I often hear my researcher friends complain about popular media coverage of science. Journalists are keen on the shiny and the new, the expected-with-a-twist, the stuff that makes sense only if you think about it the right way, the stuff that’s fun to think about the right way. Ignored entirely is everything else—though this is its own blessing, because the only thing worse than no coverage is botched coverage.
The assessment isn’t fair; there’s plenty of great science writing out there, and on niche topics too, especially if you know where to look. But with publications desperate for page views and underpaid freelancers crunched for time (and just about everyone writes freelance these days), the assessment isn’t entirely unfair either.
So, researchers: What are you going to do about it? Because if you want research conveyed to the public the way you want it—and to be clear, I think this is a fine thing to want—it is going to take resources.
Sure, more academics are blogging these days, and from what I’ve seen, university press offices are picking up their game too. But think bigger. What if major funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation took a more active role in research dissemination? Say grants were administered with the expectation that a minute portion of the funds would go toward producing accessible summaries of any resulting research. Or perhaps money might be funneled directly to academic journals, whose editors would then select a portion of articles from each issue to be featured. Either way, researchers could partner directly with professional science communicators, and the resulting summaries—whether in written, audio, or video form—compiled in a national, freely accessible database: a PubMed that actually includes results.
I have no idea how much an endeavor like this would cost. But if public access to research in a digestible form boosted science literacy—the first step, in my mind, to raising funding levels for basic research—a proposal like this could easily pay for itself in the long run. And don’t underestimate how many researchers would also find these summaries helpful. One of the biggest hurdles to interdisciplinary collaboration is the volume of background reading necessary to simply not sound stupid asking questions about another field.
I’m taking the moment to offer up this unlikely (but to my mind obvious) idea because this will be my last post. For three years—157 weeks—I’ve used this space to follow my curiosity down some wonderful and unexpected paths: What happens to our speech when we drink? What might language look like if it were composed entirely of pictures? How do our vocabularies grow? What makes conversation seamless?
Writing Psycho Babble has been a terrific, even life-changing experience for me, and I will always be grateful for the opportunity. But it is time to tackle some longer, messier projects, the sort that can’t be wrapped up on a weekly deadline. Writing projects, yes, and life projects too: my husband and I are expecting a daughter in early 2015. (“What a rich source of material that’s going to be,” says Sudip Bose, my editor here at the Scholar. Indeed, we can’t wait to welcome our own little research participant into the family.)
Thankfully there are plenty of other places you can go for your regular linguistics fix—more proof that science writing is flourishing in many corners of the Internet. Stan Carey’s blog Sentence First is a must-read. Sometimes I suspect that Carey starts linguistic trends just so he can discover them before anyone else. Gretchen McCulloch’s All Things Linguistic is another tremendous resource; McCulloch also edits Lexicon Valley. No list would be complete without mention of Language Log: the posts can be intimidating for those without a background in linguistics, but you simply won’t find better language commentary (or smarter commenters) anywhere else. I’d also like to plug SchwaFire, a new magazine publishing long-form language journalism. You can always follow me on Twitter @LoveOnLanguage, and peruse the complete Psycho Babble archives for as long as the Scholar is gracious enough to host them. Thank you for reading.
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