Explaining science to non-scientists
October 23, 2012 8:46 PM   Subscribe

Scientists of Metafilter: How do you answer the question, "What practical purpose does your research serve?"

This is my least favorite question I field from non-scientists. Worse than "Oh you are a plant biologist what is wrong with my roses?"

I study plant evolution for a living. What I love about this work (among many things) is asking new questions, learning things no one has ever learned before, and expanding the body of human knowledge because the world is worth understanding. I am not increasing crop yields or finding a cure for cancer.

What do you say to people who don't understand the purpose of scientific research that has no immediate applicability in the regular, non-scientific world?
posted by vortex genie 2 to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think expanding the body of human knowledge can suffice. If pressed, you can explain it as a first order, second order thing. The people doing "practical" things will someday use your research to further their own, and the busybodies will be satisfied.
posted by gjc at 8:53 PM on October 23, 2012

I study protist evolution. When people ask me that question, I've learned to wax eloquently about Beaver Fever and malaria and potential drug targets. Everybody else I know does the same thing (including on grant applications). I wish we didn't have to. I'd be interested to know what other scientists on here do as well.
posted by jlibera at 8:54 PM on October 23, 2012

Is the problem that you genuinely don't think your work serves any practical purpose at all? Or is it that you're offended at the implication that science is only good for serving a practical purpose?
posted by John Cohen at 8:55 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

As for gjc's suggestion - I tried that for a while, bringing up examples like Taq polymerase to illustrate the importance of basic research, but I found that often the busybodies weren't satisfied.
posted by jlibera at 8:57 PM on October 23, 2012

My background is in biochemistry and for my thesis, I studied the regulation of an enzyme, which isa very minor-no-one-has-ever-heard-of-it kind of enzyme. At that time, when people outside the field asked, I said I was studying an enzyme that helped the body to make a vitamin, and the vitamin was important for regulating blood pressure. All true, and understandable by everybody as something that would 'need' to be studied. I didn't elaborate on how specialized my research was within that broad field.

I now work in the medical device industry. I convert tests that are normally done in a lab remote to the doctor's office (e.g. blood gets sent out) to something that the doctor can do in the office.

No matter how specialized your research is or how it seems to you like it doesn't relate to something practical, can you think of how someone else could use the knowledge you're generating? I was never going to invent any sort of drug to regulate blood pressure or whatever, but I think it makes sense to most people that we need to understand how things work (or how plants evolve) to do things like increase crop yields (or stop invasive plants or encourage better growth of pollution-reducers, etc.).
posted by Tandem Affinity at 9:02 PM on October 23, 2012

"Answering MY SMALL QUESTION will be really useful to people who want to know about BIG, EXCITING QUESTION."

The BIG EXCITING QUESTION doesn't have to be an applied one. Could be "Why do the stars shine?" Could be "Why did the dinosaurs die off?" By answering this way you're shifting the terms of the discussion. You're rejecting the idea that all science has to lead to useful technological applications, and asking people to acknowledge that learning for its own sake is worthwhile. I find that there are some questions that are so big and compelling that people almost always do accept them as worthwhile. (In my field, linguistics, they include things like "How did language evolve," "How do children learn language," and "Could computers ever be taught to communicate just like humans?")

A variant on this move is to talk about the links between research and teaching. "My students are always asking me, why do NOUNs VERB? And, you know, it's really important for them to understand what NOUNs are like and how VERBulation works. But I didn't have a good answer. So I decided to look deeper into the VERBular system of a certain kind of NOUNage, and that's how I ended up with this project." So sometimes in talking about my own research, on the factors that affect word order in certain languages, I'll talk about how difficult it is to get used to the word order in a foreign language, and how language students always want to know why the words go in a certain order instead of just memorizing rules, and play it like "You know, kids are always asking these weird difficult questions, but as teachers we owe them a good answer."
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:04 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

It helps too to emphasize that science is a team sport. So you can say something like "Look, we want to understand how THING works. But THING has a billion different parts, and they're all really complicated. So there are thousands of us all over the world, each working on one specific part. And in twenty or thirty years, we'll be able to put all those pieces together, and then we'll really understand THING."

The message is, you know, "Our research topics may seem tiny and narrow. But it's not because we're tiny narrow people with tiny narrow ambitions. It's because we've all got our eyes on something much, much bigger and more important than any one of us can accomplish alone."

People outside academia do understand the value of that sort of teamwork, of being a crucial piece in a big machine. It's just that in a lot of research programmes the machine is so big that people don't see it unless you point out that it's there.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:09 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

I was a reproductive neuroendocrinologist. I worked on the interplay between growth factors and steroid hormones in the hypothalamus. I worked with rats and cells. I told people that there were huge areas about the control of the reproductive system that we didn't understand and maybe one day my work would help someone who was doing fertility or contraception research.

In other words, just identify something relatable. Even if you don't give a shit about the application of your research. I didn't - I just liked signal transduction and animal behavior. Doesn't stop the research from being useful though.
posted by gaspode at 9:32 PM on October 23, 2012

Oh god, one more thing and then I'll shut up.

People expect science to be inspiring. They assume that good scientists do what they do because it's jaw-droppingly awesome — and that people working on projects that aren't jaw-droppingly awesome must be sad little visionless drones who wouldn't recognize a jaw-droppingly awesome project if you dropped one on their jaw.

They often don't really care if it's useful. It's just that in pop culture the inspirational value of science is usually cashed out in terms of possible usefulness. ("Curing cancer!" "Building robots!" "Green energy!") But so when people ask about the uses of your research, you can pretend they really asked "Where is the secret little inspirational nugget of awesomeness that gets you excited about all this?"
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:34 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also remember that the people you're talking to probably also have jobs that have no immediate applicability in the regular non-scientific world. Most people work in various sorts of offices, keeping the lights on and the wheels of commerce turning. They're not finding cures for cancer either. You're in a job you love, contributing to a larger body of scientific knowledge. You aren't obligated to explain that to anyone further.
posted by judith at 9:35 PM on October 23, 2012

I agree with the advice above about how to explain the value/applicability of basic research but you also aren't required to bethat ambassador. A simple "I work on basic research. Someday my work might advance technology but that's not the part I'm interested in. How is your job/hobby/pet?" should suffice for most people.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 9:53 PM on October 23, 2012

You aren't obligated to explain that to anyone further.

You aren't required to explain it to any particular busybody, but many scientists believe there is an obligation to explain your work and its importance to the public. Especially if it is publicly funded. Explaining your scientific work, while challenging, is good practice for explaining your work to the general public, to funding bodies, and to other colleagues.
posted by grouse at 9:55 PM on October 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think "expanding the sum of human knowledge" is a totally reasonable answer. But if you want to get across to them the importance of "pure" science, you might point out that AT&T had one of the world's finest and largest pure science research facilities, back in the day, where people studied all kinds if things with no obvious practical implications. AT&T ended up with a patent portfolio that was the envy of the world. And made lots of money. Profit is usually evidence of practicality for people who insist science must be practical NOW.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:52 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Along with other scientists, I play a part in learning how the world works." I could then go into applications not so distantly connected to my own field, like (as cliched as it sounds, it's true) cancer and disease research. In your case, there are a lot of examples of how plant scientists make the world better: the knowledge you help collect, however indirectly, helps people eat, helps remediate heavy metals out of polluted soil, helps solves our energy crisis through biofuels, etc. This is because science is a collaborative effort that broadens general knowledge, and scientists of all fields both pull from and give back to this collected knowledge bank. It's all connected, however indirect or insignificant some connections might seem on the surface.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:21 AM on October 24, 2012

I like turning that question back on the questioner: "What do you do all day in your job? How does that improve the world?" The key is to ask it with the tone that suggests you honestly want to know, not that you are trying to score points.

Watching someone who files documents all day, or someone who designs advertising, or someone who works in finance or does any of a million other officey jobs trying to explain why their personal individual contribution improves lives is kind of amusing.

Just don't try it on doctors or plumbers or teachers.

(I once tried it on an aunt who unknown to me had changed careers recently. Turns out she now works six months of the year as a volunteer for women's literacy in India. Oops.)
posted by lollusc at 12:44 AM on October 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Watching someone who files documents all day, or someone who designs advertising, or someone who works in finance or does any of a million other officey jobs trying to explain why their personal individual contribution improves lives is kind of amusing.
posted by katrielalex at 1:33 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

People pay other people to do pure science for the same reason they pay people to make movies or write poems.

I'm an astronomer. My work, and the work of almost all of my colleagues, serves no practical purpose whatsoever. Anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves or lying (and in some cases doing actual harm to pure science by distorting expectations).
posted by caek at 3:26 AM on October 24, 2012

Read this comic, it will help.

I do RNA sequencing of phage pregnant Pseudomonas cells. Honest excitement is really infectious and there are the parts of that that excite my PI and I, as well as there are the parts that excited the grant reviewers who gave my PI the money to pay me.

I explain that mostly excites me is that with RNA-seq data I will be able to create all kinds of beautiful narratives of various details of how phage infections work. I'll get to discover all of the phage genes we just haven't found yet because we don't know how to look, how phages regulate their genes, how they regulate their host's genes, how they shut down their host's metabolism, what open reading frames they actually use and when, and what those open reading frames actually look like rather than our best guess. What really gets me going is sitting down with a good paper or two and a liter of coffee (generally for primary literature) or a liter of beer (generally for reviews and commentaries) and just quietly listening to the music of creation - now I get to write it and that is so profoundly cool to me. I think there is a pretty good case to be made for society supporting people like me to just be people like me doing my thing. Even if my work never directly lead to some specific thing of a value some hypothetically omnipotent comptroller could point to, my doing the work, and communicating the work to those who would understand and appreciate it, benefits us all in very real if less direct ways. Other researchers with more practical bents, having a more clear view of the nature of life, will have a much easier time framing their research questions to generate more useful answers. The educators who communicate the nature of life to students will have a clearer idea themselves. The answers I come up with, when published, will also become pretty much eternally available to anyone who ever comes up with the same questions for whatever reason. The answers I come up with are also surprisingly likely to have applications I can't possibly predict - with Taq polymerase being a pretty solid example of that sort of thing.

What really exited the grant reviewers was indeed the very indirect practical applications. The RNA-sequencing supports efforts in the lab I work in to find examples of the many host-lethal genes that phage make, these host-lethal genes could then be analyzed for what systems they shut down to see if humans have them too, their products could then be crystalized to build a 3D model of their structure, depending on how the interaction works that structure could then maybe be used as a template for making a new small molecule inhibitor, those inhibitors might be both effective at killing bacterial cells in vivo while safe for humans, and then might be commercially feasible natural antibiotics that would save millions of lives. Additionally, by making the exponentially growing number of phage genomes more useful I can help the biotech companies that have sprung up to do whole phage therapy (PDF), which could maybe save millions of lives, be more risk averse by making it clearer for them and their regulators the differences between harmless and potentially maybe harmful phages through their sequencing efforts.

This is sometimes kind of a long progression of mights, coulds, and maybes for the average layman when presented clearly and honestly so I often go with the first speil depending on context. I suspect you might also be selling yourself short on practicality, a lot of the evolutionary biologists who study macrobes that I know do. If you want some examples of evolutionary research having immense practical value, I have a bunch of ones from microbial evolution at the bottom of my profile.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:05 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would ask them to think of something they use or consume in their life that wasn't created, developed, safeguarded or improved by science and wait for their answer.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:57 AM on October 24, 2012

I usually just say something about a new treatment for cancer or something like that, most people don't really want to know and I am working on anti-cancer things so it isn't that big of a lie.

The surface chemistry project I was working on earlier was even easier, because the end goal of that was to have an implantable sensor in your blood stream to monitor protein expression levels.

The novel MRI contrast agent project was, well to make a novel MRI contrast agent that would allow for faster and more precise measurements of heart diseases.

The protein-protein interaction project was to try and cure cancer again, but wouldn't have ever have made it to the point that it would have gone into humans.

The metallotweezer project was to enable real-time visualization of cAMP and other nucleotides in a cell to see where they were being generated and metabolised.

The self-assembled tweezer project was like the metallotweezer project, except that it failed and I proved that it wouldn't have ever worked.

So I guess I usually just tell the truth, except not the nitty gritty truth as to why this approach wouldn't work yet in reality and is in the very early stages, but where I could see the project getting to 10-20 years down the road. So you're not working on increasing crop yields, but you are working on plant evolution. You could be creating a hybrid organism that is like Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan to make a new breed of superhumans able to exist on light and water for long periods of time.
posted by koolkat at 7:25 AM on October 24, 2012

I'm a string theorist. One of the things I study is a relationship between the equations of general relativity and the equations of fluid mechanics. I think it's pretty cool that we can embed solutions of the Navier-Stokes equations into Einstein's equations, but not everyone I talk to is so excited.

So for those folk, I talk about the general push towards basic science, with a history-of-physics perspective. Before the advent of quantum mechanics and relativity, it seemed like physics was mostly understood, with just a few edge cases that didn't make sense. But in the process of trying to mop up those edge cases, 20th century physics happened. Quantum mechanics underlies every computing device you've used, ever. General relativity? It didn't just calculate the advance of the perihelion of mercury-- it makes your GPS work.

Those of us working in basic science aren't building computers or designing GPS, but our work is still necessary for progress. And all of this is aside from the basic human questions (how'd we get here? how does the universe work?) and straight-up inspirational stuff, which has worth as well.

Oh, another important point: day to day, science often feels like crossing t's and dotting i's. There's lots of nitty-gritty to be done (as there is in any line of work). But since we never know which nittygritty detail will turn out to be the next edge case that changes our view of science and thus our view of the world-- gotta investigate as many as we can.
posted by nat at 7:57 AM on October 24, 2012

As a non-science person married to a biochemist, I can tell you that I ask that question because I don't understand even a little bit what my husband does all day. But he shows me pictures of G-proteins and talks about how they are important in reactions like how your cells know that adrenaline is coursing through your bloodstream and the G-protein is what tells the cells that they need to start doing something*. By putting it in terms that I can relate to other things that I know, it helps to make a bridge between my life experiences and his hard science.

So my advice is to evaluate the questioner. Are they trying to just get an insight into your work and relate it somehow to the things they know about the world? Or are they trying to challenge you to justify your existence (and your spending of MY tax money!!!!) in an arrogant way? Then adjust your answer accordingly.

*Yes, I know that's not technically exactly correct, but for me it's enough. And when I heard about the research project of the latest Nobel prize winners on the radio, I was able to say "Hey - that sounds like G-proteins" and it was.
posted by CathyG at 7:58 AM on October 24, 2012

Also, I came back in to stress the point that generally with these sorts of conversations, what can be most important is almost not even what you are saying but the way you say it and the excitement you communicate with it. Regardless of the hostility of your interrogator, one of the big things they will be cluing into, and respond to, is their perception of your perception of the importance of what you do. If, in the subtext of your answer to such a question, you communicate boredom or irritation with plant evolution, they will pick up on that and mirror it. You may not be able to change everyone's mind but, with the more hostile, if you can at least get them to the point where they can honestly bless your heart then you've at least gotten somewhere.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:16 AM on October 24, 2012

I'm a primatologist. My first-level answer is that I study primate behavior and ecology in order to put human behavior in its biological context. I generally get one of two answers - "Wait, you really believe humans come from monkeys?" or "Oh, that's cool." The "Oh, cool" answers can then be met with greater detail if people are so-inclined. This usually includes information about primate conservation, about the specific monkeys I study and why they are so awesome, and some general anthropology stuff. I feel like it's my duty as a physical anthropologist to at least *try* to do something for the anything-but-evolution types. So I explain that yes, we shared a common ancestor with monkeys back 20-some-odd million years ago, and one of the cool consequences of that is gaining a better understanding of our own behavior and anatomy and relationship with the environment. I try not to push it too much because people usually aren't particularly interested.

If I get the "WHY ARE YOU WASTING OHIO TAXPAYER DOLLARS" response, I just shrug and say that I love what I do, I think we need a real understanding of our close relatives to understand humans, and I'm lucky that the National Science Foundation agrees with me.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:53 AM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Oh...I do pure research, not applied science. The difference? I make like 10 times what those hacks do."
*hair flip*
(you didn't specify truthful answers...)
posted by sexyrobot at 10:25 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was not able to answer that question. So I stopped working in science.
posted by telstar at 4:41 PM on October 24, 2012

You study things and develop knowledge that's freely available to society-- you're adding to the library that other scientists and engineers depend on to make their inventions work in the real world. I'm sure there's a specific example or two you could find. "My work is the beginning of what leads to things like [example]."

But I also hate that question. And I do applied and translational science!
posted by zennie at 6:13 PM on October 25, 2012

I try to extrapolate information from tropical storm events to synthetic storm events so that there is a tiny idea of what could happen rather than no idea of what could happen.
posted by oceanjesse at 2:34 PM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

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