As a science educator, part of my job is to help people understand a particular scientific concept, such as the definition of a plasma. We can look at how plasmas are used to make computer chips, fluorescent light bulbs, or as a future source of electricity. We can talk about the importance of plasmas in everyday life. We can move from there to asking how plasma physics research is funded, how much is from the private sector and how much is from the federal government. If the discussion goes further, we can ask whether this research is of sufficient "value" to justify spending our tax dollars. Does basic research have equal value to applied research? Should the US government fund research that may not succeed? (Yes, that's why it's called research.) Should we fund research without a clear application, knowledge gained for the sake of understanding? (Yes, there are countless examples of basic research leading to new technologies and human beings are inherently curious about how the universe works.) Should the US government fund research that has tremendous potential but no obvious short-term payoff? (Yes, that's exactly what should be funded since the private sector is concerned about profit and return on investment.)
Not everyone agrees with these statements (though they should). The problem is that it is difficult for the non-scientist to "know science," and to know the value of science. This problem lies squarely on the shoulders of the scientists. We simply do not do a good enough job of explaining what we do and why we deserve a chance to spend our neighbor's tax dollars.
My colleague Laura Berzak Hopkins decided to do something about this. She realized that there is no place, no book, no web site that someone could go to and learn about publicly funded research in language that a non-scientist could understand. Thus, Why-Sci was born.
Quoting from the web site,
Understanding the world around us – from galaxies to single cells – and a desire to deepen that knowledge and change the world drives the pursuit of scientific research. For the scientist, our families, friends, neighbors, and communities often have little understanding of what we do, why it is important to them (as opposed to us), or why their tax dollars should go towards our research. And, there are few (if any) approachable outlets that convey the answers to these critical questions. The ultimate responsibility to build this outlet and communicate the beauty and importance of what scientists do lies with scientists.
That’s the motivation behind Why-Sci, we want to give the scientist an outlet to explain research to the non-scientist and provide the non-scientist with a forum to learn about ongoing research.
There’s no other online portal for communicating all branches of science clearly and succinctly and connecting non-scientists with scientists. Our goal is, like scientific research, to take an idea – grow it, build it, and let it develop. The rest is up to you.
Just like a new idea, the site is growing and taking on a life of its own. If you are a scientist, submit a description of your research to Why-Sci. If you are not a scientist, check out what's there and judge for yourself the value of this research.
Even if you can't touch a metal ball and make your hair stick up straight, you can still know science.