This is a good, basic rule of life, not just one of those things you say when you don't have anything to add except a shrug.
Nature had a very interesting article about the Broader Impacts criterion, one of two criteria that the National Science Foundation uses to determine whether grant proposals should be funded. I'm not just saying that because I'm quoted in it, either. Corie Lok does a great job establishing the issue in the first paragraph.
"Research-funding agencies are forever trying to balance two opposing forces: scientists desire to be left along to do their research, and society's demand to see a return on its investment."
NSF requires that every proposal - research, education or outreach - include a plan to promote the 'broader impacts' of the project, with broader impacts basically meaning "How does this work benefit society?" Beyond your publishing papers and the basics of preparing graduate students for careers, what are you doing that helps us explain to the taxpayers and the Congress why it is so important to fund science? There is a lot of misunderstanding of the Broader Impacts criterion in the community and, I think, within NSF itself. Still. (Note added: I run the broader impacts toolbox site, which was funded by a grant from NSF, but isn't an official site. There is a lot of information on the criterion itself, along with some reports.)
The reason I raise the issue is that a recurring theme of this blog is the image of scientists as portrayed in the media. Just after I arrived at the University of Nebraska, my department chair and his wife went for dinner and a movie with myself and my husband. Sue Kirby, who became one of my favorite collaborators, was an elementary school teacher with a deep love of science. The other three of us were university physicists. We went to see the movie "The Saint". If any movie could have benefited from the Science and Entertainment Exchange, this would be it. A basic premise of the movie is that Elisabeth Shue has developed a valid way to do cold fusion that will permanently solve the energy crisis. She is carrying the secret around on six little post-it notes that she hides in her bra.
OK, maybe that's just a plot device so that the Saint (Val Kilmer) can seduce her in order to steal the notes. Or maybe some misguided writer thinks that science is actually so simple that one person discovers something and can write it down on six tiny pieces of paper with no lab notebooks or computer files or anything. Anyway, poor Sue was mortified during the movie because the three of us were laughing so hard that people were starting to look at us and wonder if we were all on something. We couldn't help it. The portrayal of science was so outrageous that it was fall-down funny. Come to think of it, the four of us never went to another movie together after that...
And then last week, I saw the same movie on television. The hosts were offering helpful commentary at the commercial breaks) and had an exchange something like...
SHE: "Are you cold?"
HE: Yes - that's all due to the beautiful and extremely intelligent Elisabeth Shue.
SHE: But she's not cold, she's hot.
HE: Yes, but we all know there's no such thing as 'hot fusion'.
Uh...you mean like what happens in the Sun? I was watching movies because I was home with a respiratory infection, so the laughter was a little limited because my ribs hurt every time I had to breathe in.
This relates to Broader Impacts because of a story I told for the Nature article. My collaborator Gayle Buck (a science education researcher now at Indiana University) and I were doing a pilot project in which we had three or four graduate students working with Sue Kirby's fourth-grade class on circuits. We were planning a grant in which we wanted to study the impact of contact with real scientists on student images of science and scientists. The program to which we were writing had a goal of teaming graduate science and engineering students with K-12 teachers, so we had recruited a few graduate students -- all of whom happened to be female -- to come and work with the kids. We didn't set out to get women students, those were just the students who were interested in participating. Our goal was to see what the students learned about the process of science in their quest to make a bulb light with just a battery, a bulb and a single piece of wire.
About halfway through the process, as I'm standing there watching with a smile as bulbs are lighting and students are saying "cool" and smiling about how they understand science, Gayle approaches me.
"Guess what?" she asks. "The students don't believe you're scientists."
She had been interviewing students out in the hallway and asking them questions I never would have thought to ask. Like "Who are these people helping you?"
And darned if the fourth grade students weren't overwhelmingly positive that the women graduate students in the class could not possibly be scientists. Even with prompted with "could they be scientists?", the kids had all sorts of reasons why they weren't.
"They're too pretty. Pretty women wouldn't be scientists."
"They smile too much."
"They talk in ways we can understand."
"They act like they want us to understand them."
In short, the students were sure that the women in the classroom helping them -- all doctoral students actively working in labs -- were student teachers. Gayle, Sue and I ended up writing a paper about the study - we tried a bunch of things to reinforce the idea that the women were, in fact, scientists. We videotaped them in their labs explaining their experiments, we mandated that they be called "scientists" or "engineers" and not "graduate students" and we even bought a button machine and made them nametags with "Scientist" in big letters. I was outvoted in my idea to tattoo the word "Scientist" on their foreheads. Some issue about IRB considerations or something.
That was a pivotal moment for me, because it made me realize that I had spent a lot of my career doing things for which I had absolutely no evidence of any impact, let alone a positive impact. I've spent my life being told that I should be out there and visible as a role model for women in physics, when the fact is that I may have been talking to an audience that thought I was there to explain to them what scientists do and what science is like without it registering that there was actually a scientist in front of them. My skepticism about the Broader Impacts criterion is in part because it fails to consider that having a limited number of projects that are well thought out and assessed might be a much more impactful way of addressing the issues than having a lot of well-intentioned scientists doing things that could have minimal, if not negative impact.
Changing the perceptions people have about science and scientists is nowhere near as easy as putting good role models in front of them. Sure, you will hear scientists in interviews talking about how Neil Degrasse Tyson, or Eugenie Scott (or my personal hero, Laurie McNeil) inspired them when they were young and doubtful about their ability to succeed, but that's a minority of people. We learned, for example, that the fourth graders got much of their ideas about who does science from the cartoon 'Dexter's Laboratory', which was big at that time. (The study was done at a school where about 78% of the students qualified for free or reduced lunches. Few of the students in our study were likely to have relatives who were scientists or other first-hand experience with scientists or people they recognized as scientists).
Jennifer and I had a short e-mail volley about a blog that was posted in response to a question about what it is like to be a scientist. One quote from the blog in question:
The only scientists you’ve probably met are the ones you see on TV or in the movies. Who’d want to be any of those? Who wants to be Dr. Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb or Flint Lockwood from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs or anyone on The Big Bang Theory? Flint and those painfully nerdy guys from The Big Bang Theory are nice enough but few people would want to be them. And Doofenshmirtz is lame and evil.
OK, I've had animated discussions myself with David Saltzberg, the scientific advisor for The Big Bang Theory who periodically blogs about the science in the show, about why they don't have a gorgeous non-geeky woman scientist on the show. (And if the writers aren't sure how one would behave, I can give you a list of people they can visit.) David assured me that people like Sheldon and Leonard. My experience with the fourth graders makes me skeptical without a little more study. I certainly don't endorse the blogger's comments about 'lazy writers' using scientists as easy targets. Anyone who's worked with writers for television or the movies knows that a 'lazy writer' remains unemployed. Busy writers on deadline without even any idea of who to ask might write something that 'sounds' scientific without checking it, but most writers are pretty dedicated to getting things right.
Jennifer reeled off a plethora of scientists, mathematicians and engineers on fictional programs (i.e. entertainment, not documentary or educational) that counter the points made in the blog. I doubt it took her more than two minutes to come up with those names. But my experiences with the kids make me wonder whether my perception of those characters is in any way similar to the perception of the average television watcher. Do these characters have any impact (much less positive or negative) on the way people perceive scientists?
I propose a study of what the average person -- not me, Jennifer or probably most of the people who read this blog -- thinks about scientists on television, becoming a scientist or even knowing scientists. I'm somewhat hampered by the fact that time has prevented me from watching a lot of popular television in the last year. But on the plane home last night, I was thinking about some of the questions I would ask.
I would pick a couple different cohorts: one of people who are scientists, one of people who work with scientists, one of people who aren't scientists, but say they like science, and one of people who aren't scientists and say they don't like science. I'd ask them all the same questions. And if there is one thing I've learned about studying people, I've learned that qualitative research (i.e. on a scale of one to seven where one is strongly disagree and seven is strongly agree, how do you feel about the following statements) is very limited. So I'd give them a web-based survey with a lot of open-answer questions and then I'd follow up with an interview in which you could probe some of the common themes that emerged from the survey.
OK. In reality, I'd enlist the talents of my friend Vicki, who is one of the best mixed methods researchers in the country. She'd take my ideas, add her own, and put them into a useful form from which something valid might be deduced. A good collaborator is a blessing, especially when they are also a dear friend. So these are just the ideas off the top of my head.
Maybe you'd like to try this yourself: The ground rules are that we're dealing only with fictional television programs. No NOVA, no news, no documentaries. Dramas, comedies, cartoons are all fair game. Let's consider 'recent' as being the last two years or so. I won't impose a hard cut-off, but don't pull out shows that were canceled five years ago.
1. List all the recent television programs you can think of that have scientists or mathematicians on a recurring basis. (Not the Law and Order episode where there was a scientist killed, please.) Only characters who have names are eligible. (Not the one listed in the credits as "Scientist #1".)
2. List all the characters on those shows who were scientists and as much as you can remember about the particulars of the character. Name, type of scientist, relationships with other characters.
3. For each of the characters you listed, rate on a scale of 1 to 7 with 1 meaning strongly disagree and 7 meaning strongly agree (I didn't say that was useless or invalid, just not complete). I'd ask some specific questions like:
a. I would aspire to be like that character
b. I would invite that character to a party that included my friends and family
c. I would date/marry/sleep with that character
d. That character is a good role model for people in terms of encouraging them to become a scientist.
e. That character makes scientists look evil
f. That character make scientists look stupid
g. That character would be a good mother or father
h. That character causes all of the trouble he or she gets into by things that he or she does.
I probably should plan to disguise the purpose of the study by asking similar questions about doctors or lawyer or firefighters. Maybe veterinarians.
That would be my start -- and I wager that the analysis of those answers would raise another series of questions to answer in the interviews.
And, of course, that's the way science works. Sometimes, the mark of good research is that it raises more questions than it answers.
Now, I just have to find some funding for this study!