June 11, 2009

Public Understanding of Science

One half scientific lobbying to increase the understanding of the value of science to society, the other half engaging the public in science to increase knowledge

For good or bad, public understanding of science becomes more and more an essential prerequisite for both getting adequate funding of research activities and finding a permanent faculty position. To my mind this is actually a good thing because the rapidly expanding Internet technology allows scientist to easily reach out to the public. (blogs in particular: it took 10 minutes to figure out how to create my own blog and here am I. The web still amazes me.)

To call for developing PUS as a task for scientists is quite different from the controversial concept of "publish or perish", a common advice how to sustain a career in academia. I admit, I like rather spending time developing my original research than writing papers. But once a paper is published, why not writing three short paragraphs to explain to the public what I did or maybe only why I did this research? I am doing both basic research carried out to increase our understanding of fundamental principles and applied research. Not always is an immediate benefit to the society obvious. But I can answer questions like: What has driven my curiosity to do this research. Why do I think this is a fundamental principle? What is my vision?

Do I spend much time pondering about these questions? Yes and no. Yes, I spent a large fraction of my time on thinking about the general significance of my work. Where will I go next, and why? This is part of my job. I will not spend much time for writing this blog. Frankly, in many cases I will just copy and paste text from my research proposals. There, I have to provide a clear flow of thoughts starting from the broadest scope of my research. Moreover, I get e-mails very other week from people asking about their migraines and what I think. So, I hope, this blog will actually safe me time for I can now refer to it.


  1. Hi, Markus! For native English language readers, the acronym "PUS" is not going to work well -- associations with gross, drippy things is too strong. But the idea is important. FriendFeed (science2.0, life scientists) has had some discussions going on the last few days about the public perception of science; one of my suggestions is very much like what you've proposed above: to explain why you do what you do, what drives your curiousity, etc. This sort of narrative is much easier for the non-scientist (or science lover who is non-expert) to follow and could bring about change in the public perceptions of and understanding of science.

  2. Mickey
    Thanks for you comment, I changed PUS, you are completely right. And let aside the associations, who will know what it stands for, so it does not really serve as a label, does it. I check FriendFeed later, looks great.