August 2010

Payback Time


What if every National Institutes of Health grant recipient was required to donate one hour per year to communicate science to the general public? What if the requirement included the option of presenting a public lecture, hosting visitors to your lab or visiting a local school to talk with children? The NIH supported approximately 9,000 investigators last year. Imagine 10,000 hours of “science ambassador” activities across the U.S. over the coming year.

Some of my colleagues have responded with, “be careful what you wish for— some scientists may be terrible at this and may do more harm than good.” For those who might not be great scientific ambassadors, maybe their lab members could do the talking for them. Other colleagues have said, “don’t add more requirements to our lives.” Fair enough.

But, the National Science Foundation already may have beaten us to the punch. NSF applicants must now “describe as an integral part of the narrative, the broader impacts resulting from the proposed activities, addressing one or more of the following: how the project will integrate research and education by advancing discovery and understanding while at the same time promoting teaching, training, and learning; ways in which the proposed activity will broaden the participation of underrepresented groups; how the project will enhance the infrastructure for research and/or education…how the results of the project will be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding; and potential benefits of the proposed activity to society at large.”

To achieve broad dissemination, NSF guidelines suggest that scientists, “Partner with museums, nature centers, science centers, and similar institutions to develop exhibits in science, math, and engineering. Involve the public or industry, where possible, in research and education activities. Give science and engineering presentations to the broader community (e.g., at museums and libraries, on radio shows, and in other such venues.). Publish in diverse media (e.g., non-technical literature, and websites, CD-ROMs, press kits) to reach broad audiences. Present research and education results in formats useful to policy-makers, members of Congress, industry, and broad audiences. Participate in multi- and interdisciplinary conferences, workshops, and research activities. Integrate research with education activities in order to communicate in a broader context.” As someone not currently funded by NSF, I was intrigued to learn this. NSF is calling on scientists to share their knowledge today. They are telling us what we already should be doing. This call is not just for NSF awardees.

Explaining science to the public is very important. First, we owe it to them. Taxpayers support a large proportion of biomedical research in the U.S. and in other countries around the world. At a time when public understanding of science could use a major boost, who better to explain the excitement and importance of scientific discoveries than highly trained biomedical researchers?

The public is interested in and excited by scientific discovery. I recently gave a public lecture explaining how microarray analysis enables researchers to distinguish between different types of cancers and how this will help us devise therapies best suited for specific cancer subtypes. This is not my own research area, but it was a topic appreciated widely by my Palo Alto, Calif., audience. I invited my oncologist colleague, Gil Chu, to join me, to help answer the “cancer” questions. Tom Baldwin, a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Public Affairs Advisory Committee, hosts a monthly public lecture series at the University of California, Riverside, that is extremely popular. Indeed, so-called, “Med School for a Day” programs have taken off on many campuses across the U.S.

Contributing to public science education will benefit us all in many ways. Technological innovation, support for science research and even good health can come from a science-savvy electorate. As biochemists, we are especially well suited to educate the public in vital medical areas. Consider the estimate that obesity cost the U.S. $147 billion in 2009. That represents almost five times the annual budget of the NIH. (Imagine if even half of those funds instead were available for biomedical research!) Biochemists are experts in metabolism. We should be on center stage, explaining how the sugar in “fat-free” foods is converted directly to fat in our bodies; how calories-in and calories-burned control our weight; how our bodies have an endless capacity to store fat. We can explain diabetes and why exercise makes a difference. We can explain how to read a label on food products and what the labels mean. And, of course, we can always explain what we work on in our labs and why it is important for life.

Scientific literacy will be essential for the competitiveness of the U.S. economy going forward. If our students don’t learn the math and science needed for future technological innovation, our economy (and research programs) will fall behind. On May 28, the U.S. House of Representatives passed reauthorization of the America Competes Act; it now awaits action by the Senate. The Act includes text to “encourage all elementary and middle schools to observe a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Day twice in every school year, initiate a program to encourage federal employees with scientific, technological, engineering or mathematical skills to interact with school children on such Days; and promote involvement in such Days by appropriate private sector and institution of higher education employees.”

Part of the Act, titled “Teachers for a Competitive Tomorrow,” states that institutions receiving NSF awards under the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program should “train graduate students in the communication of the substance and importance of their research to nonscientist audiences.” How many of your programs are doing this today?

Our graduate students are hungry for opportunities to try teaching; here is a chance to put them in front of a classroom. They will need mentorship for this. And, as scientists, we will benefit from changing the perception that scientists are disconnected from, or somehow unlike, “regular” people. We can be important role models for children (and adults) who’ve never met a scientist, and we may even inspire a few to pursue careers in science. Public trust in scientists only will come when scientists engage the public and earn their trust. Volunteering now will add much to our credibility when we ask members of the U.S. Congress for their continued support of biomedical research. It’s our turn to step up and make a difference. Will you give an hour this year?

ASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer ( is a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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