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Researchers today face more responsibilities to take a public role, and Explaining Research offers the tools to meet those responsibilities. These demands arise because the public image of science and its implications have changed drastically since federal research funding first arose in the 1950s. The public then viewed research largely as a benign activity—the source of the polio vaccine and the transistor. The huge exception, of course, was nuclear weapons, which invaded the public conscious in the form of "duck and cover" school drills and sci-fi movies featuring phalanxes of radiation-spawned giant ants, dinosaurs, and other mega-creepie-crawlies. Today, many of the important issues involving science, medicine, and engineering are highly politically charged, including global warming, stem cell research, genomic medicine, and environmental degradation.
You may well find yourself thrust unprepared into the center of public debate on such issues, says two-time Pulitzer Prize—winning journalist Jon Franklin: "They don't understand what is at stake, and they don't understand that they can't just give people the facts anymore," he says. Scientists need to understand that their communications must convey their values, not just their findings, says Franklin: "There is a need for science to be understood as a subculture. If you belong to a subculture you have to understand there are other subcultures, from accountants to the Christian right. And all these subcultures are fighting for as much ascendancy as they can get."
Your lay-level communications may benefit you in giving you the chance for the first time to explore the societal implications of your field. For example, Sharon Friedman, director of the science writing program at Lehigh University, recalls the revelations of two materials scientists when they co-taught a course on "Nanotechnology in Society" with her and a colleague who was expert in societal implications of science and technology: "They readily admitted that in their research they never think about societal implications of what they were doing, and it wasn't until they started dealing with us that they started to think about those implications," she says.
The demands of public science also create a far greater need for "citizen-scientists." These researchers recognize that their responsibilities for their field extend beyond their laboratory walls. To be a good citizen-scientist, you need not become a "public scientist"—such as physicist Michio Kaku, psychologist Steven Pinker, or astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Rather, you need only undertake whatever communication or public service activities resonate most with your personal interests and what you believe best advances your field. For example, you might want to lobby Congress, or become a public educator, as described in chapter 18 of Explaining Research—giving a talk at your local school or taking part in programs of AAAS or your professional society.(Next: Wielding the Power of Do-It-Yourself Communication)