Communicating the Value of Research: A Two-Way Street

Seven months ago I found myself seated across the table from a dear friend at a small restaurant in Eugene, Oregon, mere weeks from the start of my graduate career. Over dinner and a few drinks, we got to talking about the enormity of this undertaking, exploring all of the parts associated with finally going to grad school – moving, living away from home, taking classes, teaching, and, critically, conducting research. We spoke at length about the last point, conducting research, as this would be the bulk of my workload over the next six years. She pressed me on the specifics of my research, a quizzical look plastered on her face as she dug for answers – what would I be examining, how would I be examining it, how does it work. She seemed ambivalent about what I was saying – as if not entirely convinced by my explanations. Now, it is prudent to mention that I am an animal researcher, and I believe this work, while occasionally controversial, is important – employing these sorts of models allows us access to the “moving parts” of learning, memory and cognition in ways that complement and inform the limitations of other approaches, among countless other reasons.
But at that point, I had never really been pressed to think about my research in this way. To me, there was implicit value – my parents, both scientifically minded, instilled in me a respect for and appreciation of the inherent intrigue of scientific work. There was no need to justify it – adding to the volume of human knowledge was self-justifying. Consequently, I was rattled when my friend asked me, point blank – “Why?” I explained to her the above point, and still, she pressed, “Why?” Why does it matter that we can access the moving parts of these processes? What’s the point? Don’t you think there are more important things that need to be figured out? Flustered, I was swarmed by a cloud of thoughts, the majority of which were knee-jerk reactions to being challenged in this way. What do you mean, why? What’s there to “why” about? It’s science, that’s why. Isn’t that enough? Things got heated, and as I struggled to spin an off-the-cuff justification about why, in fact, my research was valuable and important, we abandoned the subject and shifted to less contentious topics of conversation. The specter of what had been said stuck with me.

Scientific communities are often, unintentionally, insular. Whether the work is arcane or highly technical, the fact of the matter is that this inaccessibility often leads to an absence of contact with those outside the field. But those in their respective fields study what they do because they have placed value on their subject matter. In a given field, dialogue is held between individuals who have a tacit understanding that they are doing important work. What we’re left with is an echo chamber, serving to foster an unchallenged sense that our work is valuable without qualification. Yes, we might have our go-to explanations to which we appeal in grant applications and at the end of discussion sections in papers, but these are often second-order explanations, failing to get at the core of why, really why, we study what we do. It’s a question almost philosophic in its nature, and in the face of problems that have wider public appeal – the environment, the economy, and others – it is easy for someone not already immersed in your field to look at the work you are doing and doubt its significance.

Ask a scientist – graduate student, faculty member, or undergraduate – anyone involved in the process of science and ask them if they think what they do is important. Almost invariably the answer is yes. Ask a layperson the same question, and you are not guaranteed the same excitement and enthusiasm. This is not to pass judgment on either group here – for some, the inherent intrigue exists, and for others it does not. However, it is in coming face-to-face with this disconnect that some scientists, like myself, are forced to give critical thought to why we study what we do and why it is valuable. A friend of mine, a social psychologist, spoke recently to a woman involved in television production at a social gathering. After a frustrating back and forth in which he explained the details of his work, she decided firmly that her work was of greater value, of more importance and significance because hers actually had a direct impact on people.

This illustrates clearly one of the problems we, as scientists, are faced with. An issue of great concern to scientific communities is public disengagement and how to combat it – how can we foster interest in the work we’re doing to secure the means to continue our work into the future (one reason something like Psychology in Action is so critically important). But I think, in facing the sorts of scenarios my friend and I have both encountered, it is critical to realize that this engagement is a two-way street. Yes, there is declining public interest in science, with greater focus oriented toward issues that are framed as more important. But this is not solely the error of the public. Getting trapped in the echo chamber, where it is a given that our work is interesting or valuable or important, where we’re not challenged to think about why the work is important in a fundamental sense, is a death blow to actually fostering that engagement. It is only in being faced directly with these insults to our sense of scientific purpose that we can establish a dialogue with the public in a meaningful way. So I challenge you, readers, scientists and non-scientists alike, to think about the work laboratories across the country are dedicating their time to and give critical thought to what they are doing. Are they saving lives? Are they advancing human knowledge? Are they doing stuff that is just cool as hell? Does it matter to you? I know I have. Science is valuable in all its forms, but it is a responsibility of ours as scientists to be able to defend that notion.