Thursday 22 September 2016

Getting out there

Time was when science was done by scientists for scientists. A mind-game for intellectuals to solve the puzzles of the Universe and boast to each other about their discoveries. When Galileo discovered two moons of Saturn in 1610, he famously sent Kepler a teaser "smaismrmilmepoetaleumibunenugttauiras" go on google it!
to tell him. They were both wrong: Galileo in his observation and Kepler in his hard-won solution. Putting one over on the opposition is still a major driver for scientific conferences. That was all very well when science was carried out by amateurs [lovers!] on their own money. After WWII, the first real techies war - Enigma [Turing et al.]; radar; flammenwerfer; Zyklon B - governments realised that science could deliver fabulous levels of wealth and political power and started to invest in it. You had it made if you were a rocket scientist in the 1950s and 1960s.

A generation later, certain politicians came to believe that the tail was now wagging the dog. Science had acquired a life of its own and was often only tenuously connected with making discoveries about the real world. Science was rather building up a parallel universe which was less and less useful - or indeed understandable - by tax-payers and their elected representatives. This has been memorably termed Funding Fondling: picking at the scabs of the literature rather than to boldly go where no man has swept the floor. Senator William Proxmire [D, Wisconsin] made much political hay from cutting some of the more fantastic stalks to the ground. There were plenty: from 1975 to 1988, Proxmire's office published a Golden Fleece Award drawing attention to the nuttier scientific proposals that had been funded. He particularly turned an accountant's eye on the US space program attacking one far-fetched ambitious proposal  "It's the best argument yet for chopping NASA's funding to the bone . . . I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy". Science pushed back, of course, claiming that Proxmire and his hacks were scientific illiterates and/or had taken their soundbytes out of context and largely out of spite.  It was a bit like the Ig Nobel awards which are being awarded/celebrated today in the  famous Sanders Theatre of Harvard. Ig Nobel for urination timing previously.

Twenty years after that, I was applying for grants [= tax dollars] to prosecute my own ventures at the frontiers of science and a new section started to appear on the application forms. As well as an Abstract - 300 words summarising the research proposal so it could be sent to the correct review panel, we were now being required to write a Lay Summary that made the ideas intelligible to ordinary people and politicians. That's great: if we are sucking at the government teat we should be required to justify our existence to our paymasters - which is you, dear tax-paying reader. I think that really is an N = 1: the Venn Diagram intersection between a) people who have 10 minutes a day to read The Blob and b) have a proper job is a very small set. I have read a lot of Lay Summaries since then, including my own attenpts, and they are almost always dreadful. They are often mere paraphrases of the Scientific Abstract with the technical terms replaced by clumsy circumlocutions. To do it well is hard - because Science is Hard - but mainly because of The Curse of Knowledge: it is impossible to imagine what it's like not knowing what is now, after years of immersion, obvious to us.

The funders have cranked up the ante even more in recent years, requiring the recipients of ca$h to indicate Outreach tasks as well as Pushing the Frontier tasks. Essentially asking How do you intend to make your science accessible to Joe and Joan Public over the next 3 years? Focussed scientists, who are often not People Persons, view this with considerable skepticism as it will dissipate their work at the bench and in the field. Me, I think it is an excellent tool for the focus that is required for successful modern science. Heck, if you can't explain the utility of your endeavours to a class of eight year olds, then maybe your thinking on the subject is too woolly to be yield a successful outcome.  Another aspect is that by talking to children and teens about science, preferably with passion, you are paying your taxes to the Future of Ireland as a Technological Nation [on which I've rabbitted previously].

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