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.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.