The following is a courageous piece by one of my friends, Dr. Michael D L Johnson (@) – who works in the Department of Immunology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Michael and I met when he invited me to speak at St. Jude on the value of social media outreach for researchers. He blogs at https://blackscienceblog.wordpress.com
Below, he presents his State of the Scientific Union. I appreciate his willingness to let me republish it in its entirety. It’s an honest piece that is guaranteed to make you feel something.
I look forward to your reaction in the comments.
State of the Scientific Union
Ladies and Gentleman of the nation, it is with great disappointment I say that we, the scientific community, have failed you. We have hidden on our false intellectual pedestal. We throw around phrases like “you wouldn’t understand” and when we do try to explain, we start so far down the rabbit hole, it might have been better if we did not speak at all. For that, we cannot blame you for your ignorance. We cannot blame you when you become complacent about the importance of science, or of the lack of support (read funding). We cannot continue to complain to our colleagues, preaching to the choir, because in this case, the choir is not above reproach.
We as scientists need to begin to cultivate relationships with our surroundings, not look down on them. We need to stop combating faith, but instead, find common ground and work together (we are not enemies). We need to work with politicians, instead of always calling them out for their attack on science (again, we are not enemies). We must educate the public. The job of a scientist has changed. Each one of us is a scientific ambassador, whether or not we want to answer that call.
Above all, we need to stop saying “we need to” and simply just go “do.” If your involvement is minimal with the public, it is likely that your impact will be as well. Please allow me a moment of clarification, though, we all have gifts and we naturally like to work within them, but changing the status quo will require us to step out of our comfort zone. Some scientists are better in the lab, then in the public eye, but if that is you, find a constructive way to express, or have someone else express, the value of your contribution. Some people are much better in the lab, and some can hopefully do as I am right now, which is sounding the alarm, leading the charge from the trenches, and not standing on the hill. Reach out and reach often.
Moving forward, and moving now, I have a task for you. Find your “why.” Dig deep and truly reflect on why you do science. When you have it, write it down so you can draw inspiration from the reason. Next, express that to others. Notice I did not ask you to tell them what you do yet, or how you do it, I simply said just tell the why. If the public doesn’t know why we do something, then they will never care what it is that we do. If you find – and communicate – your why, I will guess that they will want to know “the what” of your science. But again stand firm, and state first the why. Why is it important to them, why is it relevant to them? Frame your problem in such a way that the listener wants to know what can be done. Then and only then, should you tell them the “what” and “how.”
Dr. Michael D. L. Johnson received is B.A. in Music from Duke University and “smoothly” transitioned to obtaining his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After completing his dissertation in bacterial motility and attachment, he went to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the Department of Infectious Disease to study how bacteria eat and get rid of toxins during bacterial infections. He now works in the Department of Immunology studying newly discovered ways of how the body eliminates harmful pathogens. Dr. Johnson hopes to one day lead his own scientific laboratory while continuing to stay involved in science outreach.