Peer-Review vs. Public-Review
As someone mentioned to me a few weeks ago, in the world of academia and research, publications in peer-reviewed journals are the currency by which scientist live (or die). Career promotions, salary, funding and notoriety are all based on the quantity and quality of our publications. This is not a post about the merits or problems of peer reviewed material. This is a post about the acceptance of a much larger group of individuals; that is, the public.
The vast majority of funding for research in the United States comes from the tax dollars that people like my parents, my neighbor, my mailman and I pay to the government. That money is then reallocated to different areas of our nation with a small portion of it being reserved for research endeavors. Setting aside the fact that the people making these allocations of tax dollars for research have almost no scientific background, we (as researchers) are left with the ultimate responsibility of utilizing public funds in a manner that is of the most benefit to the public at large. Unfortunately, in my experience there is an undue mistrust of researchers. And I am not alone in this.
There are two ways to approach this problem, bury our heads in the sand or reach out to the public, which is ultimately the group that allows our research to progress. While I have seen much of the former, I have also seen excellent examples of the latter. In my opinion, only reaching out to and involving the public in the scientific process will lead to the opening of minds and subsequently the government coffers.
I grew up in the city in which I am now working/studying, my mother is heavily involved in local politics, and much of my family (four generations, in fact) has lived in this area. My personal background as well as my education allows me to talk about what I do on a daily basis with people outside of the scientific realm. As soon as I mentioned that I am a veterinarian at a renowned human cancer hospital and research center, eyebrows immediately raise a few millimeters. In my mind that reaction is nothing more than an invitation to talk more about what I do. Sometimes that conversation lasts five minutes; sometimes it turns into an hour-long conversation over dinner. In either case, it is a conversation that needs to happen far more often than it does.
When we write, we write to convince the reader of something. Along with that convincing we hope that some action will follow. As I am not the world’s best writer, I will spell it out for you: Take more time to talk to the public about what you do. Talk to your family, your neighbor, your mailman about your research. Remember, they are the people footing the bill.