Broader impacts and the public perspective

“I am reading a pop-sci book called Pandora’s Seed, which looks at how our genetics tie into our cultural inheritance. In the preface Spencer Wells starts discussing the why behind his book. The why, is of course, rooted in the question “what impact does this research have?” This is a good question for all of us to answer, regardless of what level we are doing research in, or even if it’s just an undergraduate research paper. When we know the value of what we are learning, it takes on a whole new dimension. However, there are two ways to think about this: from the side of the researcher and the side of the public.

When I read Wells thoughts on why we should study human evolution in context of genetics and history, my memory was jogged. While teaching a 7th grade section on pH, an exasperated, bored, annoyed student whined, “œWhat is the point of this?” My brain, being rooted in geekiness as it were, immediately thought flusteredly, “œBecause SCIENCE!”

To fellow scientists, this might be reason enough. Fundamentally, though, I knew that to the public, the tax payers, and those that distribute research funds, you can’t use that answer. You need something more tangible, more meaningful, and something they can understand.

To this student, I showed them videos of what happens to soil when it is either too acidic or too basic. I followed this with more grotesque images of acid burns, a damaged oesophagus from stomach acid burns. The students, by that time, had all gathered around and began discussing the importance of what they were learning, and I didn’t have to say a word of defence.

Pry open science and look inside. (Credit: judy_breck)
Pry open science and look inside. (Credit: judy_breck)

Unfortunately, it is not always so easy to state the broader impacts of a particular research. Wells points out that the government funds research which may not have immediate interest with the underlying logic that it may be important some day. Tax payers still pay for that research money, so they should be able to get a sense of the possibilities, even if they are intangible at the time.

This concept has been something I’ve strived to do as I edit my master’s thesis. It has not been easy, and I’m working on an aspect of meteoric beryllium-10, which can be used to trace soil erosion. That should make it easy to explain why it’s important, but I still found myself struggling to answer my friends and family who are prodding me to just finish. I can imagine how hard it would be to explain they why behind something esoteric, remote, or specialised that it may have no tangible impact in the near future – luckily I haven’t had to yet.

I’d ask all of you that read this to please post how you would explain the importance of your research to a public audience, say a 7th grader and his parents, in the comments. I’m truly curious to know some ways that you’d explain it. What methods of technology could you use? Can it be explained simply? The results of this would be useful for all of us so we can get more ideas on public engagement and communication with each other as well.

Originally written for and published on AAAS Member Central, Nov. 2013

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