Building Science Leaders

Ideas / by Maywa Montenegro /

Pop!Tech launches an initiative to cultivate a new class of science leaders—young researchers with the skills and drive to reach out, communicate their science, and lead society towards evidence-based solutions.

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MM: Okay, I’m going to play devil’s advocate now—
AZ: Please do.

MM: You are selecting fellows from an elite pool of scientists — MacArthur geniuses and Howard Hughes investigators — and then, you’re giving them personal access to editors at the Times and SciAm and NBC, alongside lecture agents and book agents. Do you have any trepidations about creating a corps of science celebrities instead of science leaders?
AZ: I’m so glad you brought this up. By design, we decided to call this program the PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows Program. It’s not about science and public celebrity. This is really important to us — we are not trying to turn people into celebrities. Instead, we are asking them to learn the skills that are required so that they can communicate the importance of their work, their disciplines, and science in general.

MM: So all of the fellows will continue to be practicing scientists?
AZ: Yes! What has existed for too long is a belief that you either have to be a popularizer or a working scientist, and that you couldn’t in any way be both. We believe that this is a false dichotomy. So what we’re trying to do with these folks is to help them maintain their role as working scientists — meaning that they will continue to be evaluated by their peers on the quality of their work — while giving them the skills and network to also effectively communicate their science.

We’re also very careful to acknowledge that leadership in the sciences takes many different forms. You can be a science leader in society — be really good at communicating your work—but not make it your principal mission in life. When called upon, however, you are ready to use your communications training in the right way. Scientific leadership is not a choice between putting your head down and only doing science and getting your head puffed up with science celebrity. There are a million ways to express leadership.  Our aim is to help each one of our fellows achieve the way that is uniquely appropriate to them.

MM: That’s a sound philosophy. Still, I can imagine critics saying that a 20-person fellows program is just a drop in the bucket — that real progress demands institutional reforms.
AZ: I have two responses to that: So this is a small program, and this is our very first class; but every year we’re going to have another 15-20, so eventually you’re going to end up with real numbers of senior fellows and starter fellows. One of our goals is to have enough classes so that the fellows can mentor each other, not just horizontally but up and down; new fellows will gain insights from ones who have been at this a little bit longer. I think this point of collaboration is really essential.

Beyond that, however, I’d argue that real institutional change is afoot. We’ve undertaken this program with the help of Microsoft Research, Intel, Cold Spring Harbor Labs, National Science Foundation and National Geographic; along with a couple of really superb foundations — the Doris Duke Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation. So companies and foundations of this size and caliber are now recognizing and supporting this kind of work.

MM: The fellows program has just gotten underway, but have you gotten any early feedback from the broader science community?
AZ: It’s really fascinating — a lot of the scientists we’ve been talking to express concern about becoming better public leaders and public communicators. And they’ve told us that there is this anti-popularizer bias in the academy. But surprisingly, everywhere we turned — in 99 percent of the conversations we had — people talk about the anti-popularizer bias and yet, everyone says they don’t have it. In short, this phenomenon is ubiquitous but no one says that they are responsible. Nearly every scientist we talked to said, “This is so important,” “This is essential to the field,” “Why hasn’t a program like this existed before?” The senior scientists tell us, “If only this had existed when I was a young assistant professor or associate professor.”

And so I wonder is if it’s one of those things that could just evaporate, that when people start to change their behavior, they’ll suddenly discover it’s sort of like the boogey monster, you know? It turns out there is not a boogey monster under your bed, that the anti-popularizer in the academy is a myth that gets reinforced because everybody thinks that everybody else believes it, but it actually doesn’t exist so strongly. I’m not saying it will be that way; I’m saying it could be that way.

MM: Are you doing error control?
AZ:  Hah! I suppose I am.

                                                                *****  *****  ******




Originally published September 27, 2010

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