Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I Spy a Scientist

Chronicles of a Science Policy Fellow

After a long time working in labs, I am now in a workplace dominated by non-scientists. This has led to some very interesting discussions about what kind of people practice science.

I have also received comments like:

"I would have never thought you are a scientist- you are so fun."
"You are so not a geek, are you sure you are a scientist?"

This got me thinking- what characteristics do people associate with the word scientist?

I did some research and found some great articles talking about the image of scientist in the zeitgeist. In a great piece Marcel C. LaFollette summarizes the work of many authors tracking the changing image of scientists. Early in the 20th century scientists tended to be portrayed as slightly eccentric heroes who burned the midnight oil and saved the world by their amazing discoveries. This average Dr. Joe was white and male [surprise :( ].

By mid-century, the age of "Big Science" had begun. People were awed and terrified by the power of science and consequently scientists began to be portrayed as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. More Dr. Jekyll - thankfully - than Mr. Hyde. But they were still male and white.

Most adults think of Einstein when asked to name a scientist and his most famous images, of course show him with his frizzy, disheveled hair, rumpled clothing and an absent-minded, wistful expression on his face.

Studies that have looked at how scientists are portrayed in today's popular media have concluded that the image is largely positive. Scientists are mostly shown as people who work for the betterment of mankind and are people worthy of trust and respect. Most people also respect science as a profession and think scientists are the best spokespersons when it comes to explaining research findings (check out slides 16,17 and 18 from the poll).

If this true, I wonder why more scientists are not using this image to their advantage and advocating for science? or even speaking out more on issues that directly impact science and society?

What do you think?

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