Why Is The Why Difficult for Scientists?

Being a scientist is more than a job – it’s a way of thinking, a way of living, a way of interacting with the world. For some of you, it is the best job in the world!  Our passion is clearly important, and yet … we so rarely share it. Why?

This is the first in a series about scientists communicating the ‘why’ of their work. In the coming weeks, I’ll share other scientists’ reflections, insights, and stories on the topic. Perhaps yours? Post a comment or send me a note, and I’ll incorporate your perspective into future posts.

Why Ask Why

We’ve emphasized the importance of sharing your ‘why’ in past posts. If you want your work to resonate, you need to be able to talk about why it matters. If you only have 5 minutes of someone’s attention (or even 30 seconds!), they’re more likely to listen to your ‘why’ than your what. And, sharing your ‘why’ creates more than interest – it forges connections, inspires, and builds trust.

But doing so flies in the face of our ‘thou shalt not talk about oneself’ mantra (and its close cousin ‘thou shalt only write in the third person as dryly as possible’). Fortunately, this norm is beginning to shift, with cracks in the armor like “This is what a scientist looks like.” But for most of us, talking about ourselves is still daunting.

What fuels your fire?

Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle and embrace the Philosophy in your PhD for more effective #scicomm? Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle for more effective #scicomm? Time to embrace the “Ph” in our PhDs.
Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Presumably, we all know why we do what we do. The reasons we burn the midnight oil, miss our kid’s soccer games, and go to school for a very long time (I personally love the look on undergraduates’ faces when I say I went to school for 10 years beyond my baccalaureate). Perhaps what keeps us going is the joy of discovery, sheer curiosity, a sense of wonder about how the world works, or knowing that we’ve made a difference.

It’s certainly not about a paycheck (despite continued assertions to this effect, even in Congress, where John Holdren was recently the recipient of this line of questioning about climate scientists). And yet, in our communication trainings when we ask scientists why they do what they do, we often hear something along these lines:

I don’t know.
I’ve never thought about that.
No one’s ever asked me that question.
Isn’t this supposed to be about my data, not me?
I couldn’t possibly go there. 

Our scientific training to be as objective as possible is absolutely essential. But, as Brooke shared, a focus on data, not people; being right before being open; avoiding talking about yourself; and tenure as a precursor to speaking up create major roadblocks to effective communication. As scientists, we cling so tightly to our need to be credible and objective that we fail to communicate our passion.

Does passion equal bias?

At a recent training, early career social science students were especially reticent to address the underlying motivations for their work. They thought that if they admitted that they cared deeply about equity or social justice, they wouldn’t be seen as credible or objective.

Environmental scientists also struggle with this, and especially with walking what can be a fine line between science and advocacy. For those who study medicine or public health, it goes without saying that an ethic of care underlies their work. But somehow those who study the other 8.7 million species on the planet lose their credibility if they chose to acknowledge the values that underpin their work?

The reality is that context matters. We are communicating our science and the underlying motivations for it in a larger social context – and often a highly politicized one. And although we may not have comprehensive knowledge of that context, we can acknowledge that it exists and use what we know to engage in a way that resonates with our audience, rather than further polarizing the dialogue. Yale’s Cultural Cognition project is an amazing resource on this topic, and this recent paper in PNAS reviews #scicomm in a politicized environment.

Passion is not equivalent to bias. But figuring out how to communicate your ‘why’ in a way that accounts for the larger social and political context of your work is incredibly important. I’ll dig into this more in subsequent posts – it’s fascinating!

Motivations matter

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

The many why’s that underlie our work DO affect the questions we chose to ask and the puzzles we seek to unravel. Sharing your ‘why’ in a way that resonates is key to making your science matter to others.

Last week I sat next to a scientist colleague in a meeting who, in the midst of describing his research said, “I’m doing this because I want to save the world.” He later caveated that it may have been a stupid thing to say. Much to the contrary, I found it refreshing. And while your reason for understanding how the world works may not be about saving it, I’m heartened to see a cultural shift within science where we more openly acknowledge our why’s.

Now, it’s your turn to speak. Have you talked about the ‘why’ of your science? What’s worked? What hasn’t? And why did you decide to speak up?

About Karen McLeod

Karen McLeod is the Managing Director of COMPASS. She's an ecologist and outdoor enthusiast who loves living in Oregon's Willamette Valley -- a rich landscape of old growth forests, bountiful agriculture, scenic wineries, and gorgeous hikes nestled between the mountains.


  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking article Karen! I was particularly struck by your final example where a scientist shared simply that his “why” involved wanting to save the world. I think for a lot of us that is also our “why,” especially as our generation is now facing one of the biggest challenges of the ages in climate change. For me, the “why” has been easiest to express when talking to young people, from little children when visiting a school to talk about science, to trying to inspiring undergraduates in the classroom. “Saving the world,” resonates with many of these young people. Doing science because it’s what I love, because it’s fun, and because it’s such a big part of who I am are also big messages. As for why I decided to speak up or to participate in events where I am led to share, that’s an easy choice for me as a woman and as an African-American. I wish this was still not an issue, but it is. We are still trying to get young women and young people of color either interested in science or to have the courage and conviction to pursue that interest to its fullest extent. So sharing the “why” in order to inspire these young people has become a no-brainer.

    I think for many of us, another “why” is so that we can change the culture of science from within. As a fun example, witness the rise to Twitter “stardom” of @LegoAcademics, which in the clever tweets and photos of Lego minifies, takes on some heady issues such as work-life balance, academic rewards, and gender issues. Find out more at http://bit.ly/1oTa2x7. To me, this is a “why” that includes exposing some of the unsavory parts of science so that we can change it for the better.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks so much for your willingness to share some of your own story, Dawn. I think the more we can do to show up fully as ourselves with our scientist hats ON (in addition to showing that we also do other things), the better off we’ll be in terms of changing the culture of science from within and changing the perception of scientists by others.

      And, I too, am heartened by many efforts to try to tackle the shortcomings of science when it comes to issues of diversity. Thank you for leading that change from within.

  2. Great blog. I always tell my students that they should convince me to care about their work – tell me WHY. I think you are right – as scientists we need to share our passion. I work with policy makers, scientists and the public and all groups respond better to enthusiasm than monotony. Let’s be passionate about science!

  3. I appreciate your thoughts on this Karen. I have to say that, rather than expressing our “why”, I think it is more important for scientists to engage with and see themselves as part of a larger community of citizens. I worry that we as scientists hold ourselves apart too often. Science is one way of knowing and learning about the world, but not the only way. I for one, do what I do because I find it interesting and engaging and I built my career and perspective from interest in the natural world and then opportunity and events along the way. I didn’t set out in my 20’s to save the world, just to work on the ocean and spend as much time there as possible. I came to care about conservation and management later, because of my observations about what was going on. I don’t mean to imply that people don’t have a higher purpose, perhaps many do, but that talking about the “why” of doing scientific work sets us apart. And the scientific community does not lack from that tendency anyway.

    I believe, and my program works, to have scientists work with their fellow citizens. Yes that is sharing expertise, but also learning from others and their perspective, or “ways of knowing”.

    To Dawn’s point, of course encouraging young people who are interested in science is a good thing to do and especially a more diverse set of young people. I admire her work and the role model that she is for aspiring scientists. We need to change the image of scientists, from odd geeks that the rest of world views as separate and apart, to fellow citizens who have gained a particular perspective and skills that can help, along with other knowledge,solve pressing problems that confront us.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Andy – I totally agree that seeing ourselves as part of society, rather than putting ourselves on a pedestal, is imperative. But I’d also argue that communicating from a place of authenticity, including the many reasons why we do what we do, will be a key part of forging the trust and connections necessary to solving the pressing problems before us.

      And of course I couldn’t agree more that science is just one of many ways of knowing about the world. Engagement is a two-way street that requires just as much listening as it does speaking.

  4. Thank you for this article! I’m in my second year of post-doc (microbiology) and this is a realization I’ve been coming to on my own over the last few years. No one asks me why I went to graduate school for microbiology but they engage with me so much more when I volunteer that information when they ask “so, what do you do?”. I got in to micro for a few reasons. I was sick a lot as a kid and I got curious about these “germs” that I couldn’t see but could bring my invincible childhood-self down for the count. Tack that on to being totally reliant on my immune system due to antibiotic allergies and the fact that I found Punnet squares hugely entertaining and a microbiologist was born.

    I have always asked “why” and it bothers me that scientists don’t explain “why”‘s voluntarily when speaking to non-scientific audiences. I’ve found that just behaving like an approachable person and leaving the scientist hat in the lab has made people far more trusting and inquisitive. One example for me is with vaccination. I currently study whooping cough and when I mention this inevitably someone asks me about the increase in incidence. I talk about the vaccine, how its changed over time and I admit what we know, what we hypothesize, and what we’re still clueless about. That provokes a lot more questions and I’ve been thanked multiple times for having that conversation with “lay” people. Having a scientist speak candidly and say “well, we don’t know that yet” actually seems to put some people at ease. I’m trying to do the same with the Ebola panic right now as well. I participate in the CDC chats on Twitter (when I can) and offer to help people find and make sense of information and ask me questions that can’t be answered in 140 characters. I’d love to see more scientists engage with the public on why they are scientists and why they study what they study. That human aspect builds so much trust and confidence, thank you for articulating it so well!

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful feedback, Bree. I couldn’t agree with you more that speaking candidly and acknowledging the places where we don’t yet know the answers is imperative. However, another important dimension of speaking beyond our peers is not getting caught in our tendency to only talk about what we don’t know, and admit that we do actually know something :).

  5. I’ve always put the “why” right out front. Also the acknowledgements so that they aren’t rushed at the end when time is running out. Thanks for writing this!

  6. David Thomson says:

    Beautifully said as always Karen. There is a saying “People won’t remember what you said or how smart you were, they will remember how you made them feel” that came to mind (heart?) after reading your posting Karen. So if scientists get to that level of impacting someone – at the gut level – they make an even bigger impact. And sharing their “why” is one of the most powerful truths they can speak to.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Exactly, David. There are so many dimensions of science that can speak as much to our emotional selves as to our rational selves … we just don’t always approach it that way.

  7. Interesting thoughts! I personally like to focus on the deeper reasons of why my work is my passion. While there is something admirable about wanting to save the world as an overall goal, going a bit deeper and explaining what it is that makes this world worthy of our lifelong dedication almost always seems to strike more of a chord. This bit of extra insight brings our motivation to a more human level and seems to help clarify that scientists are people too, and there is nothing wrong with that.

    • Karen McLeod says:

      I agree wholeheartedly, Diogo. The more we can do to show the passion, vitality, and humanity of science — and our diversity of motivations — the better off we’ll be in terms of the public understanding of science as a way of knowing, rather than an obscure body of facts and “theories.”

  8. Thanks for this great post, Karen. One of the reasons I love the “this is what a scientist looks like” project, it shows that scientists are in fact people (shocking, I know)! I think it’s important, though, for scientists to let the personality come out that I see in those pictures, when they are being a scientist and communicating as a scientists. Don’t just save your personality for outside the lab, the field, or giving talks about your science — bring your motivations (the “why”) and your personality to your communications. One of my favorite things I’ve seen scientists do to practice their communications is to describe their child’s soccer game that weekend (or cooking their favorite meal, or describing their favorite moment from vacation, something that excites them)…then to describe their research. You can literally feel the difference in how you talk about these two things. Why not share your research with the same personality you bring to describing the other things in your life that excite you?

    • Karen McLeod says:

      Thanks, Brooke! I couldn’t agree more that bringing our authentic selves into how we engage with the wider world – as scientists – is incredibly important (and gets at the pedestal idea Andy was talking about earlier). And I think just as importantly as bringing equivalent excitement to how we talk about our science to how we talk about our kid’s soccer games is that the way we do that has to be uniquely us. It’s not about becoming someone that we’re not (the “I’m not the motivational speaker type” worries many of us carry around), but just letting our true selves shine through when we’re wearing our scientist hats.


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