I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I frame the research I do, and, especially, how I frame my research when I talk with a non-scientific audience. More specifically, I’ve noticed that when I’m giving my “elevator pitch” about my research I tend to give a much more applied spin when I’m talking to a lay audience. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t be doing that. Am I missing out on a prime opportunity to talk about the importance of basic research?*
I started thinking about this more this summer, when my lab devoted a couple of weeks of lab meetings to working on elevator pitches. We spent the first week working on elevator pitches for other scientists – for example, to give to people we had just met at the ESA meetings, or, for the REU students, pitches they could give to their professors when they got back to their home institutions. We then spent the second week on pitches for a more general audience – for example, to give to your uncle at a party** (note that I didn’t say your grandmother!) or to a fisherman while out sampling***. Something I noticed from this exercise is that I focused much more on some of the applied aspects of my research (e.g., how infectious diseases are influenced by invasive species) than on the more basic aspects (e.g., how host populations evolve in response to parasitism) that are at least as much of a focus of my research.
But, of course, by focusing on the applied aspects of my work, I am feeding into the idea that work with applied implications is what is important. Really, I am most fundamentally motivated by basic questions, though I always like when there are applied implications of the work, too. Should I be using my general audience elevator pitch to highlight basic research? My former postdoc Stu Auld has updated his elevator pitch to better explain the importance of his basic research. (His post also gets bonus points for including an excellent graphic demonstrating the unintended applied benefits of basic research.) There was also this Slate piece from last year by Patricia Brennan, in which she defends basic research (motivated by attacks from US conservatives on the funding of her research on duck genitalia). My hope would be that, by updating my elevator pitch, it might spur conversations on the value of basic research****.
There are many benefits of basic research, of course. One fundamental motivating factor for many of us, myself included, is simply wanting to understand how the natural world works. (I often argue in seminars that, given the numerical dominance of parasites, we can only understand the ecology and evolution of natural systems if we understand the role of parasites therein.) But that can be a harder sell when I’m talking to my family members who all have very practical professions. (My mother is a nurse and my father is a retired fireman. It doesn’t get more practical than that!)
So, instead, I should probably start focusing more on the very important – and more effective, most likely – argument that basic research often leads to work of applied importance in ways that couldn’t have been predicted. NSF has a list of 50 NSF-funded innovations that are now part of our everyday lives. There are many examples that are more specific to ecology as well. The Edmondson lab at the University of Washington noticed cyanobacteria in Lake Washington during routine sampling, and their years of basic research on the lake allowed them to document a link between decreased water quality and sewage inputs. This work (along with work by others, especially David Schindler) had a dramatic impact on lake water quality in North America. More recently, routine sampling of Lake Mendota in Wisconsin revealed that the problematic invasive species Bythotrephes had invaded. Lake Mendota wasn’t predicted to be a lake that Bythotrephes would invade – and certainly wasn’t predicted to be one of the first inland lakes in Wisconsin that would be invaded – so this is really important information from an applied standpoint. And basic research on the ecology and systematics of frogs in the tropics ended up being crucial in terms of recognizing, documenting, and quantifying the devastating sweep of the chytrid parasite Bd through tropical frog populations. (link to a pdf of a different article on the same topic)
So, maybe I should update my elevator pitch. I usually say that my research asks why disease outbreaks begin, why they end, and what determines their severity. That is a pretty accurate summary of work in my lab. But, like Stu said in his blog post, once disease is mentioned, people tend to think I work on human infectious diseases, which I don’t.***** Perhaps my new elevator pitch could be something like “My research asks why disease outbreaks begin, why they end, and what determines their severity. I don’t work on human diseases, though. Instead, I work on very small animals that live in lakes. Understanding disease in those animals can help us understand basic aspects of infectious diseases. And, since the animals I work on are key links in aquatic food webs, it also helps us understand lakes better.” That still doesn’t really hammer home the importance of basic research, so maybe it needs more work. At the same time, I think it’s a pretty accurate summary of what I work on.
When you give your elevator pitch (or party summary) to non-scientists, do you focus more on basic or applied work? For people who do both kinds of work, do you try to focus more on one or the other?
*I could make similar statements about how much I focus on ecological vs. evolutionary aspects of my research. When talking with people I don’t know, I tend to focus more on the ecological aspects than the evolutionary ones. Evolution remains a frustratingly controversial topic in the US. By being conflict averse, am I missing a key opportunity for dialog on evolution? Maybe, but I think feelings tend to be so strong on the topic of evolution that my elevator pitch is unlikely to have any effect or spark meaningful dialog on the topic. (There was a lot of debate about whether anything was gained by the recent debate between scientist Bill Nye and evangelist Ken Ham.)
**As I said in the comments on the party post, my father – a New York City firefighter (now retired) – loved telling other firefighters than he daughter was a limnologist. He loved this because none of them knew what limnology was, and he’d get to explain it to them. His explanation? “You know marine biology? Well someone needs to do that in lakes.” Perhaps I should outsource my elevator pitches to him. He clearly has a knack for it! (Ethan White suggested a second career in science communication for my dad.)
***This assumes the fisherman is not a scientist, which is clearly not always an accurate assumption. My PhD advisor, Alan Tessier, was out setting up an experiment on a lake in Southwest Michigan one day, when a fisherman started asking him about what he was doing. Alan gave him kind of short responses, since he was busy trying to get the experiment set up – a typical response we’d give in that sort of situation is that we were doing an experiment looking at the little animals that fish eat. After a few quick exchanges, the fisherman said, “So, are you using a randomized complete block design?” Turned out he worked at Pharmacia in Kalamazoo and knew plenty about science and experimental design!
****I think it’s interesting that, in math, the split isn’t “basic” vs. “applied” research but, rather, “pure” vs. “applied”. Pure sounds so much better than basic, doesn’t it?
*****Yet. If I thought there was something I could do to reduce disease transmission in daycares, I’d quit working on Daphnia in a heartbeat – especially if the disease whose transmission I could reduce was the ever-dreaded norovirus!