Science: Then vs. Now
We often forget that Charles Darwin, known for his theory of evolution, was a geologist. There was a time when scientists could draw inspiration from marginally related fields and redefine science knowledge. Now, though multidisciplinary collaboration is strongly encouraged, most scientists are deeply entrenched in highly specialized silos. Because of this hyper specialization, research programs can become lost in their own focused research questions (and perceived self-importance) leading to science becoming increasingly inaccessible to the public. This disconnect is noteworthy because at the end of the day, most science is funded by the public.
Your money at work
Scientific research is important and probably deserves more funding than it currently receives. At the same time, it is easy for researchers to lose sight that their research is funded by the public and as such, they should offer a tangible return on investment. This can be as simple as accessible scientific communication or anything that concretely demonstrates the value of scientific research to a broad audience. Keeping this perspective of demonstrating a return on investment for the public is especially essential as science delves into more abstract and specialized concepts.
Having a mission for your lab or research program is an excellent tool to help the public understand your science. A well-designed mission can also guide research, as each discovery has several follow-up questions, each leading in a different direction. An effective mission will help guide follow-up research projects.
Research can go in any direction, having a mission helps guide and determine the direction of new research. Performing research aligned with a mission will make telling a compelling story for grant applications easier. It can also serve as a barometer on whether a funding opportunity is a good fit or not, potentially saving time. From an external perspective, a well-articulated and accessible mission can convince a journalist of your expertise or help persuade a potential student. Having an effective mission also allows other academics and industry to understand your lab’s direction and enables them to identify potential collaborations.
Defining our mission
Our original mission was written in the context of a grant application. It provided adequate direction for the context in which it was written, but it was not succinct or actionable. Though part of a successful grant application, it provided little real-world guidance and it was written in jargon-heavy scientific language. When we started redesigning the website, I decided to write a new more effective mission. Our program (as with any large-scale collaborative research program) poses the challenge of combining several existing and diverse research programs. Since we have a defined funding lifespan, we cannot realistically impose our program objective on our researchers. We had to simultaneously look at what our researchers were doing, why we were chosen to receive funding, and what were the government’s expectations at the end of the program.
Effective scientific missions
Here are my two favorite scientific missions that I used for inspiration (followed by ours):
To improve people’s lives by making machines smarter. To do this, the team focuses on constructing models with high degrees of flexibility that are capable of learning their own features, and use data and computation efficiently.
To make fundamental discoveries and to develop new technologies that will enable doctors to cure, prevent or manage all diseases during our children’s lifetime.
To advance vision science through computational and biological research perspectives, and to produce applications that generate positive health, societal, technological and economic impacts for Canada and the world.
Define your lab’s mission
Crafting a mission will take time, but when done properly, it will provide guidance to future research activities and become a fundamental tool to communicate your value to your investors - the public.
You can start defining your mission by answering these questions honestly (and don’t forget to share your mission in the comments):
- What type of research are we doing?
- What type of impact do we want our research to have after publication?
- Who benefits from our research?
- What are our strengths?
- What are people in the lab passionate about?
Once you have a draft mission, refine it with the following questions:
- Does this mission apply to our current research, or to the entirety of our research program?
- Could a non-academic understand it?
- How does the research we are planning fit with this mission?
Does your lab have a mission? How has it been helpful?