How Do We Make Scientists Human?

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | April 2, 2015, 3:05 pm EDT
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There are hundreds of thousands of scientists in the United States. Add the engineers, medical doctors, economists, public health professionals, and others and we’re talking millions. Millions of experts who could use their knowledge and training to help make sure that public policies are informed by science. And yet, many people think they don’t know a single scientist. So how do we bridge that gap?

A lot of people think that scientists are one-dimensional, and just care about numbers, or beakers, or lab coats. And it can be a bit shocking when they find out otherwise. It’s like when you’re a kid, and you see your teacher at the movies, and you just can’t believe it.

UCS has run successful campaigns in the past to show the human side of scientists. But to further build resiliency to misinformation, and to better equip people with information they need to make personal and societal decisions, we have to better connect scientists and communities. We show their humanity by helping them engage with, and learn from, the people around them.

Kids were asked to draw a scientist before and after they met with scientists at FermiLab. A conversation with a living, human scientist can make a profound difference. Image courtesy of Fermilab.

Kids were asked to draw a scientist before and after they met with scientists at FermiLab. A conversation with a living, human scientist can make a profound difference. Image courtesy of Fermilab.

That starts with the UCS Science Network.

There are 18,000 experts on that network. They are physicists and psychologists, engineers and economists. There are members in their 90s and members in their 20s. Some work for private companies. Many are academics. A bunch work for governments or non-profit organizations. Others are retired.

What they have in common is that each has raised their hand at some point to say that they want to use their expertise to make the world a better place.

We do a pretty good job of talking about the many successes network members have helped us achieve, and how their discoveries have helped our world respond to emerging threats. But we have focused less on the individuals behind that success. So last summer, we hired Audrey Melville as an intern through the Stanback Internship Program to profile a number of scientists who are on the network.

So, these are their stories, as they say on Law and Order.

Audrey had a lot of fun interviewing these scientists. I’m not at all surprised. I love meeting members of the UCS Science Network because each one has a unique and fascinating story to tell.

There’s Thzaira Charles, an engineer with the Port Authority of New York And New Jersey. Melinda Hemmelgarn, a registered dietician in Missouri. Peter Pella, a physics professor at Gettysburg College. Darshan Karwat, an aerospace engineer with a fellowship at the Department of Energy.

I don’t need to tell these stories in a blog post, though. They’re already well told here.

So check ‘em out.

Some of these stories highlight scientists whose work has been more local. If you’re a scientist who has engaged in his or her community, or a representative of a local organization that has worked with scientists, we’d like to hear about your experiences. What worked? What didn’t? What were the challenges and surprises? What was the overall impact of your endeavor?

This will help us prepare for a special event we’re planning in September, and will help us better connect scientists with meaningful and effective local engagement opportunities. So if you can, please fill out this survey.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags: , , ,

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  • David Hancock

    So what do you think about this idea I’ve been hearing lately, that the scientific community pressures scientists into accepting assumptions and theories that they don’t neccessarily agree with personally? Do you think ideas like these have a negative impact on the perception of scientists in the community?

  • Clark @ CSPO

    Genetic engineering? 😉

    Seriously, maybe telling stories about scientists will make them appear more likable, but it’s only by getting them out of the lab and actually meeting real people–becoming part of a community that’s larger than the professional community of scientists, immersing them in other people’s lives, cares, hopes, fears, loves, and hates–that makes an individual more human.

    • Michael Halpern

      Totally. It starts with stories, but we have to do more. That’s why we’re trying to figure out what works best when it comes to connecting with local communities, and are asking scientists and communities alike to give us examples of collaborations and lessons learned. The survey mentioned above, in case you missed it:

      We want to be as effective as possible at giving scientists the skills they need to be successful with outreach and community engagement, and in making those community connections happen, so we’re trying to collect the data that will help us do so.