My friend and boarder, M, is in the process of applying for a green card. It behooves this country to keep her within our borders because (1) she’s a pretty awesome lady, and (2) she does the kind of scientific research that changes textbooks overnight. Point (1) has always been obvious to me, but point (2) wasn’t until a couple weeks ago when she asked me for help in reviewing her “layman’s summaries” of her research papers.
As part of her green card application under the scientist category, she has to write these “layman’s summaries” in such a way that any Joe Shmoe bureaucrat with a rubber stamp can understand what she does and her intrinsic value to this country. Unfortunately, because she’s so busy with doing the research and because her field is very difficult to translate into some form suitable for public outreach, her “pop sci” versions of her papers were incomprehensible.
Now, I’m not going to argue for or against that application requirement here. But I am conflicted on her inability to “pop sci” her research. I did public outreach for years (in astronomy and astrophysics) and have a lot of practice in breaking down complex scientific topics into easily comprehend-able nuggets for whomever.* M has no experience with that. Is it because her field of research (RNA mechanisms) is so complex and cutting edge that no one has figured out a way yet to bring the latest research to the masses? Or is it a failing of the research field itself that doesn’t feel the need to prioritize public outreach the way my field does?
The thinking I’ve started to settle on with this question is that her field is sorta right–for now–to not be too worried with public outreach because the research she does leads almost directly to new drugs and health treatments and all sorts of other great and beneficial things (including just simple knowledge about how the world works). Her field leads to results that we can put on a desk in front of us and poke with a pencil. My field can’t do that (that is, if we decide to set aside the whole “knowledge about how the world works” thing). Which makes astro public outreach a huge marketing scheme (“scheme,” not “scam”).
I’m certainly not going to apologize for being a part of a huge marketing machine that feels it needs to constantly justify itself to get research dollars. I drink the Kool-Aid by the gallons, and I will never stop being thirsty. But bringing this back to M, if her field decides that it’s beneficial to focus more on draining every drop of blood from that bleeding edge and to shy away public outreach–and I think I agree with that–is it fair that she’s now being asked to dumb down her Science paper on her green card application? She has no experience doing this, and so she rightly struggles with it. That’s tough, and right now I can’t answer that without contradicting myself earlier.
I’m still trying to square this in my head, so my apologies if this is starting to sound circular or nonsensical. Basically, it all boils down to this: kids, keep with the math. Math is awesome, and high school and college calculus doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how awesome it is.
* Just the other day I launched into an impromptu lecture on the scientific and social advances made by Tycho Brahe at the end of the 16th Century when the question of the name of one of my cats’ came up. It just comes so easy to me….