I've just been having a really interesting conversation with Ben Wallace on Intersect about how to encourage more collaboration between the science community and the wider world.
"Perhaps more scientists need to join social networks?" Ben suggested.
He’d noticed that there seem to be very few academics on the LinkedIn Network and speculated that maybe academics don’t feel like they need to join a wider network.
One scientist I met suggested that being part of an academic institution is a bit like being in a nice cushy nest that doesn’t lend itself to leaving. And if this is the case – if our scientists and academics are sitting in their own roosts, how do we encourage them to fly out and engage with the vast world beyond? Surely life is far more interesting once you leave the nest you were raised in?
LinkedIn, as Ben said, is particularly good for discussion groups. If our academics foraged around such online networks, they could find themselves bumping minds with entrepreneurs, sustainability experts, designers, community advocates etc – who would lap up their ideas and expertise. Ideas could start to cross-pollinate naturally.
From my experience, working closely with academics as a science writer, I don’t think social networking has filtered into academic culture yet. Academics haven’t realised what could be gained from launching into this kind of social interaction. Given the framework and structures they work within, this is very understandable - academics are so busy with teaching, writing funding applications, admin and research they don't have time for much else. Social networking won't help them get more money for research (most of that comes from government). It won't boost their academic ranking either (that's all calculated according to the number of papers they produce and the quality of the journals they publish in). So the only incentive to engage with broader social networks is a sense of social concern, which often doesn't hold much sway against their more pressing concerns.
This leads me to assert that:
The academic system they are locked into is outdated. It encourages competition rather than collaboration and knowledge sharing which is counteractive to growth, innovation and progress.
In the current model scientists apply for funding either from Government or industry (although there’s not much industry funding in NZ). But, what if we had a new way of funding science, which incentivises broader social engagement?
Imagine if we could introduce a third stream of funding that responds to the burning needs and concerns of the community and environment and creates financial incentives for scientists to engage in broader social dialogue.
What if we could introduce collective funding?
This idea emerged when Jaime Campbell and I went to see James Samuel on Waiheke Island a couple of weeks ago. We spoke about the characteristics and empowerment of people in this day and age – How the power struggle is shifting from a central control of resources and media to more of a collective governance model made possible by large networks of individuals. James told us about some innovations in finance enabled by new technology that source large amounts of funding from collectives of people. For example Kiva, which crowd-sources loans for humanitarian projects and Zopa that facilitates peer to peer lending and has lent more than £100 million to 25,000 borrowers.
Imagine if we could harness the will of a growing collective of people who want to see positive change in the world. Imagine a new type of social and ethical investment that funds science and innovation – one that responds to real world problems without the immediate goal of making more money. Using a system like Kiva, a little contribution from a large number of people could go a long way.
If scientists had to convince the public of the value of their research to secure funding what better way than engaging in social networking? Maybe it would also help in breaking down the stereotypes and language barriers that currently inhibit communication of ideas and research. Imagine if the new Ministry for Science and Innovation used online forums that facilitated dialogue between scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, sustainability experts and others. Imagine if such a dialogue became an integral tool for deciding which research programs are funded
I can almost hear the objections coming from scientists as I type.
Writing funding applications to panels of scientists is hard enough. How are they supposed to convince the lay public of the vital importance of understanding nuclear spin interactions or the mathematics of electromagnetic pulses? How is this fundamental research going to compete against cures for cancer or solutions to climate change? Non-scientists may not realise that fundamental research is the engine of innovation and underpins every technological breakthrough.
What about the scientists that follow a pure sense of inquiry and discovery? - they may not consider practical applications but their work expands and enriches our view of the world. Every scientist knows that research doesn’t go in straight lines. You never know what you’re going to discover until you start exploring and the best discoveries and innovations often pop up in the most unlikely areas.
The answer is simple. I’m not suggesting we cut down the established funding system and plant a brand new one. I’m simply suggesting we diversify -sow new seeds that will become part of a funding ecosystem where government and collective thought are intertwined in the development and direction of innovative solutions.
Science needs to engage with society.
It needs connections that reach beyond its current limits.
I’m not suggesting that every scientist should turn into a social networker or that all research should be funded by popular choice. But I do think the general public is capable of grasping the excitement and importance of fundamental science. There is something about the spirit of science that resonates with the pioneering, practical, rule-breaking spirit of New Zealand. Non-scientists may not understand the jargon and mathematics but they can appreciate that fundamental science is key to our future health and prosperity.
In the past the media has let science down – publicised only the ‘Big Breakthroughs’, ‘cures’ for diseases and quirky sex habits of animals. It’s presented stereotypes of scientists as evil, mad, geeks and know-it-alls. It’s distanced science from society. Social media has the potential to do the opposite – to allow scientists to set the record straight. It allows scientists to develop personal connections with people. They can write a blog at the pace of scientific research - bit by bit over years. They can be genuine rather than sensational. They can convey the process of science; show what they really love about their work and why they believe it is essential for society. I know from experience that scientists have a lot to say about this.
And people out there are interested. Everyone I have spoken to – entrepreneurs, environmental activists, teenagers, economists, art curators, and business folk – has been surprised and delighted to hear what’s going on in the NZ science community – nanotechnology; biomimicry; biomaterials etc. People have been really keen to find out more. There is so much vision out there and people aching for the science to help find the solutions.