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A metaphor for science and technology

by Eva Amsen

Forget about art and science – this century has a whole new two world problem: science and technology

It’s been nagging me for a while – at science online conferences (both the London and North Carolina varieties), in talks with lab mates, at work at a scientific publisher, and hanging out with technology-oriented geeks in my spare time. There’s a gap between science and technology, and it’s growing.Were we to take some opinions on the street, vox-pop-style, about perceived “two worlds” between science and other fields, I’m sure many would still point to a supposed divide between the arts and sciences. That may be what it seems like – from books and TV, from high school memories – but if you’re

Were we to take some opinions on the street, vox-pop-style, about perceived “two worlds” between science and other fields, I’m sure many would still point to a supposed divide between the arts and sciences. That may be what it seems like – from books and TV, from high school memories – but if you’re in art or science, this supposed divide is so well-bridged that you don’t even notice the chasm when you cross it.

Yet what none of our hypothetical vox-poppers would say is that there is such a thing as a divide between science and technology. To the contrary, they always see them together. “Science and Technology” share newspaper sections, website pages, and ticky-boxes on “occupation” fields in surveys. Science brought us technology, so surely they go hand in hand?

It’s true, they used to go well together, and in certain fields of research they still do, but apart from areas like computer science or bioinformatics, there is no correlation between people who like to use computers, and people who like to do research.

The thing is: scientists are just like normal people. You’ll find that a small group of them is hugely interested in blogging, just like a small group of the overall population is. Another (perhaps overlapping) group is over the moon about new web tools they can try out in the lab, just like there’s a small group of early adopters in the general population. But by and large, many scientists hate new things.

It is this audience of print-reading, references-in-Word-typing, Facebook-avoiding researchers that we are trying to get to download new reference managers, upload their data for their competitors, and while they’re at it, write a blog post or two.

It’s scary for me to sit in a seminar that teaches publishers and scientists about social media – things I’ve picked up on the go, without anyone teaching me – and it’s frustrating to see enthusiastic digital natives pitch the next new tool to reluctant researchers. I’ve seen both. I’m kind of in between the two worlds, and they really are two worlds.

Where art and science have many bridges (a love for high resolution microscopy, excitement about data from outer space, and a common struggle to get funded – to name a few) science and technology have little to go on. They share a past, but they’ve moved in their own direction.

Here’s a metaphor: Science and Technology used to sit next to each other in elementary school, but throughout high school and college Technology got really popular and famous, and Science never changed much.

Now when they meet once in a while, to catch up over coffee, Technology still acts like they’re as close friends as they were when they were ten, but Science doesn’t even know what Technology is talking about when he says things like “widget”, really does not think he needs any of the things Technology seems to be trying to give him, and regularly glances under the table at the minute hand on his watch, to make sure he gets back to the lab in time. “Man, Technology really changed”, thinks Science, “and he hasn’t even asked me how I am…”

I’m friends with both of them, and it’s getting more and more difficult to find common ground for these guys. And the hypothetical vox-pop interviewees from before? They just remember Science and Technology from when they were all in elementary school together: they were the two nerds, always sitting next to each other at the front. Surely they’re still in touch? They were always so close…

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Mark Hahnel December 5, 2010 - 5:32 PM

This is the exact reason I set up science3point0.com, there is that niche of people who traverse both worlds. There are so many researchers who do not however, I think the classic example is Mendeley. Great tool that so many researchers dont use just because they are ignorant about it. I think age plays a significant role. In 20 years as those who grow up with the technology get their own tenureships and actively encourage the use of web tools, I dont think the gap will exist.

Bob O'Hara December 5, 2010 - 6:34 PM

This rings true for me – just trying to get scientists to use a wiki has been a pain.


Bianca Kramer December 5, 2010 - 6:45 PM

"He hasn’t even asked me how I am" – I think that’s  quite apt. So many people just see the latest technology as the next big hype that’s of no direct use to them.
But then again, I think of what Clay Shirky wrote in ‘Here Comes Everybody’ about the ‘power distribution’ in the use of Web2.0-technology: there will always be a small group that actively participates (sharing data, creating  content) and a long tail of people that read/view/consume, but don’t actively contribute.
So maybe having only a subpopulation that’s actively involved in new technology is just what is to be expected and not something to worry about.
I think it’s great there are those seminars you described, but maybe it should be more ‘information’ and less ‘push’. People will pick and choose for themselves, even if that means not picking up anything right now. They might in the future.
And… I see publishing as an area where science and technology will have a bridge!

Bulgaria sanane December 6, 2010 - 1:08 AM

 thnx for sharing great article if admin give me permission i wanna this topic put it my blog  bulgaristanda e?itim cuz i live in bulgaria a lots people doesnt know english i should be translated firstly bulgarian languages

Barbara Ferreira December 6, 2010 - 10:14 AM

The metaphor is brilliant! And I completely agree with your view. As I was writing my blog post this week (on technology), I wondered if the topic would be appropriate for a science blog. 

Eva Amsen December 6, 2010 - 12:05 PM

Thanks all.

Just a little gripe inspired by attending an online info conference, and seeing the huuuuuuge gap between themarketing talks and the science publishing talks. The first assumes that the (non-tech!) audience already knows all the different tools, and the second is all "this is a website." (Well, not that extreme, but really not far from it…) So people doing media and communications are all up to date on web 2.0, and people doing science are not. That just felt…weird, and got me thinking that the times when science and the internet went hand in hand were not that long ago. Seventies, eighties, nineties still – but as soon as the web got popular with everyone, it’s like scientists jumped off the bandwagen.

Cath Ennis December 7, 2010 - 8:04 PM

I know just what you’re saying, Eva, but obviously my current department is an anomoly. The PIs are all doing fancy schmancy technology-driven science – next gen sequencing, live cell imaging, high throughput whole genome siRNA knock down screens, PET/CT scans, etc. I guess this kind of field tends to also attract people who love other kinds of technology, too!

Richard P. Grant December 9, 2010 - 9:52 PM

 Hello Eva,

Lou Woodley has locked me out of my blog. Can you still log in?

Richard P. Grant December 9, 2010 - 11:04 PM

I’m now blogging at http://occamstypewriter.org/rpg/ . Thanks!

Tara LaForce December 22, 2010 - 5:23 AM

I agree, but you didn’t mention how many technology people know nothing about science as well.  Convincing Technology to develop a new widget that is actually useful to Science isn’t easy.

Duncan Hull December 22, 2010 - 11:55 AM

 Hi Eva, nice post, I agree with many of your points about technophobic scientists. If you type ‘science’ and ‘technology’ into the google ngrams viewer, you get some interesting results. Science reigned supreme for at least 150 years (according to its word frequency) but what has happened since 1960 is technology seems to be gaining fast… perhaps its inevitable with the rising importance of technology that a gulf grows between these two communities?

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