The 'So What' Factor of Applied Science - Life Beyond the Test Tube / / by Joanna Wragg and Mark Cave

Drs Joanna Wragg and Mark Cave are environmental geochemists with extensive experience in the development of laboratory techniques and the associated analysis and interpretation of environmental chemical data with particular reference to geochemistry and human health. Today, they tell us why asking scientists 'what's the point' can shape their research...

"Nothing in science has any value to society if it is not communicated."
- Anne Roe, psychologist and writer 

We are often asked 'why is that research needed?', 'what does it mean to me?', 'why should we give you money for that?' and'what is the 'so what' of this work?'.

These questions are key to shaping what we do and who we are as we travel through life and our individual careers. Being able to answer these questions allows us to explain our science to society in a clear way, rather than using technical and sometimes confusing language. It gives the public an opportunity to see the relevance, impact and value of applying science to everyday life and how we can use our knowledge to answer questions related to the use of the environment, how we impact it and how it affects us.

From our medical geology point of view people ask why we set experiments in the laboratory that include chemically recreating the human stomach and lungs and extracting soils with a variety of solutions. 

A simple answer is to look at the impact of potentially harmful elements (PHE) in soil and dust on our health: to see what can be absorbed into the body and determine if there could be a negative impact based on where we live (in both urban and rural environments) and how we use our gardens and parks. Some of the information that our experiments generate is known as bioaccessibility. 

So what is the 'so what' of looking at bioaccessibility?
  • It helps us to understand the potential hazards of the soil beneath our feet
  • It's used to support decision making to manage and mitigate natural hazards to human health
  • It helps make land suitable for use (e.g for housing). This can reduce the cost of cleaning up the land and reusing material from these sites, a reduction of transport emissions (tonnes of CO2)  and dust generation from reduced transportation of site material to landfill
  • It can reassure local populations living in areas where the underlying geology contains naturally occurring PHE 
We aren't the only people at the British Geological Survey who apply science to solve specific 'real life' problems. Some other areas include: 
  • Geological maps to indicate where flooding may occur
  • Hazard potential mapping, including shrink-swell mapping to indicate ground stability and the potential for ground movement or subsidence
  • Groundwater quality
  • Identification of locations susceptible to landslides and coastal erosion in the UK
  • Nutrient deficiency from soils 
If you want to do a quick test of the 'so what' question, to help explain what applied science means and why this type of science is important, ask a non-scientist. After all, these are the people who will, often bluntly, ask that important 'so what' questions about what we do and why we do it.