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.