Perhaps the real problem is that we are all guilty of systematically underestimating the public’s appetite to be meaningfully engaged in science. Consider that millions of gamers donate CPU time to distributed computing projects like Folding@home despite the pinch of electricity bills. Some actually purchase separate computers solely to contribute more CPU cycles to research they find fascinating. How many of them would jump at an opportunity to participate actively in that science, to have it be more than just a pretty screensaver?
This experience really has forced me to think hard about how we, as scientists, go about fulfilling our mandates to be involved in public outreach. Should we really pat ourselves on the back when we open our lab doors to straight-A high school students from dual-doctorate households or ambitious premeds looking to buff their resumes? And when we dazzle little kids with explosions and freezing flowers in liquid nitrogen – is that education or just entertainment? Is this really what the NSF has in mind when they ask us to detail our broad impacts to society?
Meanwhile, out in cyberspace, stay-at-home moms and college dropouts have arrived at their own, home-grown scientific method for creating RNA designs that work – despite being invisible to traditional venues of science education. Maybe, someday, one of these gamers will consider a career in science. Whether or not that occurs, the NSF – and the public that funds it – has gotten a fantastic return on this investment.
Alan Chen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an NIH-NRSA postdoctoral fellow in the department of physics, applied physics, and astronomy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.