Research Funding & Public Image

Alexander Berezin berezin at MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA
Fri Jul 7 09:57:12 EST 1995


To the on-coming discussion on "Lab
Certification" and other research- related 
issues:

In order to win the support of the public
(and politicians) for the university-based
reasearch several measures are needed.
The following letter suggests at least ONE
such measure which could help a lot.

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RESEARCHERS SHOULD INFORM PUBLIC

(published in CAUT [Canadian Association of
University Teachers ] bulletin, June 1995)

Recent attacks by some politicians on so-called 
"useless" research in universities could likely be
avoided should we, researchers, care to increase
public awareness of what we are actually doing.

Among research projects which were recently ridiculed
in the press by the Reform Party Member of Parlament
Randy White was a study on "Lie theory". It did not 
occur to him that it was not a study of lies, but on 
a mathematical Lie group theory. However, let's not
shift all the blame to the ill-informed members of 
the public. Why should we expect public respect of our
scholarly pursuits if we ourselves show a disrespect
for the public by failing to explain the essence of
our work in layman terms ?

We propose the following remedy. All university
professors active in research should prepare an
executive summary of their work written in layman terms
(as the great physicist Ernst Rutherford once said "any 
good theory should be explainable to a barperson"). 

Naturally, such summaries should be updated as necessary.
The work required for their preparation is obviously 
minimal in comparison with the social benefit steming from
such summaries. It should be the mandate of NSERC - and
other major funding agencies - to keep an updated
(perhaps electronic) database of these summaries and have
it readily available to MPs and other interested members
of the Canadian public. After all, the public is paying 
the major portion of our research bill.

We believe that this measure could prevent, or at least
greatly reduce, uninformed comments and unjustified
conclusions that may be difficult or impossible to rectify
after the initial publicity. We are confident that the 
Canadian academic community will cooperate with this idea
and that this will contribute to the public's undestanding 
of the diversity of roles played by the university in our
society.  

Naeem Jan 
      Professor of Physics,
      St.Francis Xavier University,
      Antigonish, Nova Scotia

Alexander A. Berezin
      Professor of Engineering Physics,
      McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario  

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