• Question: There's some notion that no one cares about the gravity waves discovery. How do we as scientists, & communicators, underscore why people should care about basic science discoveries? They tend not to matter in the moment, but only over the long term.

    Asked by ihstreet to Andrew, Lindsay, Paige, Sean, Jeff on 13 Feb 2016.
    • Photo: Andrew Maynard

      Andrew Maynard answered on 13 Feb 2016:

      I tend to think about science communication/engagement as having three dimensions: enrichment, education, and empowerment.

      The enrichment comes through the thrill of learning and understanding new stuff, and expanding our sense of what it means to be humans and individuals in the the world/universe we live in. Here, basic discoveries like gravitational waves (and the science and engineering behind the discovery) can have a visceral, pit of the stomach impact for some that can be deeply meaningful to some – and I think scientists – like artists – have a social role in enriching lives in this way.

      But this isn’t for everyone. Education is more practical, and provides a tool set for increasing personal and community (Social) value – principle, education (whether formal, informal, or however it happens) is foundational to fulfillment and progress. The outcomes of basic science may not always have an immediate practical impact. But the process, and the components (how to devise an instrument that can measure gravitational waves for instance) can have a plethora of practical educational/learning outcomes.

      Then there’s empowerment, which overlaps with education, but goes beyond it. To me, empowerment is providing people with the means to influence their own futures – individually as well as socially. Basic research, if we’re not careful, can be counter-empowering to those that aren’t intimately involved in it – creating sledge and power divides and hierarchies. Yet there are ways in which citizens can be engaged in science and discovery that gives them a voice in what is done, how it is done, and how it impacts their lives, that can lead to even basic science being a socially collaborative and valuable effort.

      This idea of giving citizens a voice through science engagement and communication is tough to approach through the lens of basic research – but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Especially where that research impacts communities that are marginalized.

      The context of gravitational wave research, there are no easy answers here, apart from to say that, just because influential scientists think that something is important, doesn’t give them the right to marginalized the voices of others who they fear (quite possibly erroneously) may not agree with them…

    • Photo: Lindsay Hunter

      Lindsay Hunter answered on 13 Feb 2016:

      From the excitement on Twitter surrounding the #LIGO announcement, I think it’s hard to say that *no one* cares, but yes, I see your point. Most of the excitement in these instances comes from scientists and lay who are already convinced of the important role that science plays in our lives. For the rest of the population, for which this is a harder sell, I think it is important to realize that we need to find ways to make such discoveries or confirmation of basic science principles relevant to their lives. Most of the “explainers” I’ve seen are about confirmation of black holes and the like. Most people thought we already had good evidence of those. This is a failing of the way that we convey science in our schools. Many textbooks present basic science as being known and set in stone, so it is hard to communicate nuances later. We need to change the way that we present science without fearing that this will lead to mistrust.

    • Photo: Paige Brown Jarreau

      Paige Brown Jarreau answered on 13 Feb 2016:

      Great question – I haven’t had time to really think through this yet. But I think, whenever you can, you want to tie scientific discoveries to people’s daily lives. As a communicator, if you can answer for the reader “why do I care about this? What does it mean for ME?” then you should answer that in your story.

      The hard thing is I think some scientific discoveries just don’t really have that direct impact or human impact. Why does the average person care that we can now hear black hole merger events from billions of years ago, or even hear things from the Big Bang? The best you can do is make it sound cool for those interested in this type of thing.

      BUT I think there is another way. And that is character driven storytelling around this discovery. We relate to other human beings, not lasers and black holes. If you can tell a story about a scientist or other character involved in this, and how the discovery DID change their worldview or their daily life, or the struggles they went through along the way, then you could pull readers into this story and tell them along the way about the science bits. I haven’t really seen any compelling character narratives around this story yet. What about the person who cleans the facility or the people who take care of the lasers? What about people at the periphery of this discovery. What are their stories and how did this discovery change their lives?

    • Photo: Sean Murphy

      Sean Murphy answered on 13 Feb 2016:

      It can be difficult connecting lines between current discoveries in basic science and direct impacts on peoples lives. I think the best way to do this is to use examples of how previous discoveries have had major impacts on our lives.

      For example, the study of electricity progressed for hundreds of years before this accumulated research demonstrated how this scientific curiosity could be transformed essential tool for modern life. Basic research in mathematics have resulted in the development of computers and search engines such as Google. Einsteins theory of relativity, which helps explain the behavior of objects in space and time, seemed to be only important for talking about planets and light speed, however it now has an important role in making sure our GPS remain accurate.

      While we can’t provide examples of direct impact discoveries such as gravitational waves may have on society, we can look back at at the major impacts of other discoveries in basic science and imagine what sort of advances this one may have in the future.