The Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a fascinating study last week comparing the attitudes and perceptions of Science between the American public and scientists. The study shows startling differences in their views on a variety of science-related issues. In fact, there's alarming, unexpected data that should signal a warning to the science community which has consequences for us all.
The future of scientific research depends on the support of an engaged American public, and right now, that same American public doesn't trust scientists.
Wait ... what? How is this possible? We live in an era of smartphones, smart TV's, smart homes, and even smarter cars. As consumers we are fascinated by technology spending more each year on new devices. As businesses and entrepreneurs we depend on technology for developing new enterprise and innovation.
That's the problem.
We are spending plenty on technology, actually becoming addicted to it, but we're not investing enough in science. Theoretical physicist Edward Teller once said, "The science of today is the technology of tomorrow." Every gadget, every device, every bit of technology we interact with every day is the result of years of research. Scientific research. We are captivated by the experience of an iPhone, but we don't trust the scientific data, the empirical evidence, behind climate change.
I recently came across a post by Gemma Milne on her blog, Science Scene London. In the article she explains the difference in public perception of technology and its attitude toward Science. I've seen similar articles before and most people would agree there's a divide, but she shared this little bit of visual communication that presents an astonishing reality.
Try this for yourself. Do a Google image search for the word "technology" and you'll see images like this ...
Now, perform another image search using the word "science", and the results are shockingly different ...
As Ms. Milne writes, "... it’s clear what the difference in perception is: technology takes me into the future; science takes me back to school. Why is Science still perceived as an activity reserved for kids in classrooms?"
On the surface, the disparity is obvious. Technology is a product that you can have today, while Science is a discipline that takes time to develop, and we are impatient creatures. Below the surface, however, like the proverbial iceberg, Science and the knowledge we gain from it lasts forever, while according to Moore's Law technologies become obsolete every 18 months. The greater value to humankind should be obvious. Why isn't it?
Umberto Cannella wrote a post-doc thesis, "Who cares about physics today?" In it he describes the problems facing fundamental research and engaging the public. From a physicists perspective, his abstract is quite enlightening, but then he continues to write a full and comprehensive marketing strategy that includes online outreach, video content, academic partnerships, collaboration with the arts, and web and mobile experience design.
Much of this is already in practice to some degree, but not at a level that is making enough of a difference. Mr. Cannella's thesis is incomplete. A marketing strategy for Science needs to validate a problem within a specific market, identify a reproducible practice to analyze metrics for performance, and most important, it needs an actual, paying client to generate revenue to sustain itself.
Can this be done? Should this be done?
I attended the Collaborate conference in Washington, DC a few weeks ago and shared these ideas with anyone who would listen to get some feedback, includingWalt Mossberg, Co-Executive Editor at Re/Code and former Tech Columnist at the Wall Street Journal, and Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States and former Vice President at Google [X]. Everyone agreed that scientists, universities, and institutions would benefit from having a 'creative agency' to support their communications, and all believe the challenges were worth the investment of our time and effort.
First, you have to connect people with the problem. As Ms. Smith put it, "Why is it OK to say 'I'm not math or science person', but we'd never say 'I'm not a reading or writing person'?"
Science needs a new plan to regain the public trust, but more than that, I believe it must inspire the imagination of the world to launch a new era of learning, exploration and discovery.
Science should use the very technology it helped develop to design a better customer experience, create new platforms for the public, and share its knowledge in open forums.
Science has an amazing story to tell. It brings all the drama, comedy, romance, suspense, mystery, action and yes, science-fiction, that audiences want to experience. We all have a desire to witness the impossible.
That's what Science does. That's why Science matters.
People will marvel at the art of science in a 21st Century renaissance of innovation. Author and President of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson, wrote,"This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors ... creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with the sciences, and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both."
I'd love to read your feedback and get your thoughts on science, the public and creative ways to build meaningful engagements between both.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn February 5, 2015