Where science meets the people
A sociologist talks about his experiences with scientific communication
Kelly Slivka • November 16, 2011
Michael Mascarenhas is an environmental sociologist who teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. He recently blogged for the New York Times’ Scientists At Work series—which invites various researchers to blog during their fieldwork—about his experience working on a water-accessibility project in rural Rwanda. While accompanying some students to observe New York City’s Occupy Wall Street movement, he found time to talk about blogging and bringing science to a level where everyone can reach it.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q: How did you get involved with a Scientists At Work blog?
A: At universities there is an arsenal of PR people, and one of them—a very nice woman—called me up. She said, “You’re going to Rwanda; do you want to blog for the New York Times?” She took care of everything. I went over to Rwanda and sent the Scientists At Work editor my first blog three or four days into the project.
Q: How did that first blog go?
A: That was interesting. When I first sent in the blog, I made the assertion that many water problems could be attributed to changing weather problems—climate change. [The editor] told me we didn’t want to go there. So I softened it, but the mention still triggered 15 or 16 comments on the blog. And that’s not the only commentary you get, because these days people know who you are. You get inundated with phone calls and emails, too.
It’s ironic because, as a scientist, you write all these technical articles for journals and really sweat that sort of stuff when, in fact, this popular writing has much more exposure. More people will read my New York Times blog than all the people who might read my scientific articles or books.
Q: Do you think it’s important for the public to read about scientific projects like yours?
A: I think it’s really important. In a lot of ways, science is this metaphorical black box. Opening up this black box to people is crucial. People have experience in particular areas and will see problems differently, so it’s important for everyone to be part of the conversation.
The problem is, there are no academic rewards for scientists who do popular writing. Yes, the exposure was large from the New York Times, but at the university I have certain criteria to uphold for my position. I have to teach, and I have to publish scientific literature; publish or perish. And blogging or writing for newspapers doesn’t count.
Q: But you at least have exposure through teaching. Why did you bring your students to Occupy Wall Street?
A: I like to take students into the field. I could teach them a theory, but a theory is abstract—the political climate, the fiscal crisis, the Federal Reserve. You can talk about all these things, but if you take them down to Wall Street and have them talk to people, it’s a different education.
One of the things I do with my first year students is an “invisible university” assignment. It asks, where do the energy, water, and electricity come from to run the school? Who does the maintenance? Where does your waste go? And as kids start to ask those kinds of science questions, they become consumers of a different type of knowledge. They make the invisible more visible. Science is not molecules in a vacuum. It’s molecules within a particular environmental, physical, and social context.