Chris Mooney, currently a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, gave a talk this evening that focused on science and society.  He started by giving some rather depressing stats about the American public’s relationship with science.  Only 18% of Americans know a scientist personally, only 13% follow science and technology news closely, and only 44% can name a scientific role model.  Of those that do name a role model – the top three named are Einstein, Al Gore, and Bill Gates.  As Mooney points out, they’re either dead, or not actually scientists.

But why should we care about the public’s scientific literacy?  Well, Mooney has answers for you.  He outlined four reasons: 1) knowledge is generally good in and of itself, 2) it empowers people, 3) it leads to good citizenship, 4) it also leads to good policy.

So now that we’ve got that squared away, what’s the problem?  Those are all great reasons, so why does the public have such a big problem with science?  Mooney sees it as the problem of two cultures (from C.P. Snow’s lecture).  He believes that in society today, there is a clash between science and a few things: politics, journalism, pop culture, and religion.

So what are we, as scientists and science writers, to do?!  For one thing, scientists need to engage the public.  As Mooney puts it, they should learn from recent the Climategate scandal and invest in public engagement for the good times, and the bad.

Mooney also thinks that there should be more public engagement-type jobs for PhD students.  Since only 7% of PhD students end up with tenure track faculty positions (not exactly sure where that stat comes from… but it’s gotta be close), it makes sense to also start educating these students for jobs outside of the lab.  Man would it have been awesome if I didn’t have to sneak away from lab every Friday afternoon for the part-time New Media Internship I did last semester, fearful of being caught playing hooky by my adviser.  If only my PhD program wasn’t in denial that all its students would become academic faculty (or at the very least – biotech minions – kidding, I know lots of people in biotech – totally worth the pay for years and years of training).

To wrap things up, Mooney left us with a quote from Matthew Chapman, the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin:

“Ya..there was a certain amount of pressure to be academically successful… most people as they grow up imagine they will do better than their father.. or better than their grandfather and certainly better than their great great grandfather and I figured that was not going to happen in the academic sphere… So I kind of dropped out..”

Wait… that’s the wrong one… I didn’t actually write down the one that Mooney left us with, but it was memorable… trust me…

However this one also works – all PhD students can’t go on to be academics, so let’s figure out what we can do instead with all that scientific knowledge stuffed in our heads.