Nature Blog Network

Friday, June 27, 2008

Thoughts on Education and Popular Science Books

Brian from the wonderful blog Laelaps has great post titled "Everything I Needed to Know About Science I Didn't Learn in High School." Go there and read it if you haven't already. There are 2 things this brings up in my mind. The first is science education in high schools. There are billions of high schools in the United States, each with its own mission statement on how and what science should be taught.

Brian's point was that science education in high school did not prepare him for college-level science. My own personal experience is similar, but unlike Brian I never once gave a thought to being a scientist as a high school student. It was the furthest thing from my mind. Instead, I focused on plotting my path to rockstardom. Haven't heard of me? Haven't seen my video on MTv? Yeah, I didn't quite make it...

Memories of my class titled "Basic Science" have more to do with messing around and writing poetry, not conducting experiments or learning basic concepts. The other science class I took was Chemistry, which I barely passed to fulfill requirements for 2 years of science courses. Lets just say that by the end of the year our virgin instructor resigned and moved away somewhere. I was neither inspired by nor educated in science when I received my diploma. How I became a scientist is still a mystery to me to this day.

The second interesting point was about the price disparity between "real" science books and pseudo-science books. Many bloggers have pointed to recent examples of poor or misleading science writing. Yet, as a current job seeker with an extensive and broad background in science, I am unable to get a job in science journalism/writing because I do not have a journalism background. Apparently, it is unimportant to know anything in depth about science to write about it for a profession, with the rare exception of established individuals of course.

As Brian is knee-deep into writing his own popular science book, I understand this is probably heavy on his mind. I have also outlined the chapters for a popular science book I hope to start writing once I sort of particulars of my life. His comment is:

"It may not be representative of trends as a whole, but I couldn't help but notice that a new copy of Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution costs about half as much as new books about evolution like Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish; it's cheaper to pick up a piece of pseudoscience than a book about one of the most interesting recent finds in evolutionary biology. I doubt that we'll ever reach a point where good popular science books are distributed for free but I think that there does need to be a greater consciousness of how things like price can affect how widely science books are read."

Good science writing is a skill and a service. As such, it should be possible to make money for this endeavor. I do not mean getting rich, but livable wages. If books are free how can a writer, and publisher, makes a livable wage? One roadblock may be in convincing granting agencies that it is in the public's interest to have easily accessible science books that are guaranteed to be inspiring, informative and entertaining. If educators and politicians are truly concerned about the decline of US science and math with respect other western countries, then this may be an investment worth exploring.

Is it possible for foundations, non-profits, government agencies and the like to fork over grant money for book proposals? Agencies can put out calls for proposals to write about aspects of their funded research (or have open calls). Additionally, inclined investigators can include funds in research grants for outreach via books. This can be done by the investigator or to fund a science writer interested in their research, or perhaps to support a graduate student in science journalism/english under the auspices of a co-advisor in that department. In particular, there are many benefits to the last approach. A graduate student in journalism or english could be co-advised by an advisors in science and journalism/english. A year of support from the scientist's grant to carry out all literature research, interviews and gathering of materials necessary to write a book about an area of mutual interest with the scientist. The rest of the student's support can be gained through teaching assistants or fellowships through the journalism/english program. Is there something like this in place somewhere?

To reduce the costs of popular science books, or to make them free, and increase their accessibility by printing them online or as a downloadable pdf file. This makes books open access (OA) and free to anyone a la PLoS/BMC. Perhaps PLoS or BMC could start an OA book publishing service. But the question still remains how an individual or organisation can profit, or at the very least have all expenses paid, from creating and publishing free/at cost popular science books. The author pay to publish scheme would certainly not attract many freelance authors. There is also the question of using other people's content for profit, such as photographs.

The only way I can see this happening is if science writers are able to secure grants to cover salary and expenses while writing a book. Anyone else have any thoughts or ideas?


  1. I know it's not entirely the same, but some of the government agencies fund scientists and professors to write extensive guide books/manuscripts which are then often available to the public for How is your MPA doing? (PDF) written by Robert Pomeroy, John Parks and Lani Watson and published by NOAA. Not exactly public science book, but fully funded for three professors/scientists to write by NOAA, WWF and IUCN grants.

    I think the co-advising/joint department model you mentioned would be very workable! I'm currently working for two different grants doing video work as an outreach product. Why not a book?

  2. One other thing ... what about things like PEW fellowships and similar more or less unrestricted grants with strong emphasis on outreach.


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