Monday, December 14, 2009

A pack of measures to promote scientific vocations among young students

Committee for the Promotion of Science, Villa Certosa, Sardinia, Italy

The crisis of vocations for scientific research is becoming a chronic problem of our cultural institutions. A scientific career is often despised by gifted University students on the basis of its reputation for providing low and uncertain incomes to highly qualified people. Also, some people are discouraged by the remoteness of the possibility of getting a stable position as professor or researcher in the long term. Thus, potential Nobel prizes are diverted from a promising track of international recognition and success, being led towards the slavery of working for a greedy firm which provides higher salaries in the short term. Although such incomes can indeed be translated into fancy cars and clothes, accessibility to mortgages, and other perishable charms of the pointless society we live in, these are superficial items that cannot compare to the inner elation and satisfaction of devoting an entire life to Science. Here, we propose a programme for the promotion of Science, to be considered by politicians in charge, that aims to make more appealing for young fellows a career devoted to research:

1. Free psychological health care policy to cover the costs of visits to psychologists and/or psychiatrists for possible depressive seizures after repeated experimental failures.

2. Free alcoholic drinks and spirits at the laboratories and libraries, under the slogan “Every hour is happy hour” to help graduate students fight putative frustrating obstacles found through their career.

3. Installation of panoramic TV screens in the labs, to show all sport events and pay-per-view programs requested by the fellows, so they enjoy and perform crucial experiments at the same time. Commercials would be cunningly substituted by full screen Scientific articles in pdf format (a motivation strategy called “paper-view” that will make Science more entertaining)

4. Contracting an actor playing an idiot (or contracting a real idiot) at the lab so that research fellows can reassure their self-esteem by comparing themselves to this dummy.

5. Organization of monthly Lab meetings and Discussion sessions at tropical beach resorts.

6. Decoration of the lab walls with appealing posters and calendars to cheer up the mood of researchers and lessen the feeling of claustrophobia. Sexy calendars such as those typically hanging at car mechanics could be more motivating than those given free by providers of flasks or antibodies.

7. Public funding of TV series based on laboratory intrigues in which the actors and actresses would play the role of researchers in pursue of outstanding scientific results. Broadcasting of such series would considerably rise public consideration of the scientific collective, as it has happened recently with Forensic professionals.

8. Assigning to researchers a generous percentage of the benefits derived from their patents, if any.

9. A commitment from the Association of Editors of Scientific Journals (AESJ) that guarantees the publication of a paper, as a first author (IF > 6), for every year spent in the lab, independently of the experimental results obtained.

10. Firing out all the administrative personnel from research institutions that makes every stupid bit of paperwork so unbelievably difficult.

Although we only include ten measures in our pack, we are aware of the existence of many others. You are welcome to add your own as a comment. We hope that the implementation of these measures will help in the recruiting of a novel generation of brilliant scientists worldwide. Young lads and ladies: Science needs you!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to write a lay scientific summary

B.A. Bell and M. Ute
Esperanto Academy of Sciences, New Haven, USA

The professional survival of scientists in modern life imposes the necessity of outstanding skills in a wide range of human activities, including business management, accounting, oratory, handcrafting, manipulation and repairing of small machines, computing, invention and refutation of theories, and writing of scientific reports for highly specialized journals (see CurrRevol 22/05/09, CurrRevol 27/05/09), among others. In addition, twenty-first century scientists need to know how to explain their daily work to the lay public, being on risk of global isolation and virtual vanishing when not doing that properly. However, few experimental approaches have been taken to improve the methods by which scientists present a summary of their investigations to the general public. Here, we have performed an in situ analysis of public perception of science, intended to build a very basic vocabulary to be used by scientists when communicating science to lay people. Informative booths were displayed, on a Sunday bright morning, all around the country on public parks, mall parking lots, and the surroundings of baseball stadiums. Normal people of all ages, races and sexual preferences, was randomly selected by attendant volunteers and challenged with Dr. Bean’s Comprehension Test for commonly used scientific terms, that includes five hundred words and abbreviations (from ABS to Zootype) that everybody should know by heart. The response of the people was monitored as the combination of induced cortical brain activity (measured by standard electrophysiology techniques) and eyebrow’s admiring spontaneous movement (determined by careful visual examination with an OJIMETRIXTM device), which were processed using the UnderStand? software. In addition, a modified prototype of the Eisenbud’s Psychic PollaroidTM thoughtography camera (see CurrRevol 25/11/09) was used during the tests to better discriminate for false positives. Results obtained from subjects that ended the session by sudden fainting were discharged for further analysis, and reliable recorded data were processed in an iterative manner to incorporate into a database those words which really meant something for the lay people, as scored by the UnderStand? algorithm. After two rounds of selection, no words remained in the database under creation, demonstrating that the five hundred scientific words used in our study are not as commonly used by people as expected. Furthermore, our results indicate that either scientists do not wander around public premises on bright Sunday mornings, or that scientists also ignore the real meaning of most scientific words. To sustain this conclusion, a selected cohort of expert scientists from different disciplines were offered to be challenged with Dr. Bean’s Comprehension Test. Unfortunately, the chosen scientists refused to participate in the experiment on the basis of jeopardizing seriously the future funding of their research. We conclude with the pessimistic feeling that is really difficult for scientists to communicate their investigations not only to the general public, but also to their own colleagues. Experiments are ongoing to test the ability of lay people to explain, in a brief summary, the interest of their working activities to scientists. Meanwhile, we suggest to scientists to check the list of the five hundred most commonly used words in the English language (see 500words), to incorporate as many as these words as possible in their scientific summaries for lay people.