by Peter Agre M.D.
Since being named a recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, I've had ample occasion to explain my research to general audiences. I've spoken to the brightest young scientists and physicians in Pakistan, to an audience of thousands in Malaysia, and to lecture halls of students in Grinnell, Iowa, and around the world. I've spoken to kings and lawmakers in very formal settings, and to reporters, comedians, cab drivers, and many others in one-on-one conversations.
On these occasions, I've shared my story—how I came to a career in science, and what a career in science is and should be. I've shared my science with them, explaining how we serendipitously discovered the protein family long postulated to allow cells to control passage of water across their membranes.
I thoroughly enjoy these occasions to share science with others and to learn from my audiences about their own experiences and relationships with science and research. Even if readers of this book don't share my enthusiasm for sharing the story of science and scientists with new audiences, I would maintain that doing so is a skill that scientists, engineers, and researchers have an obligation to learn and to use regularly.
With time, science can uncover cures, create awe, and trigger gee-whiz moments by revealing things we didn't know, and in some cases hadn't even expected would be interesting to know. (For example, the long-postulated "water channel" was an abundant-but-contaminating protein in blood samples for experiments in which we were looking for a totally different molecule, the Rh protein!)
In fact, science today might be more broadly important than ever before. Many public-policy issues of greatest concern to Americans and others are related to science and engineering--global warming, alternative energy sources, coastal development, transportation infrastructure, and stem cell research. It is our responsibility as scientists, engineers and researchers to inform these debates, not just by publishing our results in professional journals, but by making the information accessible, and ourselves available, to the public.
Often, a dichotomy of fact and fiction, or of reality and expectation, surrounds research that is in the public eye. This dichotomy reflects a lack of understanding of how science is done, and of how fast research can progress to the clinic or the store shelf, on the part of the public, the government, and the media.
And so it is the duty of all scientists and engineers to engage the public, to explain their work and how they do their work. Getting science before the public, whatever the topic, should make for a more well-informed population whose expectations are more consistent with what we can deliver.
No book can instantaneously alter a person's interest, ease, or ability in communicating to general audiences, lawmakers or reporters about their area of expertise. However, Explaining Research offers communication tools and insiders' perspectives on communicating to the public to scientists and engineers to help us effectively explain what we do and why we do it.
"Because" might have been a good enough answer to "why" during the fight against polio, the Space Race, or the Cold War, but it isn't good enough now.