Making sure to communicate with the public is hard and takes time. Scientists should keep doing it, says Jessica Eise.
When David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford, wrote the New York Times bestseller Incognito, I read it voraciously. The world of the mind opened to me. My subconscious brain took on an entirely new meaning to me. Eagleman’s research felt salient, relevant, and crucial to our understanding and progress as a species.
I had a similar experience when watching Hannah Fry discuss the mathematics of love (she normally spends her time teaching the mathematics of cities). The field, previously obscure to me, became something tangible and real in my everyday life. Her findings were compelling, and mathematics’ influence in all of our lives leapt into stark clarity.
My respect for these two individuals, Eagleman and Fry, and their ability to seamlessly move their complex, niche, nuanced, esoteric research areas into everyday lives has radically increased since trying my own hand at the task. This past spring, I coauthored a book with Dr. Nicole Widmar, an agricultural economist, and Bruce Vincent, a logger. The book, Against the Odds: A Path Forward for Rural America, is basically an annotated life story of Vincent, with research underscoring the narrative, connecting his real-life experiences to ongoing progress in social science.
This endeavor challenged me on many fronts. But one of the most profound and salient questions that lingers relates to the role of researchers. Are we obligated to bridge research and reality? How important is it that we cross the divide between the ivory tower and the person-on-the-street? Do we have a duty to make our research accessible not just to our immediate peers, but to the broader public who could benefit?
An analysis of the barriers in doing so would far exceed the word count of a single blog post. Time, incentives, ability, attitude and more will conspire to block a researcher from taking that step. But should we try?
I think so. A public that sees the worth in research will fund it. A public that bases its decisions on research will make better decisions. And the public funds the majority of research – it’s only right we should see what we’re buying.
Sharing research with the public also serves as litmus test to the value of the research itself. Does it have a meaningful purpose? Is it valuable to humanity or is it research for research’s sake? After decades of wading into a subject, anyone can lose their way —public opinion could be a guide back to the riverbank.
We all become accustomed to doing the same things. We don’t like forging new paths between neurons because it’s hard. Even if we’re exerting ourselves to solve something complex, at a certain point we become accustomed to that exercise. Doing something new, such as attempting to connect research to a broader public, will push the brain to a new limit.
Finally, sharing research with the public improves creative thinking. Creativity is a crucial component of innovative research. We push the boundaries when we seek to do things that haven’t been done before, or we see connections that haven’t been made. Creativity is a fundamental component of this. Flexing your mind and determining how to make your perhaps dry and technical research interesting and salient to a larger swath of the public will require creativity.
Jessica Eise is an active blogger, author and researcher. She coauthored The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture, and recently released Against the Odds: A Path Forward for Rural America. Join Jessica’s mailing list and get a free chapter from her latest book, All That Glitters: The Power of Non-Expert Influence.