Friday, January 27, 2017

Scientists as Communicators, or, Those Amazing Insects

May Berenbaum, President of the Entomological Society of America, published an editorial in the September 23, 2016 issue of Science magazine. She described the unfortunate lack of knowledge and appreciation that the general public has regarding insects. The average American thinks of insects as disgusting and dangerous. This, she says, has to change.

One reason that it has to change is that some very important challenges—not just ecological, but economic and medical—depend on insect research. The first one that comes to mind is the massive dieoff of honeybees, which pollinate important crop plants. As May said in a radio interview a year or so ago, “every third bite” of food depends either directly (as in apples) or indirectly (as in cattle that eat alfalfa) on pollinator activity. But in the editorial May also told amazing success stories in controlling the spread of insect pests and the diseases that they spread. Her main example was the male-sterilization approach to eradicating screw-worm flies (whose maggots live in cows), first on CuraƧao and then, by 1966, the United States. In 2005, USDA wanted to eradicate screw-worms in Central America, to prevent them from spreading back to the United States. But Republicans dismissed this as a flagrant and silly waste of taxpayer money—I can just hear them saying who the f*** cares about screw-worms?—and it was mentioned in The Pig Book: How Government Wastes Your Money. It appears that “just ignore insects” might be a good summary of Republican policy. One Trump administration official late last fall briefly speculated that mosquito-spread Zika virus research was not necessary.

May puts part of the blame on entomologists themselves, who appear to be even more loath than other scientists to tell taxpayers and readers about the importance of their work. May said, “entomologists…need to talk about insect science with the rest of the world.” May has spent an entire career not only as one of the leading entomologists in the world but also as a tireless promoter of the public appreciation of insects. Her books include Ninety-nine Gnats, Nits, and Nibblers, Ninety-Nine More Maggots, Mites, and Munchers, and Bugs in the System. But even as a very young assistant professor at the University of Illinois, she had a radio show on a local radio station, WEFT, Those Amazing Insects. They only let her have a few minutes and she crammed as much as she could into that precious time. That is why I refer to her by her first name; I remember her from back in those days, when I was a graduate student at Illinois. I think I attended all of her Insect Fear Film Festivals while I was in grad school.

May, shown here with me and her collaborator, the late Art Zangerl, in 2009, is an unusually gifted communicator. And I consider myself, while not quite in May’s league, to be above average. But all of us scientists can—and must—improve our communication with those citizens whom we serve and who pay at least part of our salaries.

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