Editorial — Educating Upwards

By . Published on 20 December 2013 in:
December 2013, Editorial, , , ,

I think that most of us would agree that physics research is poorly understood by politicians, and that we need to explain better what it is we do, and why. But while there may be consensus on the need for better communication, there is no universal agreement on how this should be achieved. And I have also heard frequently the same complaint that no matter how much effort we make, it seems to make no difference. There is little evidence that physics is actually appreciated at the political level.

I've often felt misunderstood.

I believe that the reason for this is simple. Namely, that we are not talking to the right people in the right way.

After all, there is simply no such thing as a “Minister of Physics”. Ministries and commissions and directorates are organized around broad themes of science, technology and innovation. Others are speaking as well, and physics is in competition with every other area of science and engineering. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that any message we wish to communicate is not heard as clearly as we would like. The solution is obvious really – we have no choice but to work harder at making our message heard and hammering home the dual messages that physics is important for both future fundamental science and for shorter-term applications in industry.

But surprisingly, there is sometimes resistance from physicists to do this, and I think in part it is because talking about physics to politicians takes us very far out of our comfort zone. Speaking for myself, my first attempts as a junior academic many years ago to try to explain the importance of physics even to very sympathetic local body politicians were fairly disastrous. The arguments that convince fellow scientists are not the same ones that are effective when speaking to decision-makers and politicians, many of who come from non-science backgrounds such as law and finance.

We need to learn patience, and we need to master the general economic and social benefit arguments of physics as much as we do the science. Physicists are often hesitant to make general arguments of this sort, since we view them as potentially incomplete, but we need to find ways to be persuasive without being superficial. We need to develop techniques to “educate upwards”, that is specifically learning how to explain physics and its importance to those who make decisions about the future of our field. I believe that that is absolutely vital for us to do so that we will obtain increased influence and control over the decisions that are being made about the future of our discipline.

John Dudley
EPS President

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