About 18 months ago I was approached to write an article for the Waikato-focussed Scope magazine. Something about science, maybe, and business. I figured it might be good fun to talk about jargon.
The word is out, and on the lips of Kiwi politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs: We need to improve our innovation activity if we’re to prevent New Zealand sliding any further down the OECD productivity rankings.
There are a number of good reasons why we’re not as innovative as other small countries like Finland and Singapore. Lack of private investment, for example. To some extent, New Zealand’s small population size and density also has an impact – critical mass generally needs, well, mass.
We also suffer from poor communication, particularly our fondness for jargon. Don’t get me wrong: within a field, jargon is extremely useful for sharing discrete and often complicated concepts. Indeed, Condillac (a philosopher) observed over 300 years ago that “every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas”. It’s also a brilliant form of linguistic tribalism.
Problems arise, however, when it is used out of context. Particularly with people not of the ‘tribe’. At best, it’s irritating; at worst, patronising and alienating. And it can cement stereotypes which are, frankly, not useful. Most entrepreneurs aren’t ‘corporate drones in suits who don’t get it’; most scientists aren’t ‘nerdy, cut off from reality and difficult to deal with’. Such stereotypes can have negative results, including missed opportunities and even conflict.
So, what do we do? To my business friends, may I suggest that ‘actioning’ and other such terms be some of the first phrasing to go. To my scientist friends: it is possible to use plain language to explain what you do. Sciblogs, a New-Zealand-based science blogging network, demonstrates clearly how engaging scientists can be when given the chance and encouragement. To both: take the time to listen to each other.
But there’s more to it than this. Not only is the language itself important, but so is an understanding of the strictures and context of each field. Science is often uncertain, and can take decades to mature to commercialisation potential (while needing funding from the beginning). Business is generally fast-moving, and functions such as marketing and PR – often deeply mistrusted by scientists – are pivotal if the business is to succeed.
We need translators, as well – people who can straddle the divide between science/ research and business. People who understand the language and intricacies of each well enough to help those involved understand each other. Both research and business (particularly in a global context) are becoming increasingly complicated, and people with the talent and training to live with one foot in each camp will become increasingly valuable. We need to find them, train them, and provide career opportunities and growth to match their value.
Finally, we need to get researchers and entrepreneurs together. Physically. I might go so far as to suggest by force, if necessary. There’s nothing like being in the same room to help overcome some of the difficulties so easily encountered in less immediate circumstances. How? Through competitions like What’s Your Problem New Zealand. Through incubators. Through events. Through supporting promising industries (like high temperature superconductors) and sharing the stories of, and lessons from, their success. If necessary, bribe people with beer (or wine) and funding incentives. Do whatever it takes to get people together and talking to each other.
Not only because we need to improve our research commercialisation and innovation capabilities, but because we should want to. Imagine what the famous Number 8 wire mentality and Kiwi ingenuity could do if we only gave it a decent chance…
And finally: my apologies to Lewis Carroll for co-opting his poetry a little.
Aimée Whitcroft works with the Science Media Centre, and is the deputy editor/ admin/contributor at Sciblogs.co.nz (an SMC initiative). After studying science and entrepreneurship, she has worked in management/strategy consultancy, market research and science communication.