Does Plant Science need a Sagan or Sheldon?

Here’s a slow reac­tion to a post at ASPB Plant Science Blog by Ian Street, Communicating Plant Science in the Digital Age. It’s tak­ing me a while to respond, because I think it’s a good post — but I don’t quite agree with it. However, every time I think I’ve worked out why I don’t agree with it, I find I don’t agree with myself either.

In the ori­ginal post, Ian Street holds up Neil deGrasse Tyson as an example of someone who is an excel­lent com­mu­nic­ator and points out there’s no plant sci­ence equi­val­ent. Here I start to feel a bit of a weasel. In terms of audi­ence and fame he’s right. However, if you’re look­ing for people who can com­mu­nic­ate plant sci­ence in an excit­ing way, there are plenty of research­ers who could do a sim­ilar job to Tyson, given the oppor­tun­ity. I think there are plenty of good com­mu­nic­at­ors in bot­any, but they don’t have the audience.

I can see why not hav­ing a Plant Tyson is a prob­lem, but I’ve not been sure that broad­cast­ing is the answer. I don’t think astro­nomy is pop­u­lar because Tyson is a good com­mu­nic­ator. I think it’s the oppos­ite way round. Tyson is such a good com­mu­nic­ator because Astronomy is so pop­u­lar. That might sound odd, but ima­gine if Tyson decided he’d had enough and was retir­ing to Tahiti, would Astronomy cease to be popular?

No. There’s a demand for astro­nom­ical talk­ing heads. There’s someone almost as good who could do the job. The demand for pop­u­lar astro­nomy means there’s almost cer­tainly a pool of tal­en­ted com­mu­nic­at­ors that the media could draw upon. Tyson is at the top of a com­pet­it­ive field. There are plenty of tal­en­ted plant sci­ence com­mu­nic­at­ors, but lack of demand means we con’t see them so much.

I think a top plant sci­ence broad­caster lies at the end of the road to mak­ing bot­any more pop­u­lar, it’s not part of the jour­ney itself.

Sheldon Cooper

Is CBS’s Sheldon Cooper the face of Science in the 2010s?

That works as far as it goes, but else­where I think Ian Street proves me wrong and gives an example where broad­cast­ing does work. He men­tions The Big Bang Theory that, love it or hate it, human­ises physicists.

In the UK it’s been cred­ited with an increase in the num­ber of phys­ics stu­dents. For a sim­ilar effect see archae­ology and Indiana Jones. You can’t learn phys­ics from The Big Bang Theory any more than you can pass a course in archae­ology with Indiana Jones — but the lack of facts hasn’t pre­ven­ted them from chan­ging how people value their respect­ive sciences.

Street also points out the import­ance of using com­edy to take the edge of hard sci­ence. I think he’s hit on a key point there. It’s not simply a mat­ter of mak­ing plant sci­ences pres­ti­gi­ous, you also need to make them like­able. Yesterday we had a post on a genet­ic­ally engin­eered plant that might help fight Ebola. It’s a huge tragedy where plant sci­ence could make a major con­tri­bu­tion to sav­ing lives. But I’m also will­ing to bet that anti-vaxxers will decide it’s a secret Monsanto project.

In a per­fect world Hollywood would solve the image prob­lem for us, but that’s not a prac­tical solu­tion. So instead of aim­ing for mass audi­ences, it might be more reas­on­able to look to the small things people can do. Ian Street says that pop­ular­ising sci­ence is a core part of sci­ent­ists’ mis­sion. This may be a cul­ture dif­fer­ence, but in the UK it is emphat­ic­ally not. The only things that mat­ter are sci­entific pub­lic­a­tions. Departments make pos­it­ive noises about out­reach, but when it comes to assess­ments time spent doing Outreach can be viewed as Time Not Working.

If out­reach suc­cess is all-or-nothing, then in this situ­ation the vast major­ity of res­ults are going to be noth­ing. If there were sup­port for small vic­tor­ies, then hopes need not rest or a Sagan nor a Sheldon. Avoiding invest­ing in a few per­son­al­it­ies could have bene­fits. Not least, because it means sci­ent­ists don’t have to just look like me, they can look like you and your neigh­bour too.

Quite how this is going to be put in place is dif­fi­cult, but I think what Ian Street and the ASPB’s Digital Futures Initiative might well be a step­ping stone to sup­port for many plant sci­ent­ists. Another event to cheer is Kevin Folta, who’ll be doing a Reddit AMA this afternoon.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

5 Responses

  1. michael says:

    James Wong

  2. Judith Bush says:

    Nalini Nadkarni’s TED talk http://​www​.ted​.com/​t​a​l​k​s​/​n​a​l​i​n​i​_​n​a​d​k​a​n​i​_​o​n​_​c​o​n​s​e​r​v​i​n​g​_​t​h​e​_​c​a​n​opy points to another many-small-victory path to bios­cience out­reach and com­mu­nic­a­tion: find the cul­ture shapers and invite them to par­ti­cip­ate. One reason i think this is going to be far more effect­ive is that media is seg­ment­ing: i do not believe the impact of TV shows is nearly as sub­stan­tial as it was thirty years ago.

    Games are a huge industry, cut­ting into the pre­vi­ous enter­tain­ment share held by TV. I won­der about (appar­ently) highly pop­u­lar games like farm­ville and plants vs zom­bies which had no bios­cience con­tent, and other games (i am not a gamer) that used evol­u­tion.… Are there game com­pan­ies look­ing for fresh ideas where bio-concepts could be made more visible?

    just brain­storm­ing over lunch.….

  3. Rachel says:

    It’s hard to beat Sheldon and his out­spoken­ness on all sub­jects includ­ing bio­lo­gists. http://​www​.rjcarol​.com/​2​0​1​3​/​1​0​/​2​9​/​g​o​o​d​-​r​e​a​s​o​n​s​-​t​o​-​w​a​t​c​h​-​t​v​-​p​a​r​t​-3/
    Dr Marty Jopson, sci­ence bloke on the One Show and at events around the UK, is a plant sci­ent­ist who would be enter­tain­ing as a com­mu­nic­ator of all things botan­ical. http://​blog​.marty​jop​son​.co​.uk/

  4. Alun Salt says:

    I agree James Wong is good, and there are plenty of others.

    I like Springwatch a lot. It’s mostly fur and feath­ers but they do make a point of pro­du­cing a sub­stan­tial plant item once a week. I think last series they covered poppy ger­min­a­tion, without any ref­er­ence to anim­als in a seven-minute slot. As a wedge for plant sci­ence in front of a primed audi­ence, it’s excel­lent stuff.

    I’m sorry to say I don’t watch the One Show, so I’ll have to look out for Marty Jopson.

  5. Jeremy says:

    I’ve been listen­ing to BBC R4’s Plants: from roots to riches series, and while I was glad to hear that it was hap­pen­ing, I now find myself hop­ing that it doesn’t actu­ally put a lid on all future explor­a­tions of bot­any. “We tried that, didn’t work,” I can hear man­age­ment saying.