Not all research is applied; academic research typically addresses very specific questions within a field. However, most plant biologists can easily identify where and how their research will touch society, be that through agriculture, clean energy, water and soil remediation, or pharmaceuticals, to name a few. I have found it extremely beneficial to think of my research as part of a larger problem, and to be at least aware, and at best well versed, in the complexities of that problem. When we know the context of our work and how it affects others, we are more capable of empathizing with public opinion and concerns surrounding research and new technologies. This is a particularly relevant skill, given that public trust of scientists with regards to climate change and agriculture is marginal at best1.

Digging into the non-scientific aspect of your science

After you identify the (perhaps far) downstream application of work, think about the other aspects of that theme. For example, within agriculture research, we might consider the following themes: food security, nutritionism, biotechnology, and culture. If your research impacts food security, you might consider brushing up on the topics of mal-nutrition and obesity2, or food deserts and urban farming3. With regards to nutritionism and biofortification, consider the history and influence of marketing in the food industry4. In the realm of plant biotechnology, issues include conventional vs organic farming5, public perception of GMO’s at home and abroad, policy surrounding transgenic and genetically edited crops6, and seed politics7. We can even think of food as culture, and learn about the history of cooking8 and evolution of eating patterns9.

Getting started

There are three simple ways to educate yourself about the context of your research. First, read about the topic. I highly recommend books listed below as good places to start. This process will then allow you to identify thought leaders. Stay connected and updated with content by following thought leaders on social media, attending relevant talks, and seeking out relevant publications. For example, in addition to scientific researchers, I follow thought leaders such as Robert Paarlberg, Michael Pollan, and Pamela Ronald; all authors of books in the recommended reading section. Lastly, position yourself to engage with the public on these issues. This could mean volunteering with a food bank or community garden, striking up conversation with friends and family, or contributing your own content on blogs or social media. This practice has allowed me to connect with people of differing opinions, practice communication to non-scientists, and develop an even deeper appreciation for the work done by plant biologists.

Recommended Reading

1.       Funk C. Mixed Messages about Public Trust in Science. Pew Res Cent Internet Sci Tech. December 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/12/08/mixed-messages-about-public-trust-in-science/. Accessed March 1, 2018.

2.       Taubes G. The Case Against Sugar. Reprint edition. S.l.: Anchor; 2017.

3.       Stone CA. The Urban Farmer: Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers; 2015.

4.       Nestle M, Pollan M. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Revised, Expanded edition. Berkeley Los Angeles London: University of California Press; 2013.

5.       Ronald PC, Adamchak RW. Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Reprint edition. New York: Oxford University Press; 2010.

6.       Paarlberg R. Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know®. 2 edition. New York: Oxford University Press; 2013.

7.       Jr JRK. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology. 2 edition. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press; 2005.

8.       Wrangham R. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Reprint edition. New York: Basic Books; 2010.

9.       Pollan M. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Reprint edition. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 2014.