Fixing The Science Communication Breakdown
I begin this post with a caveat: this will not strictly be a post following in the same vein as the others in that I am going to talk about a topic that is not grounded in popular fiction. Rest assured that I will return to talking about what there is to be found at the edge of reality soon! But I thought it’s important to shed some light on a topic that is generally not as talked about (ironically) as it should be: science communication.
The Importance Of Communication
Back when I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree – Biology with Science Communication – I recall my friend, Jenny, sharing something interesting with me. Being a sci comm’er (short for science communication student), she mentioned how another student in our class had said that Jenny would probably end up being a housewife with her degree. Namely, the science communication element was apparently only good for doing chores. I will hasten to add that this student was also a female, so we can throw out misogyny as a causal factor here. But that really got me thinking: is that the image that science communication professionals/experts/students cultivated in society at large? Was our role seen to be so redundant as to be relegated to one of the lowest castes of working society?
Now, far from trying to completely justify why science communication is needed – I feel that is self-evident – I have been constantly trying to understand just why it is sometimes cast aside in favour of regular, rigorous old ‘academic science’, with none of that ‘accessibility to a general audience’ nonsense. Now, I have never confronted the aforementioned person about their views on science communication but I would say this to them: you are completely wrong. Not to sit up on my pedestal being all high and mighty, but you are simply wrong. Far from being a second-rate discipline, science communication is fundamental to both the existence and propagation of science. Any essay you write, exam you take, report you produce, you are communicating science. Giving a presentation on invasive species? Science communication. Doing a group project exploring species on a beach? Science communication. Explaining to your young brother or sister how the respiratory system works? You get my point.
But there are plenty of other reasons why science communication is not only needed, but why it needs to be at the front of our minds as both science communicators in general and also scientists. That is, without the ability to communicate our findings or thoughts concisely and simply, we run the risk of losing our target audience. That can also include scientists – that’s right, including Dr. Hoffenspuffer, who is eagerly watching you lose your precious opportunity for research funding as you bore the audience to tears with long and pointless words which you aren’t even sure exist. Below, I give my personal views and recommendations on science communication as a discipline can be of significant use:
1) Intra-science communications
Picture this hypothetical: Dr. Amy Neutron is working on groundbreaking research in the physical properties of atoms, uncovering a new method of maximising energy transfer efficiency. Without knowing it, she has actually developed a method of aiding energy transfer and uptake between organic matter. Meanwhile, Brad de Virussisimo (I didn’t say my naming skills were up to par…) is struggling to develop his vaccine against a deadly disease because the energy transfer rate, and vaccine uptake, is just too slow once in the body. They work in isolation but it is obvious that collaboration would essentially help Dr. de Virussisimo to develop his vaccine and make a significant impact on the world at large, whilst Dr. Neutron would successfully gain extra funding to further develop her work. A classic win-win situation.
However, without the ability to communicate between scientific disciplines, this collaboration just would not be possible. And when communicating between different fields even in the same science (in this case, we are talking about physics and biology, so a very big leap!), it’s safe to say that you have to really communicate to other scientists in other disciplines as you would to someone who simply did not know much about science. Of course, they’ll understand a bit more than someone untrained in science but, honestly, it’s pretty unreasonable to expect a cell biologist to know the ins and outs of physical properties of atoms. The language of science is not universal: like any given language, it has its variety of different dialects, its different levels of complexities and individuals who personalise its use for their own needs. Those who communicate science need to be able to tailor their messages to reach their target audience. For example, you wouldn’t talk to a peer about your work in the same manner that you would talk to, say, your aunt or uncle (unless they are experts in your field!). We all use language to convey what we mean to say and it is no different in science, even if you’re a scientist.
2) Mo’ Money, Fewer Problems
I am going to embarrass a potential reader and good friend of mine here. Although I shall not use her name, this friend of mine is studying a PhD in Scotland, her chosen field being chosen invasive species. She is a wonderful person, a dedicated scientist and about the only person who could complain so much about using Microsoft Access and Excel, albeit the latter to a lesser extent. I have fond memories of talking about our passion for fungi and ecology…amongst complaining about how woefully unprepared we were for exams, of course. She always struck me as someone who valued the importance of science communication, putting things simply because she felt she was not clever enough to understand things in a complex way. I would say to her, if she is reading this, that I would strongly disagree. I am a firm believer of one of the messages of Occam’s Razor (at least, how I take it): that is, the simplest way is usually the best. Namely, the process with the fewest assumptions is the one you should typically go for. And why not? Amidst all the intellectual clutter, the key point is that this species is totally buggering up this ecosystem because it makes the soil uninhabitable for other species. The key impact is the staggering cost to farmers and, as a knock-on effect, the public.
And now I give her this message: stick to your communication guns. Stick to them with all your strength because your ability to communicate your research will be what really helps generate funding for you in the future. Those potentially funding your research need to be able to understand what you’ve spent the best part of a few years researching. Your mates don’t want to hear all the big words and annoyingly tedious processes of your research, as much as you want to go on about them: they just want the Take Home Messages (THMs are the substrate of communication!). People citing your research – an exciting thought! – will want to be able to understand your findings in a very succinct fashion. If they want further details, they’ll look into it further.
Science is woefully underfunded. It is the sad truth. I would assert my views on how pointless businesses which obviously have no benefit for humanity have all the money…but that would turn into a long rant. We must communicate graciously to achieve the money needed to further scientific endeavours. That is the simple and uncomplicated truth.
3) The Public Need To Know
No, they don’t need to know every single small detail. But they need to know the THMs (say it again with me..T…H…M!) of what it is that will affect them. Or, if not affect them, then what will either affect other people or is just too plain awesome not to know. I write this whilst watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth: a show where I know enough to get a basic grasp of what’s going on with a variety of animals. I’m not, however, bombarded with pointless details about behavioural, ecological and molecular aspects of these animals or plants: that is something I can do in my spare time if I so desire. For now, I want to know a few interesting facts about these organisms whilst watching them frolic in their natural habitats. Everyone loves watching monkeys swimming or penguins waddling whilst actually learning some interesting biology behind it all.
Similarly, interested in physics but can’t understand it? Look no further than Brian Cox: science communicator extraordinaire. Both Brian and David have significantly advanced public understanding, and even passion, for physics and biology respectively. Their not-so-secret secret? Passion and curiosity about their subject and a strong desire to tell other people about why they find it so interesting. To enthuse them. An incredible TED talk from a speaker whose name currently escapes me taught me that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. If you’re in it for the passion, because you find it genuinely interesting, then people are likely to latch onto that. And that is what these two popular science presenters have really monopolised on: selling their passion.
But even beyond television shows containing interesting pictures and facts to sate our appetite for knowledge, public engagement is something that both scientists and science communicators alike need to significantly increase and focus on. We are living in a world full of massive problems, where science is fundamental in helping us to solve them. Without public support, scientists might as well be chasing their own tails. For example, the issue of GM crops? An absolute Public Relations disaster. The science was not communicated well and I have an inkling that most people felt a ‘Day of the Triffids’ scenario was on the horizon with our ‘playing God’ with crops. In actual fact, we already have artificially bred crops. Is that a surprising revelation, if it is one at all? Farmers are naturally going to breed crops that have desirable traits (e.g. resistant to disease, better yields etc) with each other. That is artificially choosing certain genes over others. Do you own a dog? Also artificially bred: we have selected dogs for genes we find desirable. Arguably, have we not already played God? Without going too much into the debate, as there are many dimensions to it, I would say that genetically modifying organisms is a practice well-established in agriculture and society. GM crops just speed up the process so we don’t have to keep on breeding plants until we get the genes that we want them to have.
Without engaging the public – not just throwing facts at them, but really engaging them – we are doomed to having science become an elitist, strictly academic discipline where only the ‘clever’ or ‘boffins’ really understand the terms thrown about. This is not only an undesirable outcome, I would strongly argue that it is a catastrophic one. Far from being melodramatic, our roles as science communicators should be to show the public that the sciences are not for men and women in white lab coats, stuck in a laboratory or in the field all day long. It is for everyone and it affects everyone, whatever your level of understanding.
So It’s Basically Just A Giant Reproductive Machine?
The above heading is true of a fungal ‘fruiting body’, otherwise known as a mushroom. Interestingly, most of the fungus is hidden underground…microscopic, thread-like parts called ‘hyphae’. Actually, the heading is probably true of most, if not all, organisms on the planet. What have I just done here? Well, apart from cheekily drop the word ‘sex’ to raise a few eyebrows. I’ve reduced what is quite a complex topic – fungi and sexual reproduction – to its basic elements. On a wider scale of science communication, it is a necessary skill to be able to engage both other scientists, science communicators and the public.
Let it be known that our place is not in the kitchen, as my peer once erroneously stated, be it in jest or in all seriousness. We are the vanguard of logical and reason, our discipline highly regarded and highly needed in today’s world. We are passionate individuals who come from all walks of life: science or otherwise. We are the ones who seek to dispel the myths and misgivings surrounding the sciences to ensure better quality of life for humanity.
We also deserve more funding and monetary input than we are currently getting, and way more than other fields (again, I shall not name names) receive because we will be the ones to help advance humanity, not simply provide short-term entertainment gains.
We are science communicators: hear our THMs!