Encouraging scientists to speak for science

Science communication is a relatively novel field, in terms of academia. As a practice it’s been around for as long as science itself. Arguably, it has its roots in the ancient Greek past time of ‘rhetoric’, where smart arses would walk from one town to the next just to argue with other smart arses about life, love, politics and the universe.

In the 1980s, however, a discourse precipitated on the commonalities between those professions that make it their business to tell the rest of the community what’s going on behind the door with the Far Side cartoon on it. This includes those in fields such as journalism, media, education and communications. For the past three decades the discussion has evolved into university courses, conferences, journals and – most significantly – a global community of people who feel a sense of working towards a common aim.

Perhaps the most productive outcome, however, has been an intense focus on the methods of outreach. Academics have applied the results of research in disciplines such as psychology and marketing and analysed the communication between science and the public, resulting in a critical evaluation of conclusions we’d simply taken for granted as being true. While in its infancy, science communication as an academic field is at least forcing us to ask ‘why are we doing this?’ and ‘is it effective?’, with some interesting results.

One question that is commonly raised is on whether scientists themselves should act as their own spokespersons. That is, should scientists be science communicators?

There are a number of science communicators who advocate this. Chris Mooney is such an individual; “My hope, though, is that by training larger numbers of scientists in the basics of communication, we’ll set some few on the path towards being real media entrepreneurs.” His shining example is the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait.

I know of many similar examples of scientists who are superb communicators, and they are indeed brilliant at managing both a career in science research and communicating it to the general public. However, unlike Mr. Mooney, I’m not a supporter of engaging scientists in media training in the vain hope that we’ll be finding the next Carl Sagan. Three years ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d ever be on this side of the fence, yet in working for a research organisation I’ve come to change my mind.

Why? Surely all scientists would benefit from a good bit of media professional development, right? And the pay off, as Chris says, would be that we’d stumble across a good number of Phils in the process.

Perhaps. However I don’t believe the effort is worth the cost.

Firstly, scientists are busy people. Very busy. Negotiating even small amounts of time in order to fact check media releases or ask questions can be a challenge, let alone dealing personally with journalists. Most scientists only dream of having their fifteen seconds of fame in the popular media spotlight, with most barely managing a quote in a media release penned by their own media liaisons or marketing officers. Engaging fields of researchers in professional development to prepare them for a one-in-a-million chance of an interview is unrealistic and frankly a waste of time.

For my money, I’d rather they were committed to the task of doing science and discussing it amongst their colleagues at conferences rather than taking calls from the Telegraph and then appearing on Today Tonight.

Secondly, a small stint of training – even one spanning several days – does little to provide the skills necessary in dealing with the shark-pen of the modern media. There are valid questions over how much and what information individual scientists should and should not provide (often controlled by the research bodies they work for) and in what context it should be given, not to mention how the public might receive it. Jargon and philosophically sound terms in science can have subtly different connotations in the hands of a sensationalising journalist. In contentious fields of climatology, genetic engineering and (increasingly) nanotechnology, even the most well-intentioned comments can be skinned of context and abused. Trained communicators aren’t immune, of course, but daily experience and a professional focus on the issues within the industry do far more to reduce the chances of misinformation slipping into the press than a seminar on the risks of tabloid journalism.

Lastly, there is the presumption that those engaged in the work are the best at explaining what they’re doing. This might be true if the audience already shares the same language and academic background, however in cases where the audience isn’t so informed, such a deep understanding of a topic can be a liability. Finding the right words or analogies to make a complicated concept accessible for those who have minimal experience in a particular topic can be challenging for those who do it day in and day out, let alone for one who needs no such mental tools to make their research easy to grasp.

None of this is to say that scientists necessarily make for poor science communicators. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any scientist who has a passion for what they do and the time and resources to learn how to develop their media and communication skills should certainly be encouraged to engage with the public, be it as a television personality, a journalist or an author. Yet I fail to see the benefits in burdening scientists with professional development in media when the science communication industry is full of skilled writers and presenters who already span the divide. With science communication finally being recognised as an important field for a world becoming increasingly dependent on technology and complicated science, it would be a shame to believe that it is more important to have a PhD in atmospheric chemistry than experience in knowing how to best communicate climate change it to a naive and skeptical public.

Science communicators are set to represent the interface between those who concentrate on doing science and those who wish to understand it better (without devoting their life to learning the ropes). Rather than just being scientists who are good at public speaking, they represent people who are devoted to connecting two long estranged sections of the wider community.

Published in: on August 20, 2010 at 3:24 pm  Comments (3)  
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  1. Hello, just coming out of lurking here after thinking about this post of yours for a while…

    I’ve been thinking a lot about science communication in general recently and I think there are some gaps in expanding effective science communication to the wider public, at least in Australia, and I think we’re missing a big opportunity there.

    From what I can gather, the emphasis for science communication here seems to roughly be one of three ways. Firstly, communicating science in a simplified and easy-to-digest and perhaps theatrical way for the short-term interest of the public (such as the 3 Minute Thesis Competition which is running across multiple Australian universities at the moment). Secondly, getting into schools and getting the students interested in science or getting them to consider a career in science. And thirdly, communicating science in a way that will make potential investors more willing to understand its potential and put up funding for it (as with applying for research grants, or increasingly in the biotech sector in order to capitalise on developing research techniques if additional financial backing is required).

    These are all obviously very important aspects of science communication in which scientists, young or established, can try to improve communication in general. But where I think there is an enormous gap is in getting the public in general to understand how science is conducted, and how it is misrepresented in the media, so that they know the standards of evidence required to reach a conclusion on an issue and they know who to ask or where to look for information.

    More specifically, I’m thinking of how we don’t really have anything like the UK’s Sense About Science charitable trust (although if we do have something similar, I would absolutely love to know about it!). They actively respond to misrepresentations of scientific research in the media and draw on a huge base of expertise in order to not only dispel the myths and misrepresentations, but also to provide accessible, plain-language explanations and evidence to counter the problems. This way, experts in the field are guided by Sense About Science in their communication to the public about important scientific issues, and if the public avail themselves of this information, gradually they learn about scientific and empirical standards (or so I’d hope). So it’s a two-way street for learning and improving science communication.

    Do you think this would be a good way of implementing a structure that doesn’t force busy scientists into having to do whirlwind courses on effective communication, but allows them to have accurate input into the information the public can access? The institute I’m a PhD student at has a PR/media person, but I sometimes think that their role is more about getting the public to think our research is kind of nifty and that we deserve funding, more than about getting the public to actually understand the underpinnings of the scientific method and where to look to get accurate information about scientific issues. Working to achieve that more fundamental understanding would, I think, serve science and research best in the long run.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Jess. I completely agree with your point about the multiple goals of sci-com, although I do wonder how many communicators categorise their own outreach efforts beyond mere more output = more ‘awareness’.

    I tend to break the goals down to this; science communication endeavours to either promote a sentiment (the ‘gee whiz, science is fun!’ factor), knowledge (electrons are smaller than atoms) or an epistemology (values of logic, reason and critical thinking). All three have a place, of course, and can be combined in a single outreach effort. For example, promoting a sentiment is useful if you want to have kids want to grow up to be scientists, which is useful for a technologically progressive nation. We also want citizens to be able to think critically and understand the products of science.

    I don’t think scientists can be removed from the process of communication entirely, and having programs that efficiently utilise their experience are vital. Scientists in Schools is a good example of this, where arrangements and incentives are made for scientists to engage with students with the teacher present as an educational facilitator. Likewise, communicators who work with scientists in programs that do more than just attract funding, but actually aim to promote science as a philosophy, would be a great idea. I’ve argued for this in the past, and it is slowly become a more popular view amongst communicators. A ‘Sense About Science’ program in Australia would indeed be something I’d love to see in place. Now…if only we could find the money to set it up… 🙂

  3. Yeah, having something like Sense About Science in Australia would be fantastic, and I can think of so many people who would love to be involved with something like that but who lack the time or resources to be involved in the initiation of such a thing. And it would be such an important and useful thing, because I’m surprised by how many people have no idea of what science is capable of telling us.

    I had a friend tell me a while back that she was going on a detox diet (some crazy one where all you do is drink lemon juice and eat chilli pepper and maple syrup for a week or something to that effect). I told her everything I knew off the top of my head about the whole detox diet sham (which has been reported on by Sense About Science in the UK), the technical and scientific definition of “detoxification”, what your liver is naturally capable of, how the detox diet claim that toxins prevent you from losing fat is incorrect, etc. She was genuinely surprised that anyone could, a priori, make an educated guess about whether something like a detox diet would work or not, based on existing scientific knowledge. She then thought about it for a couple of minutes before announcing that she needed to try the diet anyway, otherwise she’d never know, because “you never know until you try something”. Needless to say, when I asked her about it again a few months later, she told me that the diet had failed and had made her feel incredibly ill while she was on it. And it had left a big hole in her wallet. I feel bad that she was taken advantage of like that, and that a firmer grounding in science might have prevented it.

    Since then, I’ve come across more and more cases of people not comprehending the power of science to inform us about the world and to guide important decisions and behaviour. I would love to be involved in any sort of program that sought to bridge that gap in understanding, because I think such a program is sorely needed. If only we knew some billionaire philanthropists who shared these views… sigh.

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