Two Pillars of Modern Science: Translation and Communication

by Nicholas A. Peppas | Mar 07, 2023

Nicholas Peppas

Since the conclusion of our recent IFoRE conference, I have been thinking about the future of science and the way we do research. Many of us once pursued purely fundamental research. Why? Well, first, it was satisfying. It was always being built upon the edifice we had already started building. I am an engineer by training, and I believe many engineers are (or were) cryptoscientists. The funding system and the way we were doing things in the 1970s and 1980s were very favorable for many of us. I distinctly recall a senior colleague at Purdue University, where I worked at that time, looking at my CV and commenting, “What is this paper in the Journal of Applied Polymer Science? What does ‘applied’ mean? Science is science.”

He may have had a point: Fundamental research simply had to be done. Let’s not forget just how many fundamental leaps later led to major advances in computers, microelectronics, sensors, nanomaterials, and so much more. But things changed drastically by the mid-1980s. The days of limitless funding for academic projects had passed. By the early 1990s, it became clear that what academics like me were doing had to have more applicable or applied aspects. Questions first came from the public—and one or two maverick senators (at least in the United States)—asking what the purpose of research even was. Affected by this new way of thinking, scientists began to realize that working on fundamental problems because “we like to work on them” was not enough, and was no longer appropriate in the modern cultural milieu. I recall my first talk at a European university in 1992, where I uttered the opinion that European taxpayers should be supporting professorial salaries for the purpose of the proliferation of awards, and because professors should be allowed to continue doing what “they like best.”

Now research has taken on yet another new face. It must be translational in the broad sense of the word, in that it must be applied and communicated to all fields. Many scientists still do not realize that we are responsible first and foremost for effective communication. Many continue to believe that ignorance about science simply amounts to a lack of information, and that if people are simply given facts, they will become science supporters. Yet the best means of effective science communication include cultural sensitivity, finding common ground, employing accurate narratives, and connecting with people. Thus, there is an obvious need to bring together researchers and science communicators for closer collaboration.

As evidenced by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, scientific misinformation can spread quickly, causing serious damage to society. Effective, accurate science communication skills can have a broad, positive impact on society, as well as the culture and norms of scientific academia itself.



Nicholas A. Peppas, ScD
Sigma Xi President

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