Science as a public collective: Everyday ways

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This blog was originally published on Medium here

In my last post, I called for a “more inclusive, proactive, and engaged science,” or science as a public collective. In this post I want to explore some everyday ideas of what that can look like in practice, but before I get going I want to acknowledge this is not comprehensive. Rather, think of this piece as a starting point, with more to come in the future.

Consider the act of conducting research: The field, the samples, the boots and foul weather gear, the identifying, the counting… The experiment, perhaps a tank, a light, a microscope, a petri dish or some combination of them all… The reading, the writing, the publishing, the presenting…

The all of it that we so rarely think about in the tunnel vision pursuit of that elusive conclusion, as if that is the only part that is valuable. And more than that, only worth the journal in which it is published. Then if not published in some journal, it might as well not have happened. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that is wrong, and yet it still seems to bound our world.

To me, the act of conducting science is like poetry. The best experiments elegant in their structure and complexity, each step (or line) yielding new insights about this world I love, and myself in it. I know I’ve said it, but conducting science is an act of hope when you contextualize it in the frame of learning how to be, how to act in balance, acceptance, and kindness with nature and each other.

The question then is how to open the world of science in all its possibilities with neighbors and family, stakeholders, managers, policymakers, and more?

This to me is where process wonkiness can be woven in: Think of research as a series of steps and decisions, with milestones and ultimately products. In the course of that chain, what communities reveal themselves?

Start at the beginning

If you are designing your research project (acknowledging that graduate students often are not), consider seeking input on the project from those you expect to benefit from or use it. How might that change the project? Could it alter your approach? Often the answer is yes.

I have observed it do everything from revise the research questions and/or methodological approach to informing the timing of putting out research results. I have seen it lead to broader collaborations between researchers and managers in doing the research itself or providing guidance and advice on the progress of research.

But even if it doesn’t alter the research project, by involving others from the beginning you invite their engagement, you have opened a two-way dialogue, a relationship that positions the project to be an exercise in shared discovery. And that alone greatly increases its potential to impact people in a positive ways.

Conduct collaborative research

I collaborated with Maine ground fishermen on my Master’s research in oceanography, which I wrote about in a previous post. The experience vastly expanded my scientific world, including forcing me to begin thinking about who science is for. The answer is all of us.

We all deserve to be part of it — driving it, owning it, conducting it, learning from it, benefitting from it. During our days out on the boat we spent long hours alternating between sampling with a sediment grab and talking, then filtering the samples, then sometimes arguing, then more sampling this time with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV)… him trying to hold the boat still as that little ROV leapt along the sponge pocked bottom, spooking octopi and groundfish alike. We never resolved anything except the project itself, but that was our job and we did it together.

I can only speak for myself when I say that partnership changed me. I realized I wasn’t and didn’t need to be the smartest person in the room (long my worry — was I smart enough for any of this?). It taught me how to wield my skepticism and analytical thinking as a tool in service of the public rather than a platform on which to lecture others.

Enter communities with humility

Research is inherently place-based, in communities alive with culture and concerns. Perhaps your research addresses one of those concerns. But even if not you are a guest in their natural home, and in a way, taking from it to give to the wider world, to give to yourself in the form of advancing your career.

There are so many ways to give back. Meet with community leaders, share what you’re doing and explore how to share. Perhaps offer a community seminar, or make a one-pager summary of your project to share at public meetings. It may be as simple as being willing to talk and answer questions with passersby when out in the field. The larger point is to be respectful and aware of local traditions and customs.

Follow and contribute to decision processes

Often we are studying species of economic or cultural interest. It only takes a bit of online research to understand the process by which those species are managed, and where science can contribute. In my own Master’s research, which was on the impacts of groundfish trawling on bottom habitats in the Gulf of Maine, I found myself attending the New England Fishermen’s Forum and following the New England Fishery Management Council meetings.

I came to understand the Council process and where my research could help. After I graduated I formatted my thesis for submission for review by the Council’s habitat committee. And even if your research is not completely in line with management, simply showing up at meetings, networking and talking with people is incredibly valuable to your personal growth as a scientist.

Lay a foundation

All of this might not sound like much, but the little everyday steps are what puts us on a path towards closing gaps between science and society. We all have to start somewhere, and that will differ for each of us depending where we are in our careers and research. The purpose is to think long term: Brick by brick, conversation by conversation, lay the foundation for a richer scientific world.

Stop and think: What immediate opportunities are before you right now? I bet the answer contains multitudes.

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