The Public is Thirsty: Cédric Villani on the Many Reasons to Popularize Your Research

From obtaining funding to satisfying the public’s growing appetite, the Fields Medalist reaps the benefits of science communication

My colleague remembers one and only one lecture from her undergrad studies ten years ago. It is surely no accident that this class was given by Cédric Villani, the renowned mathematician and research communicator. Through stories from his own life and experience leading the Institut Henri Poincaré, Villani makes it clear how communicating with the public about your research can bring many benefits to any researcher.

My colleague remembers one and only one lecture from her undergrad studies ten years ago. It is surely no accident that this class was given by Cédric Villani, the renowned mathematician and research communicator. Through stories from his own life and experience leading the Institut Henri Poincaré, Villani makes it clear how communicating with the public about your research can bring many benefits to any researcher.

Photo credit: The French-American Foundation

One spring evening, as we enter San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, my colleague reminisces that the only – the only – lecture she remembers from her studies ten years ago was given by tonight’s speaker: Cédric Villani. At the time, the mathematician was both the youngest and one of the most promising professors at the Collège de France. And his unmistakable spider pins had already taken up residence on his lapel.

Today, the head of the prestigious Institut Henri Poincaré is also one of three well-known researchers lending their name in support of Science & You, the international conference devoted entirely to science communication, coming up at the beginning of June. At this recent appearance, Prof. Villani described for us the things that drive him to communicate his own work and the experience of doing research, and what scientists can gain from doing the same.

Funny and natural before an audience, one of Villani’s strengths lies simply in bringing his humanity to a subject that is alien to many. A shy child—“a human monument to the glory of shyness”, even—he now makes monthly TV appearances. He spends a great deal of time talking to the public about math and research, which also lets him talk about adventure and mystery and luck. “Every day I get emails from strangers saying, 'We saw your talk. My child wants to do research, now.'” Things like this allow him to feel the impact his efforts have on the public, even if they are very hard to quantify.

A Public Thirst for Scientists

Something that could be quantified is the overwhelming number of speaking invitations he receives. When he won mathematics’ highest prize, the Fields Medal, in 2010, a TV station called him and another winner, requesting an interview. While the other declined, Villani accepted, reflecting the strong culture of public communication at the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, where he was a professor. From that moment on, it never stopped. “I realized the appetite of the public was just enormous. There is this great public thirst to see and talk to scientists.”

This relationship has been changing, he feels, the desire increasing over the last 20 years. “In the past, it would have been considered a waste of time for scientists, but it has changed in our minds, too.” For him, personally, Cédric Villani says, it’s partly a philosophical exercise. He always feels better after explaining his research to someone and observing its place in the larger scope of history.

With Awareness Comes Funding

His attempts to sate the public’s thirst for contact with researchers may very well come from a generosity of spirit, but Villani has also come to know the practical benefits very well. “As the director of an institute, I was able to get public funding—a fair number of millions—for renovations to double the space for our researchers. There is no way I could’ve gotten this funding without the media awareness of what we do.” Politicians know it, too, he says, which, in some ways, is legitimate: they can see where there is interest and the public service you are providing.

What about these increasing interactions and growing appreciation for researchers and their work: How far do their effects reach into society? While the academic job market is still a battleground in most disciplines, with tenured positions few and far between, industry has picked up on the value of hiring researchers from the math world. Last year, The Wall Street Journal  reported that “mathematician” came in at the very top of a survey on the best jobs out there. “Data scientists are king-of-the-hill right now,” Villani says.

He believes people are also starting to realize that research is one of the few places where you can still find adventure. The ease with which we move about the world today has diminished the thrill of global travel; there are no continents left to discover. “But there’s this idea that innovation and technology can be used to help humanity progress. Research is a big part of this.”

Cédric Villani speaks from experience in his own field, but his words could apply to any area of research and are worth other scientists shouting from the rooftops of their labs: “To someone who doesn’t know it, the desert is a dry, dead place. But if you know when to look, it’s full of life! Math is like this. From the outside, it’s dry and boring. If you know where to look, it’s full of life and passion.”

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