Blog Post

Rapunzels in the Ivory Tower

I recently had the good fortune to attend the annual Society for the Study of Evolution meetings in Portland, OR (6/26-6/30 2010).  This is a major scientific meeting where the leading evolutionary biologists get together and present the findings from the past year.  While there is certainly a feeling of camaraderie it is fundamentally a big time meeting, and I was looking to make a good impression as a good presentation here can help set me apart from other candidates in the job searches this autumn.

I have been working for the past two years on a large-scale biogeographic analysis, essentially trying to understand why, for example, Indonesia has more than seven times the number of fish species then is found in the entire Caribbean!  And while I dont want it to sound like Ive answered this question, I think the data I had are clearly suggestive of a possible mechanism and I was excited to present this to my peers.  I was scheduled for the last day of the conference and therefore had the opportunity to sit through a number of different presentations, and to interpret my findings in light of the new information they had been presenting. However after sitting through three days of talks I was concerned that we as scientists were largely talking to ourselves.  I admit that I find evolutionary biology fascinating, but the vast majority of the talks I saw did very little to take the next step and translate their science into real world applications.

In light of this I went home and reworked the final few slides, and in effect, called out several of the scientists in the crowd.  We cant just work in that Ivory Tower. I talked about how the work I did for my Ph.D. was used by the Fijian government to help develop a system of protected areas, or how we are going to be using the collections based research at the Field Museum to demonstrate the scientific process to teens in Chicago and Fiji.

I also had the opportunity to talk a lot about Conservation Connections (our Digital Media and Learning project). The vast majority of scientists I spoke to were really excited about it, I think we all realize that our work can have these powerful education and conservation connections, and that ultimately the long term health of our environment, and our society is dependent on having a educated and scientifically literate body politic. However it seems as if many of the scientists I spoke to were at a loss when it came to ways to bring their passion for science to the masses.  Thus, it seems as if they are Rapunzels in the Ivory Tower, trapped by the methodological, cultural and time constraints of academia, and unable to take their work to the proletariat. 

This situation requires a push/pull dynamic. Academic researchers need to think about alternative, and systematic, avenues to push their research to the general public. Simultaneously, those working in applied science (such as educators, resource managers, government agencies etc.) need to pull in the primary research into their outreach activities. We here in HASTAC have the technological skills necessary to develop and market successful connections between science producers and consumers. Our ability to communicate in a poly-lingual capability, and the use of dynamic, visually stimulating media truly uniquely positions us to facilitate this dynamic. The question then is what are you doing? Can you help storm the Ivory Tower?

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4 comments

Josh, you are HASTAC through and through! How great that you are asking these questions at a major science conference and have Conservation Connections to discuss as an exemplary model of what scientists can do. Thanks for blogging and keeping us informed, we'll pass along your post through the networks and maybe someone will be inspired to answer your questions!

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If any NC Triangle HASTACkers are interested in helping tackle these issues, please mark your calenders: On September 25 we'll have a student-led screening and discussion event to address the question, "What does 'digital storytelling' mean in the sciences?" More info here: http://www.uncstorylab.org/2010/07/digital-stories-science-september-25t...

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Josh, these might be great people to connect with: http://scienceonline2010.com/

One of the organizers, Anton Zuiker, (http://www.mistersugar.com/), who has a background in journalism, asked a similar question to the one you're asking, and co-founded a healthy science and blogging community in North Carolina. There may be something similar happening at the national level, although I haven't seen anything so far. In any case, Anton is a wonderful person with a great network and lots of experience and interest in sharing science.

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I've been thinking about constraints on academic scientists for some time now.  In 2006 I published an article with Adam Henne (now of U of Wyoming Anthropology department) looking at systematic impediments that Conservation Biologists and Anthropologists face when working together to conserve bio-cultural diversity.  While the arguments we made in that paper were fairly discipline specific, I think we bring up some good points about researchers being hamstrung by the need to be validated in their own disciplines at the expense of collaborating across intellectual boundaries.  You can check out the paper here:

http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss2/art34/

 

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