Research Round-up: Science is much harder than it should be

RichardThis week, we’re kicking off a series of guest blogs from our Mozilla Fellows for Science, starting with Richard Smith-Unna, you can read more about Richard here on the 2015 fellows’ page, and read on to learn about his thoughts on open science, and his interaction with its discontents. Reach out to him on twitter @blahah404, or read his blog here.

Becoming a scientist is hard – I remember feeling very stupid as a student. Being a scientist is also hard – I still feel stupid a lot of the time! Science is about discovering things we didn’t know before, so we expect it to be a little hard. But I’ve come to realise that most of the feeling that it’s difficult comes from the tools and resources being difficult to use – not from the subject matter itself being hard. I’ve also come to realise that it doesn’t have to be this way.

When I felt confused and frustrated as a learner it wasn’t because I was stupid, it was because **what I was trying to take part in was not accessible**. We know an incredible amount about how to design user experiences effectively, and how to teach people well. It’s time we systematically applied these insights in science.

If someone wants to take part in science in any way, we should make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Stuff that scientists make should be easy to find and reuse by scientists and others. Science isn’t as hard as we make it look. We can do better.

Why is this happening?

I won’t pretend to know all the reasons why we fail to make science accessible. But I have some ideas.

In science there is a limited pool of money. Everyone who wants a job doing science is competing for a slice of that money. There’s not enough money for everyone to do what they want. So, there has to be a compromise.

Scientists have to do the kinds of science that get funding. If they don’t, they’ll be out of a job. So the people who hand out the money determine what kinds of science get done. That sets the tone for science culture.

The result is that scientists are trying to generate attention grabbing papers as efficiently as possible. They focus on getting the result, getting the paper written, and using as much free labour as possible. They don’t focus on the things that make science really valuable to society: being careful; getting closer to the truth over time; making their work products easy for others to engage with.

What can we do about it?

The obvious approach is to tackle the problem at the source: change the way money is handed out. But I think most people will feel powerless to make this happen. What else can we do to change our culture?

Regardless of how money is handed out, many scientists would make their work more accessible if it were easy. We could be making it easy to make science accessible.

One way to do this is to lead by example. There aren’t many good examples of advanced science learning resources that are really, truly easy to use. The same goes for software – there are very few examples of science tools with a really great user experience. And scientific communities online can be very exclusive – we need examples that show how we can make everyone feel welcome, valued and involved.

We also need resources and tools that make accessibility easy. For example, paper-writing tools could help us use less jargon. We could have a guide to managing accessible communities. Or a software user experience assessment and improvement service. The possibilities are endless.

All of these challenges could be tackled at a variety of scales.

We could take a specific field and improve one project there, to show how it could be done. Perhaps a specific example would translate to other fields – or perhaps the solution would be too subject-specific to transfer.

At the wider scale, we could develop solutions that apply to the whole of science. For example, changing how we communicate science in general, or how we can access the literature and re-use it.

The need to keep a broad array of people informed and engaged is not unique to science. For example, governments, journalists, and open source software projects face similar challenges. In many cases, they may have effective solutions we can learn form.