Why do lab scientists resist National Science Week?

“the north wind doth blow” by John Dyhouse under a creative commons licence

It was National Science Week last week. It’s meant to celebrate the science community and their discoveries, as well as sparking nationwide interest in the sciences.

I’m a science PhD student but I only sort of half-knew it was coming up. There were no advertisements through the science faculty at my university and no one from my research institute attended the events either, that I know of.

A week that’s meant to celebrate us and get our work out there but many of us let it pass us by.

I’m trying to resist but it’s hard not to get pulled into the narrow mindset that science achievement is in the lab, all in the lab, and only in the lab. There’s an undeniable tunnel vision here that sees things like committee involvement, student supervision and science outreach as unwelcome distractions from the “true science.” Not that I blame anyone. Academia is structured with disproportionate rewards for technical publications over more accessible science communication. I appreciate that the Australian Government offers grants for this week in an effort to foster partnerships between the community and research organisations. But I’m not sure the incentive to organise communication programs is sufficient to outweigh the time taken from performing original, publishable research. The research needed to keep a lab afloat.

Of course, it’s not just the internal system that appears to be flawed. How can we properly explain what we do when competing with over-simplified demonstrations in pop culture? Crime shows showing blood sample to analysis all in 10 minutes? Not in my lifetime. I was also pretty impressed with Matt Damon’s super-scientist abilities in The Martian. Great film but not very realistic. Botanist meets chemist meets physician meets surgeon all in a day’s work. Pretty sure his abilities would have required a lifetime of degrees. If these are the expectations people have of our breadth of knowledge, I am surely going to disappoint.

So I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I want to get others interested in science: to better understand it and not necessarily blindly accept it. But without overselling the story, which seems necessary to grab attention (cheers crazy science films!), I don’t know how. I also feel guilty about “sacrificing” time in the lab for science outreach activities. They would likely have a much bigger impact on society than my petri dish muscle cell models of disease. But they have no place in my thesis. And contribute in a very limited capacity to the success of future funding applications. I think that’s a fault in the system.

Perhaps these are some of the reasons many lab scientists pay little attention to National Science Week. It’s sad. And I hope it changes. There are some pretty interesting stories out there to be told.

If you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them!