Beyond the Loading Dock

Category: Uncategorized

By Raj Pandya, TEX Director

In a recent blog, I asked about how to stand up for science. That led me to another question: Why do we even need to stand up for science? Also: How did we get here, and what do we need to differently to move forward?

I think the need to stand up for science stems (sorry for the pun, get it, STEM?), at least in part, from a disconnect between science and society writ large. There seems to be a growing impatience with experts, academics, consultants, and other big-city pointy-heads, and scientists are caught up in that.

The academic/expert backlash isn’t completely off base. Jim Duderstadt, who was the president of the University of Michigan in 2005, pointed out the cost of a four-year education at UM was more than the average annual Michigan income. What does it even mean to be a state school, he asked, when most of the residents can’t afford to go? Why should anyone trust science, or anything else from a place they can’t even access?

While some of that disconnect is part of trends bigger than science, some of it is on us as scientists. After World War II, we set up a system of science funding that assumed innovation would flow from federal investment in science. And it did—AAAS estimates that 50 percent of the United States’ growth in GDP can be connected to federal investment in R&D. Arguably, the transistor alone might be enough to justify the entire federal research outlay for the last 50 years, let alone the internet. (What would we do without cat videos, anyway?)

But at the same time, the assumption that innovation would “flow” allowed too many of us scientists to focus on producing science and not enough of us to focus on the ways in which science can serve society. It’s led to an entire structure that is excellent at producing science, but perhaps less good at connecting science to people’s lives, engaging people in science, or inviting people into science. And “less good” becomes “worse” when you think about people who have less money and power—the same people who are most likely to experience the downsides of innovations, and least likely to reap the benefits.

In all of this, science has developed its own norms and practices—like peer review and journals—that are great for producing science but not very good at connecting science to anything outside of itself. The result is that science winds up looking like something done by distant people who don’t look or act like you, who work in different places, and who have their own unique and somewhat impenetrable systems for deciding what is good and worthwhile.

All of this has been called the loading dock model: Scientists do science and then send the results to the lab’s metaphorical ‘loading dock.’ Delivery—actually putting the science into the hands of its ultimate users—is someone else’s responsibility (which all too often translates to nobody’s responsibility). The loading dock, should any of those ultimate users venture in, is a cold and barren place, with restricted entry and lots of warnings posted on the walls.

We can move beyond the loading dock. We can invite people from outside the lab to be part of our research, a la citizen science. Instead of a loading dock, we could build a café, where ideas are discussed in everyday language and everyone is welcome. We might even leave the café and head to the community potluck, where we could bring something to share and join the conversation.

Sarah Wilkins editor