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As an academic researcher in a theoretical field at a public institution, I am sensitive to the social value of my work (my own contribution to society). I do some teaching, whose contribution to society is easy to identify, but not much. Try to increase that aspect of my job, I have listed some things I can do (some of which I already do, some of which I don’t):

  • Engage in collaborations with industrial partners (favoring transfer of knowledge to practical applications).
  • Orientate one’s research goals to match an area of societal importance (green gas reduction, nuclear waste storage, you name it).
  • Communicate science to a wide public, whether it is my own research or the knowledge of my field in general (popular science). This includes writing articles in magazines, writing a blog, developing educational software, …
  • Get involved in education science: contribute to my national society of physics and chemistry teachers, for example. Offer some software for high-school and university teachers to demonstrate concepts.
  • Register as an expert with the nearest court of law.

What other suggestions do you have to improve one’s social value? (Or should I stop worrying and love the bomb?) I mean, in the short term. I know that I (and my colleagues) contribute to the advancement of mankind in the very long term, but sometimes it doesn't help feel useful.

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    Related, over on Math.SE - Can I use my powers for good? – EnergyNumbers Oct 14 '12 at 10:03
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    You can have a huge impact through education, both of students and of the wider public. Don't forget informal channels, such as mentoring young faculty, postdocs, or undergrads (especially those hoping aiming for grad school). When ignorance and misconception are replaced by knowledge and understanding, society wins. Help make that happen. – Dan C Oct 14 '12 at 20:08
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Have you considered contributing to political life? I refer not to upholding one political view or another, but rather to ensuring that there is informed scientific input on major issues when they are being debated in political circles.

I do not know in which country you live, but I am aware that there are far too many "first-world" countries in which the policy and decision makers are poorly informed at best, willfully ignorant - seemingly - at worst.

One of the best descriptions of a university that I have come across is that it should - must - act as the "critic and conscience of society". In my view this would include taking part in ensuring those that lead us are well informed.

One way this could be done is by taking an interest in the advisory process used in how policy is formed in your country. See if you can offer your specialist views via your professional association.

A related activity is to take part in advising courts when they are considering issues based on scientific topics. This would include contributing to amicus curiae briefs, for instance. This goes beyond acting as an expert witness in court. An amicus curiae brief presents a reasoned argument using a balanced analysis of facts, reaching a conclusion. A court expert, in contrast, offers answers on specific questions from the court.

  • I marked that answer as accepted. All answers highlighted very interesting (and very different) viewpoints on my question, but this one actually raised an issue I had failed to consider entirely. Thanks Nicholas, thanks everyone! – F'x Oct 18 '12 at 10:03
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On a different note from some of the other answers, try to take to heart that basic research is directly useful to society. Almost all modern pharmacology is based on decades of fundamental biochemistry and biology research. Materials science is based on years of basic chemistry and physics research. Basic math research fuels advances in all types of engineering, from signal processing to computational work to structural engineering. There are many other examples for other fields of research; please edit this answer or put them in the comments.

In short, don't underestimate your current value to society.

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    I think it's important to frame things as eykanal suggests when communicating with the general public. I.e., the message should be "basic research is of great value to society in the long run, and here are some other things I do that have shorter-term impact", rather than "here are some things I do to make up for the fact that my research sounds abstract and useless". – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 14 '12 at 14:41
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    I don't think its about underestimating one's value, rather about the direct impact of one's research. A 'normal' basic researcher may not invent something that has a direct impact on the society at large (exceptions do exist). But years of continual (follow-up) effort by a lot of people makes sense to the research carried out; as eykanal points out. I think, in that light, OP wanted to know what social impact do/can a researcher make in his society and the term 'contribution' is not limited to field of research. As noted in Q it is a thought of a researcher from a theoretical field. – Noble P. Abraham Oct 14 '12 at 16:51
  • No, it's not about the direct impact of one's research. It's about the impact of one's research. – JeffE Oct 15 '12 at 15:41
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    @JeffE - I think it's purely a psychological desire to have a visible positive impact. Indirect effects are much harder to quantify, and therefore justify internally (and externally, if that's your thing). – eykanal Oct 15 '12 at 15:43
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Instead of thinking increasing my own social value (reputation), I think the other way round. The society is supporting me in carrying out the research (in theoretical field), in innumerable dimensions; from the public transport systems to research grants. I think of the ways that I can, at least in part, repay the tax-payers of my nation.

Some of the activities that I do, that I think, will be useful to the society include,

  • helping fellow research scholars in other fields or disciplines in areas where I have expertise. It can vary from a simple installation of a software or help in filling a grant application to active discussion in improving their research or interpreting their results (that helps me too, indirectly).
  • popularize the field among school/college students and common people, so that better ignited minds take up the field for their career.
  • actively participate in various professional and amateur associations/societies/forums related to my field or where I can make some contributions.
  • provide support to enthusiastic people who wish to take up a career in the field or a related field, by helping them in a project or connecting them with a better experienced person. As a researcher, sometimes I have better contacts.
  • provide administrative assistance to the needy persons in my institution where I have better exposure/access, like filing an application form or submitting various fees etc.

In short, the various activities that I involve myself in, improves my social value, as far as I have experienced. The more I try to give, the more I get in return.

If you are active in the society and if they feel you are really worth, the society reaches you for help or assistance and they value your suggestions.

  • Maybe I chose the wrong term… by “social value”, I mean “what I give to society” or “what I am worth for the society as a whole”. Not my “social status” or anything like that… Can you suggest a way to express that better? (I'll then edit the question for clarity.) – F'x Oct 14 '12 at 8:52
  • How about How can a researcher improve contributions to his/her society? ? – Noble P. Abraham Oct 14 '12 at 9:04
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Although communicating science to a broader audience is important, using scientific principles to solve the basic problems of the community may be even more important and rewarding. A chilean innovation center designed and built a water sanitation system. This system has been installed in poor neighborhoods where the access to purified water did not exist. Here you can see a video with english subtitles.

Obviously, the extent to which you can undertake a similar initiative depends on your specialties. Even though being a researcher you may be overqualified, a more attainable initiative would be to teach high school teachers or the community. For instance, a chilean NGO teach classes for micro-entrepreneurs. The instructors are usually university students that volunteer in the organization. The students are owners of small business (e.g., local grocery). The courses include a wide range of topics, such as concepts related to taxation and some ideas about economics and marketing.

You can have even a greater impact if you distribute contents designed by you on the internet. Similar to what you suggest, you can design an e-learning course and post it on the web.

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Great question. I agree with the earlier post that basic research is important but one also has to come to an understanding of what level of feedback you need for the impact of your actions. For some, totally unapplied, ethereal math modelling might be their best way to contribute to the world, others need to feel like they are doing something every day that has a direct impact.

I studied complexity theory for my PhD (modelling army ant swarming) and this directly informs my thinking in how I understand the world. But as I finished my degree I felt like I needed my daily work to have a more immediate and direct impact on the world and so I completely switched fields. Now I build gigapixel timelapse cameras for capturing long term environmental change. I chose this because people process information visually and so we should show them environmental change in compelling ways. Army ants and complexity theory are cool but I could spend my whole academic career modeling ants and in 30 years there would be no rainforests left for ants to live in. But sometimes even now I feel like I'm tilting at windmills. As an ecologist I think we are at a tipping point in human history because if humans don't transition to sustainability in the next few decades the lives of a lot of the population will be a whole lot worse than they might be otherwise. I often wonder if I should drop everything and become a full time activist... When do things become so dire you drop what you are doing and run to put out the fire instead of making beautiful movies of people who are on fire? But then again you have to go with what you are good at and so on.

Overall though I agree the best thing to do is to educate the public and find ways to make your skills useful to others. At this point, at least in America bringing thoughtful science understanding of any sort to the wider public is an immeasurable and essential contribution given the sorry state of the American understanding of reality.

But we all should be asking ourselves fairly regularly if there is more we could do. Things don't change until enough people are pushing in the same direction that we can overcome the inertia of existing power structures (I learned that studying complexity theory ;).

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