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Get your scientists out of the lab!

Over the past few months, you have probably seen or heard of Cosmos, the remake of Carl Sagan’s classic science odyssey that just finished its on-air run. 

Eric Hian-Cheong, FellowHosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the show covers all sorts of scientific material, ranging from biology and evolution to astrophysics and climate change. It beautifully melds science and art into a compelling story of the universe easily accessible to any viewer and has done a fantastic job of bringing science into the public eye, drawing national attention.

The show’s host, Tyson – known for the compelling and inspiring ways he delivers real science to a broad audience – has made a career as a superstar scientist. He is not the first. Carl Sagan came before him, and Bill Nye the Science Guy has been inspiring and making kids laugh with his charming nerdiness for over two decades – but Tyson is certainly a rare breed, and that’s a problem.

Not to trivialize Tyson, but he is far from the only scientist in the world. So where are the rest? That’s a good question, but one thing is sure, they aren’t in the public eye. I can count only a handful of public-figure scientists who have made it a career to engage with broad audiences, and who do it well.  Others try to engage, but are horrifically inept at it. Most don’t try.

We need more of the former. We need more Tysons. This is the conclusion Randy Olsen came to before writing his book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (2009). When Olsen left his tenured professorship of marine biology and decided to pursue a filmmaking career in Hollywood, he was struck at how simply bad the scientific community was at communicating with the general public. Olsen criticizes scientists for their preference to stay devoted only to their work – to stay in the lab or the field, to let the facts speak for themselves, and to not bother with their appearances - to ignore the importance of perception.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Science, at the highest level, is well represented. Large advocacy organizations do a good job of conveying accurate science to policy makers and thought leaders, but they don’t reach the average American. Our Founding Fathers believed that a well-informed electorate was necessary for the health of democracy. They believed that the people of a nation, entrusted with their self-governance, must have knowledge of the world in order to make the best choices.

The word “science,” from the Latin “scientia,” literally means knowledge. But today, despite a burgeoning movement to lead a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) revolution in the U.S., we are seeing a wave of anti-science sentiment grip the nation. From climate change deniers to anti-vaccination, anti-evolution and pseudo-science movements, powerful groups are trying to discredit scientific fact. And they are good at it.

Today’s scientists are no match for the charismatic and media-trained professional politicians and celebrities. For a long time, scientists have believed that facts speak for themselves, and to other scientists, they generally do. But to most other audiences, they don’t. The lack of scientists speaking out on issues to the general public leaves a vacuum filled by the likes of Jenny McCarthy.

Science is complex, changing and, sometimes, highly debated.  It needs advocates that can break it down and present it in ways that are easy to understand. Today the facts don’t just speak for themselves. Communication and perception often supersede fact in the public eye.

That’s a shame. The United States is a country that has built its successes on science and engineering. From the telephone and the first airplane to Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, America has led science and science has led America.  But science has been losing the perception war for a long time now. If we want to rekindle a STEM revolution in America – to reassert the American leadership in technological fields upon which the nation was built, to embrace knowledge and fact – it’s time to get out of the lab.

Eric Hian-Cheong, Fellow 


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