This is part of a series of posts describing science in terms of a new social contract with clauses and expectations of both scientists and society. The links for all of the posts so far can be found on the ‘highlights’ page. So if you are interested, start there to get the complete contract.
In my original post about a new social contract for science and society, I didn’t go into too many practical details as to how to make these terms work for all of us. So let’s dig a little deeper into scientific status updates…
“We will do a better job communicating status updates to you… “
A couple of my posts last week should have given you some insights as to how scientists communicate with one another and new variations on that theme. In theory, scientists should be writing their results clearly enough for everyone to understand, but in practice this doesn’t happen. Most scientific literature is readily understandable to only a small audience of scientists within the same field; therefore, these publications provide a poor venue for communicating important scientific findings to the general public (not to mention the fact that it is prohibitively expensive to access unless you are an institutional subscriber). This impasse has existed for many years with scientists on one side talking with one another thinking they are doing an adequate job of putting their research in the public domain and with the general public on the other side wondering what scientists could possibly be doing in their ivory towers only venturing out on seldom occasions to spout off numbers foretelling our impending doom from climate change, food shortages, rainforest destruction, and flu pandemics*. This situation has festered to the point where neither scientists nor the general public really want to talk with one another and lack the skills to meaningfully communicate. The real shame is the fact that science now more than ever permeates all aspects of our lives. More people should be aware of current research and what it means for their future. I’m sure that is common ground we can all agree on.
The publication of peer-reviewed research in scholarly journals will continue to be the most respected way scientists communicate with one another, but where does that leave everyone else? Out in the cold. How do scientists plan on communicating with the general public?
Fortunately, the information age and the advent of social media are peaking just as the science and society communication rift is in need of a bridge. If there is a technology available to immediately disseminate such mundane details as what Justin Bieber ate for breakfast this morning to 40 million plus people around the globe, I think we could find a way to harness that power for the sake of knowledge. Yes, scientists should be on Facebook, LinkedIN, and Twitter– it’s where the people are!** These social media outlets allow for direct connections with the public and real time release of information. Scientists should see the potential of these new communication tools and not merely the frivolous ways in which they are currently being used. Blogging isn’t just for parental rants and raves, but a way to curate and/or create new content available to anyone with an internet connection. These articles further describe the professional potential of various online platforms and how scientists can use them to their advantage.
While scientists should always strive to be good communicators of their work, they can’t do it alone. The need for effective science communication has also birthed a new hybrid- the science communicator. Science communicators usually have extensive scientific training (formal degrees or acquired via association with scientists for numerous assignments), but they also have formal communications training (mass communication, journalism, writing). They are essentially translators. Their job is not to ‘dumb it down,’ but to throw out all of the confusing jargon and speak about science in language normal humans can understand. They place highly specialized research in universally meaningful contexts. They explicitly connect science on a personal level to a wider audience compared to scientists.
Scientists and scientific communicators should approach the ‘communication/outreach problem’ just as they would any other research question. It should be addressed with every possible weapon in the arsenal and the latest cutting-edge techniques. Scientists should not be afraid to learn new approaches when it comes to communication and their efforts must be constantly re-evaluated for effectiveness. Oh metrics! What scientist doesn’t like numbers backing up their efforts? Investment in communication does yield dividends in other areas- better writing leads to better grant proposal reviews and publications; clearer oral communication helps with teaching. As with experimental research, scientists should be building on existing communication strategies to further their reach.
I hope that one day Science can be the new Justin Bieber*** because Science is important and everyone should know why… in real time.
Scientists, it’s time to speak up. People of Earth, prepare to have your newsfeeds filled with useful information on scientific research.****
*Yes, scientists like numbers. As much as we would like to think that raw numbers and data are compelling for you, we are beginning to suspect that’s not the case. We will still use some numbers, but we’ll try to keep them in context and tell a story around them.
**Check out this graphic showing what happens online every 60s. Yeah, that’s where the audience is.
***No, it’s definitely not that scientists want to be pop stars- it would be entirely too dangerous for the paparazzi.
****Don’t worry there will still be plenty of room for cutesy cat pictures (some even have a science twist) and updates on how potty training is going for your friends’ kids.
References and Further Reading: