Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and soon-to-be Master of my old college, Churchill, recently blogged about how athletics resembles academia. She argued that both are hard careers: they require many years of training, and even then success is not guaranteed—not everyone will reach the top to become an Olympian or a Professor—there is a big element of luck too—a career can stall because of an injury or because of time invested in a study that eventually yields null results, and, conversely, a single big championship win or serendipitous discovery can land a comfortable position. These factors can make these career paths unappealing, but still most people who enter them do so because they love the area, and have a real talent for the field.
I find this analogy extremely appealing. There are many parallels. Both sports and academic careers are meritocratic and competitive. Most who enter them will not become rich—those who do, usually manage it by making use of their profile, either through product endorsement or through writing a book, say Stephen Hawking, or Michael Jordan (although he was still extremely well paid). Both fields have undisputed heavy-weights like Einstein or Muhammad Ali, and media superstars like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Anna Kournikova; both have inspirational figures who have overcome adversity, be they Jesse Owens or Emmy Noether, and idols whose personal lives you probably shouldn’t emulate, say Tiger Woods or Richard Feynman. However, I think the similarity can stretch beyond career paths.
Athene says that although she doesn’t participate in athletics, she does enjoy watching the sport. I’m sure many can empathise with that position. I think that this is similarly the case for research: many enjoy finding out about new discoveries or ideas, even though they don’t want to invest the time studying themselves. There are many excellent books and documentaries, many excellent communicators of research. (I shall be helping out at this year’s British Science Festival, which I’m sure will be packed with people keen to find out about current research.) However, there is undoubtedly more that could be done, both in terms of growing the market and improving the quality—reporting of science is notoriously bad. If you were to go into any pub in the country, I’d expect you’d be able to find someone to have an in-depth conversation with about how best to manage the national football team, despite them not being a professional footballer. Why not someone with similar opinions about research council funding? Can we make research as popular as sport?
Increasing engagement with and awareness of research is a popular subject, most research grants with have some mention of wider impact; however, I don’t think that this is the only goal. According to UK government research, many young students do enjoy science, they just don’t feel it is for them. The problem is that people think that science is too difficult. Given my previous ramblings, that’s perhaps understandable. However, that was for academic research; science is far broader than that! There are many careers outside the lab, and understanding science is useful even if that’s not your job, for example when discussing subjects like global warming or vaccination that affect us all. Coming back to our sports analogy, the situation is like children not wanting to play football because they won’t be a professional. It’s true that most people aren’t good enough to play for England (potentially including members of the current squad, depending upon who you ask in that pub), but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a kick around, perhaps play for a local team at weekend, or even coach others. Playing sports regular keeps you physically fit, which is a good thing™; taking an interest in science (or language or literature or etceteras) keeps you mentally fit, also a good thing™.
How to encourage more people to engage in science is a complicated problem. There’s no single solution, but it is something to work on. I would definitely prefer to live in a science-literate society. Stressing applications of science beyond pure research might be one avenue. I would also like to emphasis that it’s OK to find science (and maths) hard. Problem solving is difficult, like long-distance running, but if you practise, it does get easier. I can only vouch for one side of that simile from personal experience, but since I’m a theoretician, I’m happy enough to state that without direct experimental confirmation. I guess that means I should take my own advice and participate more myself: spend a little more time being physically active? Motivating myself is also a difficult problem.