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Communicating Science to a Nation Watching Reality Television

10 Jul

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at The Austin Forum on communicating science. The talk is now available online:

You can watch part 2, part 3, and the Q&A by clicking on the links.

Are Sharks Deadly?

16 Aug

For more detail, visit The Ocean Conservancy or International Shark Attack File

Watch Epic Fishing In Alaska: Brown Bear and Salmon Cam

25 Jul

You are watching exclusive LIVE footage from Alaska’s Brooks River in Katmai National Park. Every year over a hundred Brown Bears descend on a mile long stretch of Brooks River to feast on the largest Sockeye Salmon run in the world.


Would You Call Me A Scientist?

14 Jun

We all arrive into this world as budding scientists, naturally curious about everything we encounter. I’ve yet to meet a 6-year-old who isn’t captivated by whales, dinosaurs, or space exploration. They may not call their interests “science” or be able to recite the scientific method by heart, but elementary schools across the United States are teeming with would-be astronauts, paleontologists and ocean explorers.

Once upon a time (a decade ago), I studied the charismatic sea cucumber in graduate school. I modeled the way populations of these animals move and reproduce in the Gulf of Maine, spending much of my time elbow deep in sea cucumber gonads. I also worked with fishermen and the state government officials to implement better management of the emerging sea cucumber fishery. So back in 2002, sure, I would have immediately called myself a scientist.

Then I had the good fortune to serve as a science fellow for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). I was initially brought to his D.C. office to handle ocean policy. My science background helped me also take on energy and environment issues. I became comfortable and happy in the role of policy staffer because I filled an important niche.

I started blogging, writing science articles and books after taking a job at Duke’s Nicholas School. Although I have never taken a journalism course, I had evolved into a budding science writer.

Now I work at the University of Texas at Austin. At the business school I direct UT’s Energy Poll — an initiative to explore the relationship between energy and the public.

In other words, I’ve always worked in science, but also don’t fit into any traditional academic category. I don’t consider science my profession. Science is the way I live. It involves careful observation, critical thinking, patience and the courage to ask important questions, even when those questions might not be welcome.

So, would you call me a scientist? I’m not sure it matters.

This post originally appeared at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.

Must-See: Colbert Takes On North Carolina And Sea Level Rise

5 Jun

Does America Really “NEED” More Scientists and Engineers? Responding to Slate

4 Jun

According to David Plotz at Slate, “America Needs More Scientists and Engineers.”

America needs Thomas Edisons and Craig Venters, but it really needs a lot more good scientists, more competent scientists, even more mediocre scientists.

I’m not sure I agree. At least, not in the traditional sense. You see, we’re graduating more scientists and engineers than ever before, postdocs are getting longer, and there are fewer and fewer tenure track jobs available. What we’re not doing is enabling many PhD’s to succeed outside of the traditional academic system.

Over the next month, Slate plans to offer:

new methods for how to teach science and math. We’ll focus on how to keep girls interested in science…And, most importantly, we’ll collect your best ideas for how to improve American science education.

I understand these are good intentions. In fact, I have been thinking and writing about the same topics for a long time. Here are two ways to have a significant impact without adding “more” scientists and engineers to the pipeline..

  • Arm scientists with communication skills. You want a scientific workforce that can really make a difference? Prepare more scientists for work in public policy, journalism, and media. Don’t label these as an “alternative” careers, but viable, exciting, and rewarding ways to contribute where it matters.
  • So you want to keep girls focused in science? It’s not a numbers problem until graduate school – plenty of young women are engaged in science and engineering as undergraduates. It’s a retention problem! Keeping women in the academic pipeline means fundamentally changing academia to be more accommodating to us.

Of course, that’s only the beginning. Chris Mooney and I have a lot more to say on this in Unscientific America.

A New Funding Model For Science?

3 May

This is a guest post by Andy Gersick.

One of the easy-to-spot problems in contemporary American science culture is the heavy hand that public pressure seems to wield in science policy. If you find yourself chewing over the federal government’s approach to energy, environmental regulation or reproductive health, it’s hard not to conclude that our national science agenda goes where public pressure tells it to go. And you might suspect that a scientist whose work falls within the golden circumference of public enthusiasm would have a good shot at all sorts of government money. But there you’d be wrong.

Or at least you’d be wrong where I’m concerned. I’m an animal behaviorist. I study spotted hyenas in the Maasai Mara game reserve in Kenya. A good workday is eight hours leaning out the window of my truck watching hyenas, taking field notes, or running experiments in which I test subjects’ responses to recorded calls, to investigate how hyenas use vocal signals to communicate and cooperate. My own research seems a little esoteric to me, but when I tell other people about it – parents at my son’s school, friends of friends – I’m amazed at how often they say they’d like to do what I do “in another life.” At dinner parties I have the strange problem of not being able to steer the conversation away from myself. Everyone seems to agree that I and my work are a perfect general-interest topic to fuel conversation. While I used to worry that my particular fascinations would lead me to labor in obscurity over arcane questions, data from other people suggests that what I do is – broadly speaking – neat.

That apparent neatness became the crux of a dilemma recently, when I unexpectedly got invited to participate in a new venture aimed at turning public enthusiasm for science into publicly sourced science funding. A New York-based entrepreneur named Matt Salzberg contacted a colleague of mine and asked him to recommend young scientists for the launch of a sort of Kickstarter for science. The new site is called The concept is a logical extension of the crowdfunding phenomenon, which offers enthusiasts in any domain the chance to become small-time patrons. So far that model has mostly been applied to technology and the arts, but patronage has a long history in the sciences as well: the Medicis – the archetypical Renaissance patrons – supported Michelangelo but also fostered Galileo’s career.

So the entrepreneur approached the colleague and the colleague approached me. Wasn’t I looking for funds to get back to my study site? Did I want to put my research online and see who might want to pitch in? I had reservations. Asking for money seems much less dignified when done outside the formalized confines of a grant proposal. And the site guidelines suggested offering small rewards at various donation levels; would someone actually want a signed copy of one of my publications? Besides my vain fear of putting myself up for auction and not getting any bidders, I worried about the implications that patronage, on any scale, could have for the way that people do research. But – a big but – I do need the money.

Here’s some unscientific reportage on the relationship between public curiosity about animal behavior and public-sector support for research to feed that curiosity. A scan of the Science homepage for the New York Times on April 16th showed seven out of forty-one articles pertaining to animal behavior and evolution. That’s about 17 percent. Discovery Channel, the third most widely distributed cable channel in the country, devotes about 20% of its current programming to shows focused on animal behavior. So from the alleged media-elitists at the Times to Discovery Network’s big-tent science-y populists (the channel has four different reality shows about survival-ers who survive their way out of remote wildernesses each week), purveyors of science-based news and entertainment think that their audience wants to spend about 20% of its attention learning about animal behavior and evolution.

By way of contrast, I looked at the National Science Foundation’s 2012 awards in the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The program provides tuition support to graduate-level researchers across a wide range of disciplines (I should mention that I’m a GRFP fellow myself). It’s the government’s effort to “ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States.”  NSF offered 2,000 GRFP fellowships last year; three went to students researching “Animal Behavior”. Another 71 supported students in closely allied fields. Since the GRFP is the program through which NSF supports the next generation of researchers, it seems like a good (rough) index to the level of emphasis the agency is placing on different disciplines. So let’s say the NSF is devoting 74/2000ths of its funding – 4% — to the next generation of ethologists.

Mine is certainly not the only field that captures a large share of the public’s imagination while earning just a small allotment of public funds. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson – possibly America’s most winning contemporary ambassador for scientific research – has recently spoken and written eloquently of the gulf between government funding for NASA and the inspirational and intellectual value that space exploration has for our culture. And it would be silly to argue that the government should fund the kind of research I do at the same level it supports more applied fields that relate directly to infrastructure or human health. But the gap between public interest in “nature” and public funding for science about nature may be a space waiting to be filled by something like Petridish.

Furthermore, ethology may be especially well-suited to the scale and scope of crowdfunding. While my colleagues and I would love to work with the seven-figure budgets that are routine in high-profile applied fields, we can do some decent science with more modest sums of money. My own “research team” consists of myself and a part-time research assistant. My truck and my tent are indispensable facilities. I could not do the work I do if I didn’t weren’t piggy-backing on the field operation established by Dr. Kay Holekamp’s Mara Hyena Project, which has itself been supported by a rare long-term, large-scale federal grant. As a doctoral candidate I also draw critical support from a number of advisors and institutions. But the point is that dollar amounts in the thousands, as opposed to hundreds of thousands or millions, are meaningful to my current work. And if there are animal-behavior enthusiasts out there who would honestly like to play a role in supporting research by people like me, and who would actually consider a copy of a journal article to be a reward for granting that support, then possibly this is something to cheer.

I honestly don’t know yet. Here’s my project page. There are twenty-two other projects on Petridish so far. A majority are in ethology, organismal biology and ecology, but there are projects in fields like astronomy and geology as well. I encourage readers to check out the site –not just my page but anything that looks exciting. If something arouses your curiosity and makes you feel like getting involved, then by all means do become a supporter. The great promise of a tool like Petridish is that it can convert the diffuse potential energy of public wonder about the natural world into directed, kinetic force to drive new scientific work. It can turn a spark of interest into a small donation, and a cluster of those donations into real funding for research. That’s the idea, anyway. If the whole thing doesn’t quite work for you – if you look around and think, “meh” – then please leave a comment and share your thoughts. As I said, I don’t yet know whether I think this is a good funding model. Your comments would be data to help figure it out. Like many things, this is an experiment.

Andy Gersick is a doctoral candidate in Animal Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies vocal communication, social behavior and cognition among spotted hyenas in the Maasai Mara, Kenya.


Weekend in DC: The USA Science and Engineering Festival

26 Apr

Join me at The USA Science and Engineering Festival April 28 and 29 in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in DC. I’ll be on the High School Book Fair Stage: Discoveries in Science this Sunday at 11:50 am. Details here. The Festival is free and open to the public.

(See if you can spot the reference to my book..)

University of Florida Drops Computer Science Department. Really.

23 Apr

According to UF’s Dean Abernathy, cutting computer science will save nearly $1.7 million. But at what cost?

Technology is changing. Jobs are changing. And the students that emerge from the University of Florida are going to be less prepared than their peers. This decision makes absolutely no sense. Steven Salzberg makes this interesting comparison:

The athletic budget for the current year is $99 million, an increase of more than $2 million from last year.  The increase alone would more than offset the savings supposedly gained by cutting computer science.

Now, I’m not saying that UF has chosen football over science. Actually, the real villains here are the Florida state legislators, who have cut the budget for their flagship university by 30% over the past 6 years.

Fortunately, UF students aren’t taking the decision lightly. They have launched a website dedicated to saving the department, organized protests, and many computer scientists have written to UF’s president.

If you’re thinking that this couldn’t get more ridiculous, it does. Last Friday, Florida governor Rick Scott approved the creation of a brand-new public university, Florida Polytechnic University, announcing:

“At a time when the number of graduates of Florida’s universities in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields is not projected to meet workforce needs, the establishment of Florida Polytechnic University will help us move the needle in the right direction.”

Note to Scott: Cutting the computer science department from your flagship university makes it seem like STEM education is not exactly a priority. And students deserve better.

Taking a Bite Out Of Energy Consumption

16 Apr

While the United States is home to just five percent of the global population, we consume a whopping 20 percent of the world’s energy. With a seemingly endless appetite for fuel and concern over the stability of import supplies, everyone seems to be looking for a practical domestic solution. While presidential candidates, political pundits and the nation’s top engineers debate options such as offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing, renewables and the Keystone pipeline, they’re ignoring one obvious way to save energy now: reduce the amount of food we waste.

Consider: the production and distribution of food in the U.S. currently accounts for at least 10 percent of our energy consumption. That’s because energy is consumed with every step of the process. We move water for irrigation, disperse fertilizer and pesticides, and work the land with industrial-size machinery. Then there’s the processing, packaging, sorting, stocking and transportation. In fact, according to the most recent estimate, each item of food travels, on average, over 1,500 miles to your plate by land, sea or air.

Here’s the important part: between one-quarter and one-third of what’s produced gets discarded before reaching us. In other words, a lot of food never completes that long journey. Wasted food is wasted energy.

There’s food that spoils in restaurants, and in our own refrigerators. There are the edible and nutritious, yet superficially blemished, fruits and vegetables deemed unsuitable for display at the grocery store. And then there are the left-overs from our unnecessarily super-sized portions, regularly emptied into trash bins.

It all adds up. According to a recent article out of the University of Texas at Austin — where I work — at least 2 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States was simply thrown away in 2007 in the form of food waste. That’s equivalent to the energy contained in hundreds of millions of barrels of oil.

Let me repeat that. A very conservative research study estimated we threw away 2 percent of the amount of energy consumed in this country. Really. Furthermore, what gets wasted is costly as well. The average U.S. family spends about $600 a year on food that will not ever be consumed.

Of course, we can’t recover all that’s lost. We can’t even come close. But the numbers should force us to recognize that it’s time to change the way Americans produce and distribute food. That means investing in better farming practices, increased agricultural research and dedicated programs to educate consumers about food choices that will save them money.

Will it be easy? Of course not. But the tremendous international efforts currently undertaken to keep us powered up — energy exploration, research, and development — aren’t exactly a piece of cake either. So, if we truly value energy in this country, we have to figure out how to save more and waste less.

This post originally appeared at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.