Soapbox Science

What’s Your Science Maturity Level?

Marc Kuchner is the author of Marketing for Scientists, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and a country songwriter. He is the co-inventor of the band-limited coronagraph, a tool for finding planets around other stars that will be part of the James Webb Space Telescope. He is also known for his work on planets with exotic chemistries: ocean planets, helium planets, and carbon planets. Kuchner received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard and his Ph.D. in astronomy from Caltech. He was awarded the 2009 SPIE early career achievement award for his work on planet hunting. He has contributed to more than 100 research papers and published articles in journals including the Astrophysical Journal, Nature, and Astrobiology. He appears as an expert commentator in the Emmy nominated National Geographic television show “Alien Earths” and frequently writes articles in Astronomy Magazine. For more career tips for scientists, go to www.marketingforscientists.com. You can also follow Marc on Twitter @marckuchner.

I went to a scientific talk the other day that seemed to leave half the audience inspired and the other half frustrated. My frustrated colleagues insisted that the speaker did not present any true “results”. However, he did make some fascinating predictions about what would be discovered ten or twenty years from now, predictions that may be crucial for marketing exercises and expensive experiments.

Was this a good talk or a bad talk?  Science or marketing?

Maybe just it’s a matter of taste. Some of us will never be satisfied by a talk unless we see a hypothesis confidently confirmed or discarded. Others may find the realm of topics subject to such clear decisions too limiting and yearn for a glimpse into the more distant future.

Still, we often argue over the quality of our colleagues’ presentations. When it is hiring time, for example, and faculty candidates are parading through your department, no doubt a common topic of conversation is who gave the best talk. And the maturity level of the research is often a contentious point.

With these conversations in mind, I’d like to suggest a numerical scale we can use to describe scientific talks. This scale is not meant to weigh the overall quality of a talk, only to resolve some of the tension between those who prefer solid conclusions and those who enjoy more nebulous forecasting.  The first steps are about development of an idea by an individual scientist or research group; the last steps are about the acceptance of the idea by the community.

Science Maturity Level (SML)

1. This talk presents a path that might one day lead to a testable new hypothesis or new data. An SML1 talk does not even strive to present scientific conclusions.  Nonetheless, it can surprise and delight by illuminating a new research avenue that has become within arm’s reach, and which could shape the future of the field by its creativity and prescience.

2. The speaker presents a testable hypothesis with no constraining data or data whose interpretation is beyond the reach of state-of-the-art theoretical calculations. Such a talk can be boring, or it can be trendsetting, pointing the community to a fruitful direction for new work.

3. An SML 3 talk applies the full scientific method to the problem at hand, in whatever form the method is customarily used in the field. It compares a hypothesis to a data set and derives an unambiguous interpretation. However, so far the conclusion has garnered only limited attention from the scientific community, perhaps because it mainly confirms or reproduces previous work—or perhaps because it is new and thrilling.

4. This talk compares a hypothesis to a data set and appears to derive an unambiguous interpretation. Crucially, other researchers have confirmed or disputed this result in their talks and publications.

5. The speaker describes data and calculations that the community recognizes as part of its culture and history.  Perhaps it describes the roots of a research paradigm that continues to spawn textbooks and doctoral theses. Perhaps it is about an old paradigm that has since been superseded. Attending such a talk can provide new insights, or it could be more about the pleasure of simply meeting a scientific celebrity.

It’s tempting to say that talks in the 1-2 range are more about marketing than about science, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems to me that science is the process of moving from 1 to 5—and that this progress emerges from the community as a whole, not from any one scientist. So you can’t really describe a single talk as more “scientific” than another.

Also, it seems to me that talks at all points on the scale can be engaging and full of useful information, or dull and tiresome. The “marketing” is ultimately about whether the talk meets the needs of the audience—whether the needs are for information about the natural world, or for inspiration about future projects. So a talk on any research at any stage can be good marketing or bad marketing.

Curiously, I’ve found that different kinds of scientific institutions seem to prefer different kinds of talks. Perhaps academic departments tend to prefer talks with higher SMLs, while government labs tend to prefer lower SMLs. Maybe that’s because government labs often focus on big projects that require lots of planning. That seems to be something to keep in mind when you are applying for jobs.

Ultimately I think there is a place for all kinds of talks in our scientific universe. Perhaps the 4s and 5s belong at the beginning of a conference session, while the 1s, and 2s belong at the end. Talks about String Theory are often 1s. Review talks are often 4s or 5s.

What do you think? Should your department focus on 1s and 2s, or 4s and 5s?  Or should it aim to hire scientists who operate at both ends of the spectrum. What is the SML of your scientific talks? Share your thoughts in the comment thread.

Comments

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    Allison Stelling said:

    I think the public needs to have a good understanding of work that should be done by scientific institutes that are devoted to full time research, and the work that should be performed at universities. Full time research should be devoted to 3 to 5 year plans (4 & 5 in you level system) with a 10 year outlook & objective for the particular field. Universities should be focused on riskier research & long term goals- and on teaching a skilled workforce for the research-only institutes (or companies).

    Right now, you’re trying to get the universities to do everything! It’s very hectic, and leads to students not getting proper training & DYING in the lab. The majority of people who are good at science want to do science- not outreach! Most of my buddies from Reed College & Stony Brook University do not want to give talks all the time- they want to get work done in the lab, 9 to 5, and have the weekends off!

    Clear science communication is very tricky, especially when addressing a general audience. Not all scientists are ever going to be truly wonderful at it, and that should be OK! I’ll explain what they’re talking about- I’ve gotten rather good at that lately for genetics, tumor diagnostics, quantum mechanics, and neuroscience (see: https://twitter.com/DrStelling).

    It’d be nice if someone would actually pay me though— my parents were too poor to support me through my 8 years of higher education. I had full tuition, but needed Federal Loans to pay for room, board, & textbooks. Now that my PLoS ONE is out (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0058332), I have some hopes of getting an interview. But I am very uncertain, esp. in the USA. Would like to stay and contribute to my nation’s wealth & intellectual capacity, but the current situation seems….broken.

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