Although it is a good month out from the barrage of holiday parties, I'm really only able to talk about it now. I hate them. Once you get to a certain age and have lived in a place for awhile though, there's no avoiding it. Between work parties for you and your spouse (sometime several each), parties for the Spawn (extra bonus: separate party for SpawnFriend Parents!), neighborhood... There are about 4x parties where x represents the vaguely reasonable number of party opportunities from Thanksgiving until Christmas. Here's the thing though.
This is one of the best parts of my actual job because I get to talk with the Boss, who is also my client. You know, the US Taxpayer.
It is not news to observe that there is a lot of yammering these days about communication of science to "the people" which in the US anyway, you can read as "the voters" or "the taxpayers". Said yammering is in the scientific blogs of course, but also at the local institutional level. Deans, Chairs and heads of the "Integrated Graduate Program of Whassat". Heads of academic societies, Emeritii and your local deadwood hall prowler alike. I get an email on the topic just about once a week from one or other of these sources. In the biomedical research fields, this is in large part due to the NIH budget problems and the majority of the mailing-list missives end with "Please call your Representative or Senator!". We've discussed this before and will again; but this is not today's topic.
I enjoy the privilege and annoyance of working in at least a few sub-fields in which everybody feels qualified to render opinion. We know how that can go. It also means that people are interested in my area of science. Very interested. A non-exhaustive sampling in no particular order is on tap for today.
So here's what I got from the inevitable "So, what do you do?" conversations during this past holiday party season.
Alcohol: It is almost certain guaranteed you are going to have one AA success story to talk with, three people with an Uncle Jim who died of alcoholism and about twenty people who want to talk about "How do you know when you are an alcoholic?".
Marijuana: The first camp are the ones that used to smoke out quite a bit prior to kids/job/graduation. They want to talk about lasting brain and cognitive effects of course. The second are the parents of teens with the indirect questions. "Is it true that marijuana takes away your motivation?". "Is it addictive?" "Isn't the pot these days a lot stronger and more dangerous?"
Methamphetamine: From the law-enforcement types who, perhaps surprisingly to some, just want some help. Especially from the bench where they have to make the decision to send Mommy away to prison merely for being addicted to drugs. To deal with the realities of the de-tox and relapse cycle.
This is only a partial list for the drug abuse conversations. And then there are the developmental disorder chats with Autism and Attention Deficit tops of the charts. The point is that these are fantastic real world lab opportunities to hone the message on the importance of science (and oh, btw, NIH funding). To show your employers/clients exactly why the stuff that you are doing is relevant to their lives and the lives of their loved ones*.
You don't need to talk in high falutin' terms about "framing" or talk down the intellectual nose to the trailer park residents. Needn't get into abstract policy issues over stem cells, evolution or any of that. You just talk to people about the things that are important to them. They get it, really they do.
"Ahh" you say, "But DM, that drug abuse stuff is easy. My science is just too complicated". Some truth, yes. But c'mon. I live amongst those whose fondest discussions revolve around the minutia of the FR10 vs the VI3 schedule of reinforcement, the mantle versus shell versus core of the Physio-Wimple nucleus, the subtleties of the gnupi tract in nicotine self-administration, the song of the JSing cells after alcohol, the rapture of debating whether it really is a third cannabinoid receptor and, yes, the upregulation of genes such as trobey and ngray in response to cocaine. That. Stuff. Bores. The. Crap. Out. Of. People!
So monitor yourselves in these little conversations. Which you will be having, yes? All politics is local my friends. When the eyes glaze over, back off your enraptured scientist stuff, eh?
*and yes, we'll be getting to those answers.