National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network

Serving Nanoscale Science, Engineering & Technology

Nature or Nurture: Where do we get our ability to think about research implications?

At CNF, we start each Societal and Ethical Issues training with an introduction slide.  Believe it or not, by the time the users see me at 3:15pm they STILL haven’t introduced themselves to each other.  We ask the users to do three things: 1.) say your name, 2.) provide your institutional background, and 3.) explain your research as if you were explaining it to your non-engineering grandmother.  The point is can you explain what you do in a way that anyone can understand?

The users typically succeed at questions one and two, but question three really stirs things up.  Five syllable words fly out of their mouths at a rate so fast that I can’t remember the first word I didn’t understand.  There is no time to clarify as the next technical word replaces the previous technical word before it leaving me thoroughly confused.  Once the user finishes, I think to myself, “And you think your grandma understood that?”

So I try again, “I appreciate the complexity of your work.  Is there an end goal for your work? In other words, is there an application or context that would help me understand the utility of your work?”  Another minute of complex, technical explanations follow with a colleague saving the day providing a cell phone application that was not only understandable, it made the research come alive.

This made me think.  Is our ability to explain complex science or to see applications of our research an innate ability? Or, is it something we can nurture in the graduate school environment?  Perhaps some scientists simply get it.  They understand not only the complexity of their science, but also how their work fits into a complex network called society.  They understand how to take something inherently very small, but paint a very large picture of how it will impact others.  Some people are born with this ability.

Does this mean, however, that we give up on those students who cannot see these connections?  Or, do we simply not have time to nurture these skills in the academic environment?  Interestingly, our 2012 Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) intern, Merrill Brady, conducted a literature review of other REU intern programs that teach societal and ethical issues. One of the activities she discovered during this project is having the intern interview their PI or mentor about the societal and ethical implications of their research project.  Couldn’t graduate students do the same thing?  Further, shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the faculty member to explain the application of their research project?  Not each application will include a large societal application … and that is perfect okay!  But, trying to get the users to think about the audience for their research is equivalent to me asking them if it’s okay to pull out their teeth.  The users look back with this blank stare suggesting they think you are crazy for asking such a question.

So, am I crazy? Am I crazy for asking users to think about their audience? To think about their research context and application? Am I crazy to think you should be able to explain your research to anyone?

I don’t think I am crazy for asking. I am crazy if I think this comes easily to every scientist. For some, this ability is second nature. As a community, I would love to know how we are going to nurture the rest.

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