The state of California has 80 members in the state assembly. The members have varied backgrounds … They vote on up to 75 bills a day, some of which they don’t see beforehand. This pace makes careful study of the issues impossible. Of these 80 men and women, only one has a Ph.D. in the sciences. The idea of the 80 members of the state assembly voting on issues such as climate change, (genetically modified organism) laws or the energy crisis without time to study the bills and with only one scientist in the assembly is perhaps cause for concern.
This situation is not the politicians’ fault. Rather, it is the responsibility of scientists to bridge this gap. An important responsibility of scientists is to inform their colleagues and the public about what they discover. For this to be done effectively, scientists need training in the art of communicating with the public and with our elected representatives. Stimulating discussions that eschew scientific jargon can convey the story of scientific discoveries and technical advances in a way that empowers the officials in state and federal governments to make informed decisions.
Last quarter, when I heard about a class in science outreach and communication, I was thrilled and signed up. The class has given me a chance to speak with science journalists, a state senator and our local congressman about spanning the gulf between scientists and the public. Offered only once a year, the class should be a requirement for every graduate student.
With the decline in federal funding for the sciences, it never has been more critical for the public to be aware of the importance of our work. Research funding in the United States has built the strongest economy in the history of the world, a status that is at risk if we lose the trust and support of the public. As the scientists of tomorrow, current graduate students bear the responsibility to seek training in the art of science communication with a broad audience. Such communication needs to be both constant and effective.
Jon Sudduth is pursuing a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology.