When the public thinks of scientists, they probably think of Albert Einstein. After that they probably can't think of too many. Indeed, the majority of the public can't name a living scientist. There have been attempts to reverse this statistic and engage scientists with the public. Presumably, a public well versed in science can make better-informed policy decisions. At the very least, a public that understands and values science is necessary for the sustainability of science.
Research funding has stagnated over the last decade, and various programs have come under attack for how they operate and what they fund. Remember that speech when Sarah Palin said research on fruit flies has nothing to do with the public good? Such attacks, which most of us scientists might dismiss as ridiculous, reflect the naiveté of nonscientists about how science works. Why do we need to study some bird in a remote part of the world or some domain of a protein? To a scientist there are many good reasons, but to the public the answer may not be so clear, especially, when we don't bother to tell them why they should care.
Arguably, then, it is not the fault of the public that they don't know who we are or what we do and why we do it, but our fault as scientists for not communicating these things well enough. One effort hoping to promote the visibility of scientists is the Rock Stars of Science campaign. This campaign has put senior scientists and rock stars together in various advertisements. Other ways the public learns about science and scientists is through magazine articles describing scientific work in an accessible language to the nonscientist.
Grant agencies have started to require abstracts written for the public but these are typically hidden, even if unintentionally, from the public. I would hazard a guess that almost no one in the general public knows about NIH RePORTER. Thus, can we ever expect the public to understand what we do if we don't accurately or adequately convey it to them? Take for example the simplest of questions: What do scientists look like when performing experiments? Using my own bench as an example you will first notice it is cluttered with spray bottles, pipette tips, and slides. It has the necessary tools for me to do my experiments. Other benches in my lab look similar, albeit perhaps more orderly. From what I have seen this is the standard appearance of most benches in science. But looking at how scientists are commonly portrayed in the media one may conclude that science involves the following:
1. A bright color liquid (purple, blue, or green, even though such colorful liquids are rarely used in science). Surely, important science must involve these liquids rather than fruit flies or yeast.
2. Dry ice. Although dry ice is used sparingly in real labs it seems to be a ubiquitous feature in magazine articles with photographs of scientists.
3. Senior scientists helping with small experimental procedures or scientists staring in awe of some colorful liquid. If this ever actually happened I don't know if I could get anything done!
All joking aside, how the public perceives and interacts with scientists is important for the sustainability of science funding and, unless we as scientists communicate better what we do, funding will likely continue to stagnate, and the way scientists operate will continue to be attacked.
To encourage scientists to reach out to the community, ASCB is looking for scientists to submit pictures of themselves at work in the "We Are Research" campaign. We Are Research, now in its second year, offers an opportunity for scientists to show the public and Congress what it is we do. The campaign will also offer a free trip to Washington, D.C. on ASCB's Hill Day or free registration to the ASCB Annual Meeting to the winners. While the competition is only open to ASCB members, we encourage every scientist to post a picture via Twitter or Facebook of themselves (a real live scientist), their lab, and/or their bench using the hashtag #weareresearch
For more information on the competition please visit We Are Research.