Combatting the Oncoming Anti-Science Tsunami Cloaked in Ideology

Preliminary Caution

Although this little blog outlines a possible plan that can change the course of science funding and science literacy, it is not possible to implement this plan overnight. It will probably take years to turn the system around. Academics interested in effecting changes in the system to enhance its funding base, capabilities and acceptance by the general public through increasing science outreach, must remain and succeed in the system. Therefore it is imperative to continue to play the academic game and be certain to uphold the standards of excellence demanded for moving through the ranks.

Statement of the problem

1) The general public has an appallingly low level of understanding of the universe and the world around us as well as basic biology, natural history, and fundamental principles of ecology and sustainable anything. Effective decision-making in a political or business-driven arena about the natural world and our relationship to it is thereby made almost impossible. The consequences of poor decision-making for world climate, renewable resources, finite resources, general health issues, and pollution to name but a few can be severe in the present and devastating in the future.
2) Science education in public and high schools is poorly informed and there is also a creeping anti-intellectual and anti-science tendency which results in education largely omitting or scrambling science principles in a student’s education.
3) University-level teaching of science is restricted to actual university students who enter a science course. While there is a potential to offer general understanding of science principles by science outreach or interacting with news media, in general this is discouraged in favour of refereed science papers that are used to rank hiring, promotion, and tenure candidates, and internal institutional committee work.
4) Museums are ignored by universities or at best are considered to be scientific service organizations to the university needs. In fact, museums have the only institutional mandate to offer science education on a popular basis to the broad general public from a base of actual research through to professional level interpretation and exhibits as well as outreach programs.

Changing Attitudes and Behaviour

Effecting change in a person’s behaviour is not just a matter of “convincing them.” The process takes time and involves a number of stages through which a person must pass before they are able to change their behaviour.

Stages in changing behaviour:
1) No interest,
2) Interested, but don’t know anything
3) Gaining some knowledge, but neutral attitude
4) Attitude shift, but not knowing how to be effective
5) Acquiring a tool kit to allow change in behaviour, but not ready to act
6) Behavioural change, taking action

As a scientist you have no doubt tried to discuss a topic with a strongly opinionated, really smart person who “believes” something that you know from an evidence-based set of observations is simply false or incorrect or untrue. If so, you already know how impossible and frustrating it is because they already “know” the answer no matter how powerful and convincing your argument might be.

For another person to go from no interest in your world view to taking action based on your world view is a long journey that can not be forced or it simply will not work.

Universities Interest in Science Outreach

A university mandate is complex, but the prime focus is on a combination of research and formal teaching in classes and laboratories. In some universities an added component of community service is attached to the basic mandate. This community service is almost always seen as paid extension courses for seniors or special interest groups. Universities are funded on this basis, and alumni contribute to universities on the basis of this mandate. Granting agencies normally have a narrow focus on funding research or sometimes teaching-related work that directly supports the mandate of a university. There is no obvious connection to a funding source for science outreach.

So there is no incentive for universities to support science outreach as part of their activities. Scattered efforts are often made informally by staff or even lightly funded from slush funds from an executive office.

Most universities have a PR or marketing department that presents press releases to the media, but takes no further responsibility for how it is presented or interpreted unless a staff member is invited to appear or be interviewed.

Support for universities that have direct links to health, finance, resource extraction, and applied sciences is enhanced by the special interest groups because the alumni are in fields that can be lucrative. Gathering support from alumni for basic science areas of universities is usually much more difficult because scientists are not usually in lucrative fields. Fund raisers for universities do not have a slot into which support for science outreach can be placed, so they don’t do it.

Finally, the incentive for academic staff to indulge in science outreach is usually restricted to those who have caught the interest of the media and are swept into the activity by that attention. Academic staff that attempt to reach out to the public are often pilloried by their colleagues as losing touch with real research or of misrepresenting the principles of science by over-simplifying, or sometimes, because “they are just in it for the money.” The predominant view seems to be an archaic academic philosophy that: “We just find out the facts and let other people decide what to do.” To make matters worse, fewer than half of all scientists undertake any scientific outreach of any kind. Instead the attitude is often more like: “I have a PhD and do good stuff, so fund me and leave me alone to do my research.” The academic sense of entitlement is anathema to being passionate about scientific outreach.

Criteria for hiring academic staff, for promotion through the ranks, and for judging tenure advancement are based primarily on published papers in refereed journals that have a high standing in the field. Often book chapters, symposium results, technical papers, and especially popular articles or books are given little or no credit in the rating process. Teaching is an important variable as well, but usually it is used to downgrade because of poor performance rather than to upgrade to offset lower research results for example. Points are given for contributions to the committee work of the university. Ability to bring in large grants is understood to be an important variable. These criteria are judged by peers both inside and outside the university. It is usually only after the recommendations from the judges have been received that the department head steps in. Department heads and university officials a higher levels will often use an applicant’s grant-getting ability to nuance but only rarely to override the recommendations of peer reviewers.

All this means that time spent on science outreach essentially subtracts from a professor’s ability to move through the ranks because time away from research, teaching, and grant-getting results in lower scores.

Moving Universities From No Interest to Taking Action on Science Outreach

There are essentially no chinks in the armour of a university against using its resources for science outreach. There is no financial benefit to doing science outreach and for academic faculty, there is currently a decided negative effect on their ability to move through the ranks. So the problem is systemic and potentially very difficult for science. As the anti-science tsunami gathers speed and power, science funding in academic circles will continue to decline. Once that wave hits, it is likely that support for science will plummet unless there is a solid base of public support for science to defeat the onrushing wave of anti-intellectualism and anti-science.

In a very real sense, to build that support for universities (and also museums) scientific outreach is imperative. Yet any direct support for that imperative is blocked by the combination of academic attitudes and policies that creates a disincentive to do science outreach.

But wait, there is a secret passage into the institution’s core values, policies, and practices. There is a way to indirectly influence the internal policies of all science-related universities. Universities have a long history of executives and presidencies that derive from the academic environment. Although changing slowly, it has not yet altered the long-standing practice of abrogating the effective decision-making on hiring, promotion, and granting tenure to a collegial group made up of peers from both inside and outside the institution. While recommendations from peers can be reversed by university executives, it is a rare occurrence indeed. This means that if the sciences unilaterally decide that science outreach is important and must become a part of the criteria for hiring, promotion, and granting tenure, then everyone in the system will adjust to the new reality. This cannot be done from the institutions. That would be too fractioned an approach. A broad all-encompassing approach is needed.

Because academics feel a much greater allegiance to their scientific discipline than to their institutions, and because the long-standing practice of abrogating decision-making on hiring, promotion, and granting tenure to peers from both inside and outside the institution, the science-related disciplinary societies are a potentially powerful tool to indirectly effect profound policy changes in the universities. Change however, will not happen unless there is a perceived real and immediate threat to the status quo. Fortunately the target audience is accustomed to evidenciary argumentation unlike the opponents of science. This means that an evidence-based series of presentations is likely to be one effective approach in convincing even heavily-invested senior academics that there is a significant problem that cannot simply be waited out.

A Preliminary Action Plan

The first task is to collect data to demonstrate the nature of the problem, its immediacy, its potential damaging impact, and its early-warning symptoms. Subjects that could be developed include the alarming growth of anti-science feelings, increased number of bills being introduced to remove or undermine science as a curriculum element in lower schools, lowered university research budgets, granting agencies declining ability in grant allocations, grant applications calling for a definition of applied opportunities from results, corporate resistance to fiscally difficult research findings such as the climate change deniers, rising creationism, a marked tendency for political decisions to ignore unbiased expert opinions, and a general appallingly low level of scientific literacy and lack of understanding of an evidence-based approach to problem solving. Once the data are in place, a succinct summary must be outlined with supporting data behind it.

Next, senior academics need to be convinced the problem exists and secondly that there is at least one option on the table for a workable plan to address the problem science-wide. No doubt there are many mechanism that can work, but here are some suggestions. Begin with internal groups – lunch gatherings, social media as you have been doing – to brainstorm on how to put together the overall approaches. At disciplinary society meetings, convene a series of sessions either formally or informally on the issues that are symptomatic of the need for broader general support and understanding of science. Invite at least one senior academic to make a presentation at these sessions asking him/her to deal with why there is a decline in science literacy, anti-science sentiment etc., and what should be done about it. By being on a discussion panel, for example, interest (the first step in changing behaviour) will be engaged. Once one or more senior academics are interested, use them to interest others. In the second year of the campaign, you might convene a “summit” of academic leaders to address the problem and potential solutions (some of the solutions will have been presented in the conventions earlier, but allow them to own the solutions from their summit. Use other ideas as well to involve senior academics in finding the solutions.

There are several elements that can begin to happen within the first three years. First and foremost is gradually shifting criteria for hiring, promotion, and tenure to include scientific outreach. This is a process of evolution, not revolution. If it happens too suddenly there will be a backlash. But the mechanism is simple enough. You and your peers are the people who set the criteria and review applicants. The same thing is true for the review criteria for grant applications. The reviewers are you and your colleagues. If the granting agencies (your peers) understand that one of the spin-off functions of a research grant is to enhance the distribution of the results and at the same time market the granting agencies’ good works, everyone can be a winner. Enhancing science literacy in the general population should be seen as fun, emotionally engaging, and intellectually stimulating. Use scientific societies to discuss the concept of science outreach with granting agencies, not as mechanisms to get more grant money immediately, but instead to help promote broader support for research in society generally.

Ultimately the goal is not to split the money pie in a different manner (that will cause conflict) but instead to increase the size of the fiscal pie by interesting the public and ultimately influencing politicians. Use the scientific societies themselves to develop blitz marketing the value of science as fun, interesting, and important. The results and their implications should be told in lay terms. At least for most universities, this is a difficult time for funding. There are slush funds around, but they will be pretty skinny just now, so it is not a great move just now to demand extra funds from the institutions.

The short-term goal (three years) is to convince all academic levels that there is a financial problem driven by a general lay-public lack of understanding about science and science’s functions, that the problem has several levels of solutions, all of which are addressable by the academics and their peer groups within the societies and the universities.

The medium-term goal (three to five years) is to start up the process on a broad national and international level.The target audience for immediate effect is partly internal: university executive and board level projects to fund-raise to support science outreach (board-level fundraising ideas for science outreach are universally popular). These will attract political attention and support as well because it is not seen as confrontational.

Finally, in the long-term goal, find partners for the effort. Museums can help. Use science and natural history museums as partners in this effort. In general, science and natural history museums see part of their role to be purveyors of science literacy. They aim at your target audience in an informal learning environment, and for the most part they are quite good at it. They focus on kids and “family”. They have research, interpretation, exhibits, and outreach programming. They are well-equipped to assist. Museums also augment junior curricula as well.

Once this whole concept is well-enough defined to engage them; target celebrities if possible. Also go for very wealthy people who have some sympathy for or use science in the background of their accumulation of wealth. This is a difficult, but very lucrative market for support funding. Establish a project that has very well-crafted catch phrases (very wealthy people usually make decisions with 7 seconds of the start of a presentation). I looked up the Forbes list of billionaires (nearly 1,300 of them). Many are truly untouchable or not people you would want to admit supported your efforts, but some are quite possible. An example might be to set up the project (give it a great name that is super easy to remember and which evokes the promise of a brilliant future) and target 25 billionaires for a $2 to $10 million donation each.

The problem of low-level science literacy and low level of empathy for science- or evidence-based discussion and decision-making has developed over a long period of time. It will take a long time to solve the problem.

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