated for mere mortals to grasp. It should be left to Those In Charge and people shouldn’t try to understand science news, shouldn’t bother reading scientific studies, should rely on other people to tell them how to interpret science. There’s a huge disconnect between scientists and the rest of society, between science and the humanities, an understanding gap that doesn’t benefit anybody but persists nonetheless.
My fellow non-scientists, science policy is important. Policy decisions we make now will shape the sciences, and society, for decades to come. They will determine the direction of research and they can be the deciding factor in what kinds of research we choose to invest in, to pursue, and what we do not. It’s policy decisions that determine advances in medicine; the drugs that will be available to treat us when we are older, for example. And technology. Without science, there would be no Twitter. And I think we can all agree that this would be a great loss! For that matter, science has profound political impacts; the atom bomb was about policy, as was the development of nuclear power to find peaceful applications for atomic energy.
And science intersects directly with a lot of topics people in the humanities are interested in. It’s science that we rely on to discuss studies about topics like the ineffectiveness of diets, the physiological consequences of oppression[1. It turns out that being the constant target of -isms can actually make you really, really sick. Stress is bad for you and sustained stress can increase the risk of, among many other things, cardiovascular disease. -isms kill.], the effectiveness of measures to protect the environment. Science allows us to test and explore things, to have complicated conversations. Science isn’t bad, or scary, or particularly hard.
There’s a failure of communication in the scientific community, a tendency to not provide information in clear, understandable forms that people can easily interpret and discuss. People call this arrogance, but I think it’s more about the fact that communication is not always stressed in the course of scientific education. Some institutions make a point of encouraging outreach, public education, attending workshops to learn how to make science more accessible to people who are not scientists. Others do not. Some of the scientists I know completed the bare minimum of requirements when it came to topics like composition and communications.
They have all this great information, but it’s locked away because they can’t put it in terms that people who are not their colleagues will understand. Part of the problem, too, is the fact that this information is so evident and obvious to them, and I’d note that this problem is not restricted to the sciences. The jargon-heavy humanities can be just as bad when it comes to excluding people in a blizzard of words that do not make sense, even if they are familiar, known sorts of words that just sound wrong because they’re being used in a new context. Scientists usually admit that the problem is lack of communication skills while people in the humanities seem to be more snobby.
Getting involved in science policy doesn’t have to be scary. Government institutions regularly make policy decisions and they solicit input from members of the public. Which include you. You can write them letters or call them to weigh in on proposed activities and you can find information about what kinds of decisions are up for public comment through their web sites or public relations departments. If a topic sounds interesting; if you are, for example, interested in Mars exploration, you can find the hook in the press release and use it to do some research. To learn more about what is being proposed and what different organizations think about it so you can decide if you think it’s a good idea or not.
You don’t have to talk in fancy scientific terms to weigh in on science policy. Remember, a lot of policy is made by politicians and they aren’t scientists either. In fact, sending a dense letter packed with terminology and theoretical discussions to a politician is going to be less effective than something more simple like ‘I support this bill because I think doing more research into early childhood brain development is a good idea.’ Your vote of support doesn’t have to be complicated or deep. Neither does your opposition; ‘I oppose funding this initiative because it does not seem to add in a significant way to the current body of knowledge on this topic.’ ‘I fail to see how funding this would be a good use of government resources, given the pressing need for research in a different area.’
The same suggestions I provide for researching politicians actually hold true for science, too. Look at who is sponsoring a study. Who stands to gain from which outcome. Which groups are supporting or opposing it. What the researchers say in the abstract; what is the takeaway information they want you to have? What do they think is the most important thing? How do organisations you care about feel about this research? Are they in favour, or opposed? Why? Chances are that public organisations are going to speak plainly when they talk about science issues and that can give you an in for learning more about something that might confuse you or seem unclear.
And, you know, lots of scientists actually enjoy answering questions and like talking about policy. They’re around, sometimes not very far away, and you can ask them directly; ‘hey, you’re a cancer researcher, do you think this policy would help or hurt cancer research?’