Scientists need to engage more with the public to secure funding

May 2, 2016 by Chris Turney And Christopher Fogwill, The Conversation
Research expeditions, like this one to Antarctica, don’t have to rely on governments for funding. Credit: A. Turney

We live in an age when society is crying out for scientific solutions to global problems. Just a few of the many considerable challenges we face include the urgent need to transition to a carbon-free economy, the need for new drugs to combat disease and improved agricultural yields to meet the needs of a growing world population.

But in parallel to this increasing demand for we face worrying trends in Australia and across the wider Western world. From high schools to universities, there is a long-term decline in students in the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Meanwhile, government funding in many Western countries is also falling, with Australia continuing to reduce the total science budget.

Repeated studies demonstrate public science investment has a strong multiplier effect on the economy, with estimates suggesting a minimum 10:1 return.

With governments fixated on economic growth, the cutting of seems particularly perverse. Science needs to flourish if it will continue to innovate for future generations.

Looking back to go forward

So what to do? Ultimately, science has a communication problem. We need to redouble our efforts engaging with the wider community to help it understand why science matters.

We don't just need more scientists in society, we need people to better understand how science works. Making observations, testing ideas and reaching the simplest explanation can be applied to all walks of life but is woefully applied in public debate.

The authors standing by Mawsons hut in Antarctica, partially funded by private citizens and businesses. Credit: Chris Turney, Author provided

Before the Second World War, governments were not the big spenders they are today. In the history of intellectual endeavour, it's only the last few generations who have taken state-funded support as the norm.

Business and private benefactors were previously far larger supporters. And in the Edwardian era, this created a golden era of science communication for many fields of endeavour.

For instance, Antarctic expeditions electrified the public, putting science and adventure on the front pages of newspapers. Exploration off the edge of the map was the Edwardian equivalent of space travel and the public could get involved. If you wanted to head south and learn more about Antarctica, you had to raise the funds by engaging the public.

They had to be excited by the endeavour. The result was a public frenzy to learn more about Antarctica. Fast-forward today, and the scientific questions have changed, but the spirit of enquiry remains.

As Earth scientists, we explored the Edwardian funding model to support a unique concept: to take an interdisciplinary research team to a region of rapid and unprecedented environmental change, with the aim of engaging the public in scientific endeavour.

The Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014 was supported by a unique combination of government, private and commercial funding to raise the necessary A$1.5 million.

Through engagement with Google, sponsorship and selling berths to interested members of the public (who signed up to be citizen scientists embedded in the science program), the expedition sought to explore changes in remote parts of the Southern Ocean including the rarely visited New Zealand subantarctic islands, and south to the site of Sir Douglas Mawson's 1912-1914 Antarctic base on Commonwealth Bay.

Intrepid science pays off

The two-month expedition is delivering a rich scientific trawl. We measured the amount of mixing across the Southern Ocean and discovered significant changes in circulation; we investigated the role of Southern Ocean carbon in past global change; and we documented the devastating impact of more extensive sea ice in Commonwealth Bay on marine benthic communities and local penguin populations.

We're on target to produce more than 20 research papers as a result. Critically, the expedition saw extensive public engagement through social media under the banner of Intrepid Science, using state-of-the-art satellite technology throughout the expedition, reporting our findings when they happened.

With a significant following on social media we received more than 60,000 views of the expedition website, highlighting both the excitement and difficulties of working at the "ends of the Earth", and shining a light on Antarctic research rarely seen since the times of Mawson.

Frustratingly, we were caught by sea ice on the way home, but the expedition shows how even relatively modest amounts of money can help make major discoveries.

Recent research has found that scientific impact is only weakly limited by funding and that the return on investment decreases with monetary value. If so, public funding of small science may deliver major findings in the future.

As scientists we just need to engage. And perhaps a modern twist on Edwardian funding could be part of the solution.

Explore further: New Australasian Antarctic expedition

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7 comments

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orti
1.7 / 5 (12) May 02, 2016
From the abundance of frivolous research reports and articles I see here at phys.org, I would say scientists are more than abundantly funded.
antialias_physorg
4.7 / 5 (12) May 02, 2016
With governments fixated on economic growth, the cutting of science funding seems particularly perverse.

Government means politicians. Politicians are interested in stuff that happens during their time in office. The 10:1 benefit happens years after any particular research effort. It takes time to transit a fundamental discovery into marketable benefits - that's just the way it is.

So from a politician's POV it looks like this:
1) I gain the benefit of science funding in the past because it strengthens the economy while I'm in office (good economy = votes)
2) I gain nothing from funding science (it only benefits future politicians)

It's a small step to understand that they'll defund science and put the money to use elsewhere that is of more immediate use to their political careers.

Antarctic research is visceral enough to engage the public. Transformative sciences like quantum physics have a much harder time of it.
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (12) May 02, 2016
From the abundance of frivolous research reports and articles I see here at phys.org, I would say scientists are more than abundantly funded.

You wouldn't know a frivolous paper from a real one if it were pointed out to you in sky-high flaming letters.

But go ahead: Give us a list of these 'abundant frivolous reports'. Let's have a good laugh at your inability to grok science.
Mike_Massen
3.8 / 5 (13) May 05, 2016
antialias_physorg offered most pertinent reply to orti
... abundance of frivolous research reports and articles I see here ..
You wouldn't know a frivolous paper from a real one if it were pointed out to you in sky-high flaming letters
Indeed whole-heartedly agree, unfortunately there are few even here after years of attention that, although giving impression experimental evidence is key regarding a topic, claim a narrow model without *any* experimental method, is actual 'proof'' Eg Recent, Terra-hertz radiation is harmless :/

Close to your field, you may be curious
http://arxiv.org/...53v2.pdf

antialias_physorg adds
let's have a good laugh at your inability to grok science
Keen for your EE opinion ?

Eg Might anyone be correct to infer it offers *any* sort of proof at all that THz is harmless ?

The paper's caveats, focus/intent appear irrelevant to the biophysics neophytes, as we know well DNA is only one structure of many life proteins
BongThePuffin
May 05, 2016
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
antigoracle
1.7 / 5 (12) May 05, 2016
You wouldn't know a frivolous paper from a real one...

How real are these..
http://hockeyscht...-26.html
Benni
2.3 / 5 (15) May 05, 2016
You gotta just love that picture of "scientists" standing in front of a snow hut in Antarctica as they put out a plea for free money from the public for "investments" in their paychecks.

The average citizen of the world does not live inside a snow hut in Antarctica. They don't because you can't grow crops on snow, so if you can't do that, then why would they care about studying snow in a place irrelevant to conditions that do not put food on the table?

The scientists in the picture would be more beneficial to the public if they would put their worthless mathless biology degrees to better use & find jobs serving hamburgers or tacos to Mr & Mrs average citizen of the world, there is great demand for such skilled laborers, see HELP WANTED's all over the landscape at Horton's, McDonalds, Starbuck's, etc; and the thing is that they'd probably make more money at those places than being employed as Biologists living in a snow hut in the middle of Antarctica.

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