July 18, 2014

What makes good science writing?

While working on my writing my dissertation now, I'm also involved in editing articles for the Embryo Project Encyclopedia. I think I enjoy this job because I'm working out both my science-brain and writing-brain. It can be a real challenge to transform an undergrad's piece of writing into publishable material, but it's also very rewarding.

In my program, Biology and Society, we are encouraged to take the Embryo Project writing and editing classes. Actually, you can read about it in the Huffington Post right now, where a former EP scholar shares her thoughts on the experience. In the editing class, we receive a lot of training on how to write clearly and logically about science. Some of the main lessons I've learned through the course and my own editing are:

  • Present information in a logical order (i.e. big concept to detailed concept)
  • Always explain uncommon words
  • If you're going to use a technical word or acronym only once or twice, get rid of it and use a more common word
  • Avoid nominalizations (making words into unnecessarily longer nouns)
  • No passive voice
From what I've experienced, a lot of scientists struggle with everything except the first point, because the rest are regularly included, if not encouraged, in scientific writing such as journal articles. When you're writing for a scientific audience, it's quite like writing in a foreign language because you assume that your audience already has a grasp on that language. But when I write or edit for a public audience, I only assume that person has about a 9th grade education. Which is a good rule in general if you're speaking to an audience outside of your own field!

There are some good examples of science writing out there, such as the New York Times Science section, NPR's science section, Scientific American, and Wired. I was wondering what else my audience would recommend? And what, for you, makes science writing good?

May 24, 2014

Well, this is a terrible idea...

From Al Jazeera America, "House votes to defund reality"
"On Thursday, 227 Republicans and four Democrats voted for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) proposed by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., that would prevent the Pentagon from spending money to carry out the policy recommendations from the National Climate Assessment or several United Nations reports on climate change and sustainability. 
It’s unclear if the amendment will make it into the final version of the NDAA — the annual spending bill for the Department of Defense, which is worked out mutually between the Senate and the House. But the overwhelming support in the House highlights the increasingly obvious gap between elected Republicans (and a few Democrats) and pretty much every government agency.   
The military has long been aware that climate change is a real and growing threat to the United States. Most recently, in a report published by a government-funded nonprofit earlier in May, retired military officers warned that climate change has already stretched defense budgets and could cause disruptions in military operations."
The Department of Defense has historically led federal innovations in science and technology. It would be a shame to see funding cut for development of common sense technologies that the DOD has identified as important for national security. It seems to me unlikely that this amendment will pass negotiations in the Senate. 

May 11, 2014

My dissertation niche

I've spent the past two weeks in the Rockefeller Archive Center, on my final dissertation research collection trip. Archive trips (especially funded archive trips) are a time to dive completely into research: supporting (or conflating) what I've already collected and analyzed; discovering new pathways; and reflecting on my experiences in the past 18 months from New Delhi and north India to Iowa and New York.

Taking advantage of my break in routine, I've started re-reading the secondary sources that I've collected over the past four years. Now that my dissertation topic (which I'll get to in a minute) is much more narrow from when I started, I'm reading my sources for their overall scope down to the detail of each relevant archive source.

I started my research with a general interest in the scientific, social, and political issues of the Green Revolution as well as the contemporary research trajectories of climate change adaptation in India. Each of those topics are incredibly broad, and the history of the Green Revolution is already documented, in detail, by researchers with much more experience, insight, and resources (archival, personal contacts, funding) at their disposal.

But on my first research trip to India, I had an insight that brought all of my interests together. I heard a scientist use the phrase "wide adaptation" to describe a particular crop variety, and I thought back to something I've ruminated on since doing research in Bangladesh, as well as what I'd read in the historical literature. Wide adaptation means the stability of a crop variety over different environments; but why did "wide adaptation" or "yield stability" become a thing that scientists wanted in a crop? Throughout my research I found that wide adaptation, and the ideas correlated with it, is incredibly controversial, even today. Yet it remains the main goal of India's wheat program, and the main "public good" oriented wheat research center, CIMMYT, in Mexico.

My dissertation research now focuses on the history of crop adaptation studies, globally, as well as their manifestation in Indian wheat science in the 1960s. Much of my research traces the international influence of Rockefeller Foundation scientists such as Norman Borlaug, Keith Finlay, R. Glenn Anderson, and Charles Krull. I also look at how Indian and Rockefeller scientists re-organized Indian wheat research around wide adaptation.

I now feel incredibly satisfied that my research brings a new perspective to the history of Green Revolution science. Drawing from histories by authors such as Nick Cullather, John H. Perkins, and Madhumita Saha, agricultural and social scientists such as Salvatore Ceccarelli and David Cleveland, and my primary sources (which include archives, historical reports and conference proceedings, and scientific articles), I look at what influenced agricultural scientists to discover, adapt, and promote wide adaptation.

It's been so much fun for me to study the complex scientific and social backgrounds of my research, though it can be boring to sift through document after document looking for relevant data. The point is, I'm making a unique contribution to a topic I've followed for a long time, and I feel good about it. I can't wait to see how my dissertation will end up!