When bemoaning the lack of government funding for scientific research, sooner or later one does start to wonder: how is it that more people aren’t worried about this? And shortly thereafter, one arrives at the conclusion that it is because not enough people place value in it. Those who do not conduct research as a part of their livelihood are not worried about the budget cuts to scientific research, unless something like an Ebola outbreak occurs. That’s extremely frightening. Historically speaking, when there is little interest in scientific research, there is also little innovation and progress.
Science is one of the pillars of humanity and scientific research has provided us with an invaluable way to experience our humanity. It has provided meaning to our surroundings, a context for our existence and even predictions for our future. Historically, leaders have recognized research as a powerful way to empower their people, sustain their growth and even preserve their culture. In a manner of speaking, scientific research has allowed for humanity’s almost “democratic” evolution: of the people, by the people, for the people.
Therefore, for science to continually thrive and flourish the people must act as its stewards. Continued support and encouragement of research efforts requires public interest and accessibility to scientific research. Scientific education at a young age is largely the responsibility of parents and the American education system, and after that it becomes the responsibility of an individual. Whether or not an individual chooses to remain scientifically aware is strongly influenced by their environment. As scientists, we can modulate this environment. Scientists are perfectly poised, if not perfectly trained, to convey their very personal passion for research and discovery to a broad audience. No one knows the work better, and no one else is as committed to it as they are. This is not only outreach, but also a part of their responsibility for advancing science. So this is an informal call to arms to all my fellow researchers – yes, we are all consumed by our work but we need to make sure we are not the only ones that care about it.
Luckily, several creative ways to generate public interest in science have started gaining popularity in recent years. One such way of increasing scientific awareness is the phenomenon of the “science festival”. These are a week to two week-long events, where there are workshops, seminars and demonstrations on a wide variety of topics of general relevance. Anyone with some scientific interest has an opportunity to see demonstrations, hear talks and participate in intelligent dialogue on scientific ideas. From the neurobiology of anger, to the chemistry of brewing beer to the science of weather, these are just a few examples of the ways in which such events bring scientific concepts to a large audience, and illuminate how incredibly pervasive and relevant science really is to our routine lives. Currently, such events are limited to larger metropolitan cities with many technological institutions that cover the organizing costs. As a result, they can be open to everyone, and several events are either free or low- cost, and therefore have significant outreach potential.
Rutgers would make an excellent venue for hosting a festival such as this. We have numerous world-class labs doing research in a wide variety of disciplines. An expert in almost any topic can be found within the different Rutgers campuses, and we have a ton of energetic and enthusiastic students who would love the opportunity to organize something like this for the entire community. First and foremost, this would foster a “culture of science” where people appreciate the relevance of science and exactly how pervasive it is in our routine lives. An added benefit is that science festivals also serve as great platforms for scientists to get an insight into public needs, and to get feedback on their work. Merely providing a venue for open scientific conversation is invaluable, and by promoting such events, we can build a strong community where the scientists and the public are equal participants and share common goals and visions.