The Business of Science
One of the most popular silent conceptions I've noticed about science is that in order for it to be "valid," it has to be completely divorced from the business world. This isn't true, and in fact it's hamstringing much of the progress that could otherwise occur in the scientific community. Scientists have been realizing over the last decade or so that the need to communicate scientific discoveries and principles to the public is essential to the continued support of learning. But how, when the notion of the geeky, uncommunicative old guy in a lab coat has taken root in the public's unconscious?
A nonprofit is very similar to any other business in that you need to have a clearly defined business plan (or mission), and a realistic timeline and method for executing that plan. Blueprint Earth faces an interesting challenge for a nonprofit, in that our work isn't as easy to encapsulate in a few words like, "animal rescue," or "feed the homeless." I knew starting out that communicating our scientific goals, methods, and results would be the key to our success as an organization. Could we capture the public's imagination and interest and avoid the pitfalls that all too often plague scientists when they start speaking about data, -ologies, and begin using words that sound like some sort of infectious disease? More importantly, could we do this in a way that doesn't dumb down the science?
Obviously, I believe the answer is yes. How we can accomplish this is through applying typical business principles, interestingly enough. We needed to identify our product, target audience, and key differentiators. We needed a strong brand, and a way to stand out from the crowd. We needed a way to not only pique interest, but also get people to open their wallets and give their time for us. We also had to do all of this without offering a tangible product, so in that regard we're very different than many traditional businesses. I see it as a strength, however.
For far too long, science has been seen as a world apart from everyday life for many people. That's a learned cultural bias, meaning that there is nothing that we're born with that dictates whether we'll be scientists or not. In fact, every young child is a scientist and explorer. If you've ever spent more than 30 seconds around a child, you'll be familiar with the barrage of questions that kids ask as they're exploring and discovering the world around them. "Why is the sky blue?" "What do trees eat?" "How big is space?" "What happens if I pick up this snake?" "Is dirt tasty?"
Kids ask these questions because they're born with an innate desire to understand their world. Somewhere along the path to adulthood, many kids leave these desires behind for a variety of reasons. I realized from the beginning that our universal innate childhood curiosity would be the key to Blueprint Earth's success. We never really lose our ability to wonder and inquire, but we have to remind people that it's ok to ask questions. In fact, asking questions is what keeps life interesting! Too many people I know crave something more than their current lives, and wish that they could make a bigger impact on the world around them. Blueprint Earth gives anyone who is even remotely interested in learning more about our planet a way to get involved in something bigger. As we roll out more of our educational outreach work, we'll have the ability to teach people of all ages and backgrounds how to do science in their own backyards. That's the advantage we have over traditional product-driven businesses: we're offering something unique, something that lights the fires of imagination and possibility, and that in time will be accessible to people of all walks of life around the world.
Sure, science is a noble pursuit. It's also in our very basic human nature to be curious about our environment. Blueprint Earth takes this fundamental desire and amplifies it into a large-scale effort to blueprint parts of the planet. So yes, doing science in the 21st century involves understanding many fundamental principles of traditional business as well as psychology. In that sense, we're just like everyone else. It's what we'll do with the knowledge we gain that sets us apart.