Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shaking Hands

It's almost 2009 and with any luck, you've got exciting plans for the evening's transition into morning. While you're out and about, you can take advantage of an advocacy opportunity. That's right folks, even social situations are perfect advocacy opportunities.

The opportunity for New Year's Eve is shaking hands. You'll probably have a chance to meet some new and interesting people while you're out reveling and all you have to do is shake hands and introduce yourself.


Friend: "I'd like you to meet my colleague, Stran Ger."
You: "Hello Stran, I'm {insert name}."
hand shaking

Stran: "It's nice to meet you. What do you do?"
You: "I'm a scientific researcher."

And you've done it!

I'm not trying to be too basic here, but it really is as simple as that. As funny as it seems - since you've probably had some version of the above conversation a million times - it is an important advocacy tool. In a national survey, 75% of Americans couldn't name a living scientist. That's three-quarters of the population that claims they don't know a scientist.

Based on the National Science Foundation's 2008 Science and Engineering Indicators, 4.2% of the U.S. workforce are in S&E occupations and an additional 40% of R&D workers are found in non-S&E occupations. Even with all the unofficial tallies of scientists and researchers working outside traditions S&E careers, in America alone, about 1 of every 25 people is a scientist of some kind.
Assuming that every American knows 100 people - not necessarily friends, but knows the names of at least 100 people - they should be able to name at least one of the (statistical) four scientists they know in a phone survey. But they can't, because most of the time, they have no idea that they know a scientist.

Computer scientists, engineers, doctors, biologists, academicians, researchers, you're all out there. It's time your friends and neighbors know who you are.

The public (and policymakers) support things that they know and understand. People support causes they can get behind or that they feel affected by (think: families that support specific disease-related charities). If the public knew that they knew more scientists, public support for science would improve from coast to coast.

Take your opportunity to help make that happen by introducing yourself as a scientist while you're out ringing in 2009 tonight. Consider it an easy New Year's resolution.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Science Advisors in the News

Instead of doing an end-of-year science news wrap up (which you can find here and here and here and many other places), I want to take this opportunity to highlight one important story from 2008 - science advisors.

President-elect Obama has already announced his choices for a cabinet level science advisory position in addition to some integral agency heads. After a lack of solid science advising at the presidential level, these announcements are thrilling to the scientific community. But presidents aren't the only officials who need science advisors.

Members of Congress write legislation and appropriate the funding to our scientific agencies. State officials pass laws, zone industrial regions, and plan energy usage for their states. Local officials write school curricula and decide the level of city taxes.

So while having national advisors is brilliant, all policymakers need to have some amount of advice on science policy that doesn't come from their political party establishment or their memory of secondary school science classes.

I'm in no way demeaning the scientific understanding or knowledge of policymakers. However, if politicians - who by virtue of their position probably understand politics - need political advisors, shouldn't they therefore avail themselves of science advisors as well?

Of course, you say.

However, there is a shortage of advisors out there. Many local and state officials don't meet their constituents working in research, because the researchers don't make the time to introduce themselves. Everyone has busy jobs, but if science policy is going to be good, it must be informed. It can't be informed unless educated professionals are willing to step forward and be a voice for their own research and their local scientific community. Thus, for good science policy to be put in effect, scientifically trained and/or educated professionals need to be willing to be of service to their local and state officials and serve as science advisors.

It doesn't mean quitting your job. Or working for a politician. It means being there to answer questions about something you are already an expert on or connecting your elected official to someone else or a resource that will hold the answer to their question. It could take less than an hour a month. It could be the "job" for you.

Just a little food for thought.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Edwin Stone, MD, PhD

At the risk of coming off completely stalker-ish, I want to share my (completely professional) obsession. I first came across Dr. Edwin Stone through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute website. I was looking for stories of researchers who sit on the divide between basic research and patient care, and Stone definitely fit the bill. Aside from his ongoing research and clinical duties, Stone, an ophthalmologist at U. of Iowa, is also an advocate for rare diseases and an emissary to Congress. As described in an article in Wired magazine, he hopes to amend the Rare Diseases Act of 2002 to include coverage for diagnostic tests (as opposed to treatments) for rare diseases.

This would clarify the complex legal hurdles due to intellectual property for genetic information. Other researchers would then be able to adopt his model of nonprofit genetic testing, helping patients across the country better understand and treat their disorders. Check out this article from the HHMI Bulletin to read about Dr. Stone’s work, and visit the Carver Lab to find out about the services they provide and how you can help.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ho Ho Ho

New Voices is off for the holidays until Monday the 29th. In the mean time, we offer you a little random holiday knowledge about chemical element 67, holmium.

Why holmium you ask? Well, aside from its too convenient abbreviation "Ho", this rare earth metal is found in quite a few things you may run into this holiday season, including:

  • Yellow or red stained glass
  • Cubic zirconia
  • Lasers or microwave portions of medical or dental equipment (we hope you won't run into holmium unexpectedly here)
  • Gamma ray spectrometers (we admit that many of you will not be calibrating your spectrometer in the next week or so, but we do focus on science communication and experiments don't understand the idea of a researcher being on vacation!)
Nothing like a little "Ho Ho Ho" in late December. See you next week!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How To: Start a Science Cafe

What’s Love Got to Do With It? That was the theme of a successful gathering of the minds I once helped organize at school, otherwise known as LoveFest. It was our novice attempt at getting college students excited about science through appeals to college interests: sex. We held it at the student pub, got Steven Pinker to talk about the language of love, and gave out these cute t-shirts. Our event was modeled after the up-and-coming science café phenomenon.

Science Cafes are local, informal events geared toward lay-people with an interest in learning about science. A café can take many forms—anything from a relaxed coffee-house, to a raucous pub night. But, the common denominator is an appreciation for and interest in science. One group that organizes science cafes in NYC, the Secret Science Club, was featured a while back in a NYTimes article.

The spirit of “Mr. Wizard’s World” has now reached an audience that can legally drink. The same late-night revelers who spent their high school and college years plodding through mandatory science classes are now gathering voluntarily to listen to presentations on principles of string theory or how orbitofrontal cortexes work — as long as it takes place far from the fluorescent lights of classroom….About 50 groups, with names like Science on Tap and Ask a Scientist, have formed in the last four years. There are three in New York City alone. Each month, they invite scientists, usually professors at nearby universities, to lecture on topics as varied as mass extinctions and frog mating calls. Anywhere from 50 to 100 people, none of whom wear pocket protectors, show up for an evening of imbibing hard science along with hard liquor.

These people sound—dare I say it—actually cool! The website has a nifty google map with the locations of all ongoing Science Cafes across the country. Just doing a quick search, I found a group right in my town, Arlington VA! Check out the map to find your local Science Cafe. Don't see one? Start your own. Here’s a complete guide, put together by the guys who run NOVA ScienceNOW, including how to promote your events and where you might be able to find funding and speakers. For example,

NOVA scienceNOW provides start-up grants for science cafés. To find out more about this funding opportunity, check out the grant guidelines.

Try to steer clear of mundane and content overloaded science talks, however. Your audience isn’t there to hear some grad student defend his thesis. They come to get the blood flowing in an area of the brain that lies dormant most of the time—the part that responds to an irresistible urge to mix Mentos and Coke and watch it explode, or cut off the tip of an earthworm and come back later to find its grown back. The idea is to bring science to the public in a comfortable atmosphere and a non-imposing format. The NYTimes article explains,

Organizers are careful to keep the events from turning into the soporific lectures their audiences once snoozed through in high school. Many forbid the scientists from using PowerPoint slides during presentations or talking for more than 20 minutes.

The event should be interactive—you may have to experiment with ways to keep the conversation going. The website offers these tips:

Trivia. As people are arriving for a café, trivia questions can get them talking together and thinking about a topic. Use these samples for ideas.

Go on tour. Are people sticking around after your event is "over" to keep discussions going on their own? Bringing the scientist from table to table at this point can lead to the best conversations of the event.

You can also get creative by contacting local businesses about using their space, or getting freebies in support of the event, in exchange for promotion. Talk to a local bar owner about getting a happy hour deal during your discussion. Also check out this forum for organizers.

Have you been to a good science café? Let us know about your experience!

Monday, December 22, 2008

What to Expect

Before we get into the meat and potatoes of posting, here is a brief introduction of the regular features we plan on having here at New Voices.

  • How-To – explaining the details of how-to do specific advocacy or science communication activities in five or fewer steps
  • Success Story – an account of a reader who followed through on a “how-to” post
  • Advocacy Opportunities – ways in which readers can be an advocate
  • Science & Research News Round-Up – news highlights from the previous week and a brief analysis or position statement on one of the news items
  • Profile – a biosketch of an advocate or science communicator making a difference in their community
  • Guest Posting – practiced advocates and communicators share their knowledge on a specific topic of interest to readers
  • Open Thread – responses to reader inquiries and an open conversation track for commenters
  • Food for Thought – editorial commentary on the most active stories in the science blogosphere
You can also expect some evolution. The landscape of communication of any kind changes constantly and we want to keep up with the times (and you!). That being said, your ideas about what you'd like to read about are welcome any time.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Defining Terms

Here at New Voices, we're going to be talking a lot about advocacy and science communication. Both of those terms (like many others) have different definitions depending on who you are talking to, so we thought we'd put at least get some ideas out there about what we think each term means.

Science communication is any communication relating to science. This can be scientist to scientist, researcher to policymaker, industry to public, etc. etc. Some science communication is advocacy.

Advocacy is an effort to influence some sort of policy decision through persuasion and education. It can be as simple as writing to a legislator or speaking up at a PTA meeting.*

What do advocacy and science communication mean to you? How do you communicate about science with the people around you? Are you persuasive? Are you informative?

We look forward to learning about you and your communication and advocacy styles!

*A special note to dispel a common misconception: Though separated by a fine line, advocacy is NOT the same thing as lobbying. The difference is that lobbying is related to a specific bill or piece of legislation, whereas advocacy is about a more general subject matter. This may seem like a loophole, but the difference is important. Advocacy is about changing minds in the grand scheme of things whereas lobbying is trying to get a policymaker to vote a certain way on a specific bill.

Like a square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not necessarily a square, lobbying is advocacy but advocacy is not necessarily lobbying.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Welcome to New Voices for Research

New Voices for Research is designed to empower young professionals to transform their passion for research into advocacy. Our goal is to build "new voices" who will be articulate spokespersons working to make research a higher national priority.

Join us in our quest to become better science communicators and advocates.