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Nostalgia for ‘Just Science’

Despite Smil’s reach—some of the world’s most powerful banks and bureaucrats routinely ask for his advice—he has remained intensely private. Other experts tap dance for attention and pursue TED talks. But Smil is a throwback, largely letting his books speak for themselves. He loathes speaking to the press (and opened up to Science only out of a sense of duty to The MIT Press, his longtime publisher). “I really don’t think I have anything special to say,” he says. “It’s out there if you want to know it.”

–“Meet Vaclav Smil, the man who has quietly shaped how the world thinks about energy,” Paul Voosen, Science

I’ve heard and seen researchers many times express the meme that “science should speak for itself,” but the above is one of the purest distillations (and from a journalist, no less). The contrast here between the modest, abstemious Smil waving off publicity versus those “other experts” who might as well have their own ad jingles is instantly appealing to a certain class of scientist, one I’ve often found has a considerable ego seething just underneath that precious stance of refusing the tawdry ways of the world.

We might call this attitude the nostalgia for just science — the idea that science and research shouldn’t have to promote or market themselves; that the work should be enough; that science should always work quietly, behind the scenes; that excellence will always rise to the top and that, if your work is first-rate, that the world will eventually come to you.

Those of you who run research-driven organizations might have such nostalgics on their staff, and you might have already spent a lot of time trying to convince them that, no, Vaclav Smil is the exception that proves the rule, and we live in marketplaces of ideas, not just the bubbles of research and so have to consider the needs of both, so could you please work on a blog post about your findings?

My advice: that has been time wasted. Stop wasting your time. Identify the research staff who have an appetite for engagement (here are two tests to determine who they are) and are willing to incorporate the questions of your audiences in the very design of their research. Run with them for your engagement content and thought leadership.

There will always be researchers content to do just research. There’s nothing wrong with that posture. But there’s nothing elevated about it, either. And when you’re competing for funding and attention and impact, the nostalgia for just science is almost certainly a luxury.