Science outreach is a topic that I am personally interested in but that I also think is an essential component of being a scientist. Outreach addresses all of the aspects of the land grant mission (teaching, research, and service). What good is our research if it is not communicated effectively with the people that the land grant is supposed to serve? It can be very challenging for a variety of reasons. It can be time and labor intensive, drawing us away from our other responsibilities. However, I often find that my passion for my work is renewed by participating in outreach even. I say this even as a self-proclaimed introvert. Seeing the tangible impact I can have on others by talking about a subject that I care about and affects their own lives is deeply fulfilling. Another challenge to outreach is cost. Putting together workshops, with all of the time and materials required, is not cheap. Luckily, this can be written into grants and covered that way. Funding availability overall has decreased in recent years, but there still seems to be strong support for outreach activities through the USDA and NGOs. Another challenge is the communication itself. We are used to discussing our work with other scientists who are familiar with the topic and all of its jargon, but what about the public? Communicating the key points of our work without “dumbing it down” or oversimplifying it can be tough. When I finished my master’s degree, I felt like I was finally at a point where I could explain just about any aspect of my work to anyone without losing them. Now that I’m a brand new PhD student, I find myself where I was when I started my MS: stuggling to describe what I’m doing to others while still coming to grips with it myself. This can be especially tricky if you’re more of a “visual person,” like I am. I’m not a very good artist, but when asked what I’m doing I feel compelled to try to draw it out. Instead I just describe it more vaguely than I might like. Ideally, I have some photos with me that I can share, which makes it a lot easier. I’ve improved a lot over time, but it’s still a struggle! As Dr. May Berenbaum points out in her recent Science editorial (found here):
“The public has long been generally unfamiliar and even unenamored with most insects. Notwithstanding, few entomologists communicate with the public about their work. This relationship is a major problem for two reasons. Finding new solutions to evolving insect-related challenges requires basic research, but fundamental insect science often appears arcane and irrelevant to the general public and policy-makers. Also, when basic knowledge produces new technology, that novelty can generate widespread public concern and even entrenched opposition to implementation […] The world’s entomologists need to talk among themselves about how best to talk about insect science with the rest of the world.” (Berenbaum 2016)
It’s important for all of us to get out of our labs and field plots from time to time and interact with the public! This is especially true in a time where there is more fear and misinformation about insects and science in general out there than ever, especially online. Social media is an indiscriminant disseminator of information, however true or false. While we can use these same tools to try to get the right information out there, person to person contacts are often more effective at making a long-term impact. Entomologists and other scientists work to improve quality of life for all, but sometimes the work we do seems strange, and therefore scary. Dr. Berenbaum outlines the following example:
“One example, the sterile insect technique, is as mystifying to most people today as it was 80 years ago. In 1935, charged with controlling the screwworm fly, a devastating pest of livestock, entomologists Edward Knipling and Raymond Bushland commenced decades-long studies of its sexual behavior and population biology. Skepticism abounded when, in 1953, merging their findings with Hermann Muller’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery that irradiation sterilizes male fruit flies, they released thousands of irradiated male screwworm flies on Curaçao, where livestock losses to the pest were unmanageable. In just 7 months, the breeding cycle was fatally disrupted, and screwworms were eradicated from the island with no adverse consequences. By 1966, the sterile insect technique had eradicated screwworms from the United States, saving the cattle industry millions of dollars in annual losses. Yet despite its demonstrable utility, funding for screwworm eradication in Central America by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (to prevent incursions northward into the United States) in 2005 was described as “getting ‘screwed’ by the government” in The Pig Book: How Government Wastes Your Money.” (Berenbaum 2016)
The concept of releasing flies to reduce the number of flies is counterintuitive at first. Someone without a science background reading a blurb about that online would likely be alarmed. Our role as scientists is to reach out to everyone to reassure them and explain the work we do. Listening is also important here, along with answering any followup questions. Interestingly, screw worms have been detected once again in the Florida Keys . So far, they have only been detected on an endangered deer species, but they could spread to other animals relatively quickly, potentially threatening even the mainland’s economy in addition to an entire species. A quarantine has been implemented, but sterile insect technique may have to be implemented to truly mitigate the threat that these insects pose. I’m sure that people will be in uproar about these “unnatural” techniques, but it’s in everyone’s best interest (as the following photo illustrates. The deer was alive with all of this happening on it. Warning: super gross! ). Outreach is hard, but incredibly important to the full implementation of both the land grant mission and our mandate as scientists! Over time, we can help everyone embrace the work that we do and the great things that we can bring.
Berenbaum M. “Speaking of Insects…”. Science. 2016 Vol. 353, Issue 6306, pp. 1343. 10.1126/science.aaj2166