Recently, former U.S. Representative John Edward Porter wrote an editorial for Science magazine decrying the lack of communication between scientists and the general public. He makes it clear that he believes science to be an important driver of the U.S. economy and overall human progress, but he feels that researchers need to reach out to the public more actively to explain the benefits of science.
While I agree that science communication is important for increasing public understanding of science, is it really true that scientists are slacking when it comes to communicating with the general public?
Scientists are notoriously busy people. I have heard countless stories about long and tedious working hours and have had many conversations with scientists about the difficulty of having a family (or a social life!) and a successful science career. Despite the myriad employment-related demands on our time – breeding animals or recruiting human subjects, performing experiments, following regulatory guidelines, writing and reviewing grant applications, writing and reviewing papers, performing administrative tasks, serving on committees, and traveling to give talks, for example – the editorial mentioned above highlights the fact that speaking to the public (a task considered by most employers to be “on our own time”) is also a valuable and expected activity. After all, the logic goes, without public support for science there would be no science to perform.
How does the public traditionally learn about current scientific research?
Scientists do not generally specialize in science communication for the public because science writing requires a particular set of skills (usually from a background in journalism) to produce succinct, compelling, and jargon-free articles. Instead, many third parties exist to translate scientific findings into a form that non-scientists might like. Academic and private research institutions often have designated public relations departments that produce press releases about their employees’ current research. Popular media often repurpose these press releases into news stories that reach broad audiences but also sometimes commission independent articles about a scientific finding from freelance science writers.
The public also has access to scientific content written directly by scientists. In the U.S., for example, all researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have descriptions of their projects posted in a publically accessible database called the NIH RePORTER. Additionally, departments and labs often maintain websites that describe current research projects and provide contact information for lab personnel. Some labs and institutions even maintain publicly accessible databases containing raw data, manuscripts, protocols, or computer code meant for sharing. In this emerging age of open-access publishing, there are also many journals that provide complete research articles for free. Unfortunately, the content from these sources is not necessarily provided in an easily digestible form, so the heaviest users are usually other scientists.
Overall, scientists work very hard to ensure that the public has access to their research findings, but this does not directly increase public understanding of science. I think Mr. Porter’s editorial hints at a larger issue: he believes scientific understanding and public support can only be increased by interaction with scientists, not just exposure to scientific findings.
Are there ways for scientists to interact more directly with the public?
Scientists often interact with the public face-to-face to discuss science. Members of the public are sometimes allowed to attend scientific conferences to listen to research talks, visit scientists at their poster presentations, or meet with scientists at conference social events. Recently, science cafes have been popping up around the U.S., which are free events usually held at restaurants or bars that consist of scientists giving informal presentations about their work before engaging in a question-and-answer session with the audience. Additionally, scientists sometimes go to science fairs and classrooms to perform science demonstrations for children and adults. Of course, these types of interactive visits require time and money for travel, so it is not always feasible to do this regularly.
Real-time interactions with scientists are also possible via social media. There are numerous blogs, Tumblr pages, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, podcasts, and Youtube channels hosting free content produced by scientists, their institutions, or their enthusiastic fans. Social media allow scientists to communicate with anyone who has an internet connection, which means that scientists can interact with a global audience without the hassle of travel or large financial investments. As this study points out, many more scientists are using social media now than ever before, and it is becoming a very efficient way to communicate with the public. This has also facilitated post-publication peer review where scientists themselves can more actively participate in the conversation about current research findings. One caveat is that these interactions are often casual and are rarely peer-reviewed, so the quality and completeness of scientific content are not guaranteed. However, many scientists and science advocates believe this new age of instant communication is a boon for science and have even started publishing guides for scientists to learn how to use social media more effectively.
Are social media the answer to our desire for increased educational interactions?
The proliferation of science communication via social media speaks to the passion of scientists about their work and to the potentially great diversity of audiences that can be reached. As mentioned before, scientists are not usually trained in informal science communication, so not all scientists have the desire or the skills to interact via social media. Although this limits the number of scientists that will use social media, it also ensures that the scientists that participate are particularly motivated to communicate this way. The audience that can be reached, however, is only limited by stable internet connections (which is a problem in economically or politically unstable regions) and the level of desire a person has to explore the content scientists are producing.
Blogs are the medium most similar to scholarly forms of science communication because they depend upon the written word and sparse visual aids to present information. The unlimited space for written explanations also provides the blogger with the flexibility to develop a distinct style and approach to explaining science and its complexities. A multitude of individual science blogs exist, but many writers opt to join large blog networks (like the ones linked by these words) to more efficiently deliver content related to a shared science communication goal. Individual blogs provide more independence for the science blogger (especially in terms of content and formatting), but joining a network increases the blog’s exposure and provides motivation for fellow bloggers to promote each other’s work. Successful blogs tend to be timely, provide regular content, and explain how scientific concepts relate to people’s lives. In addition to scientists and science writers, government officials from science agencies have also started blogs. These blogs tend to relay official institutional content in an accessible format but are not generally as conversational as independent blogs. Although science blogs tend to be more informative than other forms of science social media, they are not as dynamic or interactive (with the possible exception of blog commenting sections), so they fill a specific social media niche.
Other social media that produce science content often take advantage of people’s natural attraction to auditory and visual information delivery. Podcasts, which are audio programs that can be downloaded or streamed at your convenience, are an efficient means to produce interviews with scientists and often use oral storytelling techniques to get the audience interested in scientific findings and concepts. Similarly, many Youtube channels deliver educational material in short, visually stimulating TV-like episodes that are produced by science enthusiasts, TV stations, or even government science agencies. Tumblr pages, which have even been created by government agencies like the National Science Foundation, and Facebook pages like the immensely popular “I F***ing Love Science” draw in visitors with flashy images and headlines but then educate anyone willing to click on the associated links. Although it generally lacks fancy multimedia, people often post links to informative articles in their LinkedIn group discussions as well.
Twitter, which confines users to 140 textual characters but also allows images, tends to attract people who value up-to-the-minute information and brief yet direct interactions. Although tweets do not generally contain much science information themselves, they do often contain provocative thoughts about science or advertise links to other social media sources with more information. Prominent science communicators like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have millions of followers and can, therefore, reach many people through Twitter. Research institutions, government agencies, and science journals also promote science widely with Twitter, but independent science enthusiasts’ accounts containing humor and pictures (like the “Science Porn” account) tend to be more popular. Many individual scientists also have twitter accounts, although it is harder for these tweets to reach a wide audience if the scientist is not already well known. If you want to follow the conversation happening around particular topics or events, then using Tweetdeck to organize the tweets is much easier than following individual Twitter accounts. Overall, Twitter is great for informing many people immediately about science and including the world in an ongoing conversation but is not always great for explaining nuance or providing depth.
So, are scientists doing enough to engage the public?
As explained above, a multitude of methods exists to explain science and communicate directly with members of the public, especially with the growing popularity of social media. These methods provide unprecedented educational opportunities, but they have their caveats, not the least of which is that they compete with other demands for people’s attention. Despite these issues, there has never before been such global access to scientific information and the scientists producing and interpreting it. Why, then, do people like Mr. Porter think that scientists are falling short in their efforts to educate the public?
Perhaps all the methods available for communicating science still hinge upon one major factor: even if scientists advocate for science until they are blue in the face, the public has to meet scientists half way by hearing them out. Scientists cannot force anyone to listen to what they have to say. They are not trained as journalists or spokespersons, so their message may not be tailored to today’s media culture or packaged in a way to attract attention; however, scientists are trying to communicate via the means currently available to them. The public, on the other hand, is not entirely to blame for their lack of scientific appreciation because the quality of U.S. science education is slipping, which means that many people do not understand the basic tenets of science or what outcomes can reasonably be expected from it. A compounding factor is that science communication is not a priority for major news outlets since their primary goal is to increase viewership rather than produce quality content that improves overall societal wellbeing. For this reason, usually only the flashiest science (regardless of quality) reaches public awareness. To improve mutual understanding, scientists must continually innovate their communication techniques while non-scientists must demand accurate and thorough information from their media sources. Also, if members of the public choose to reach out directly to scientists, many of those scientists would be more than happy to respond and start a conversation.
It will not be easy to correct misunderstandings about the scientific enterprise, but I think that better science education, especially training in critical thinking, starting from an early age in addition to more passionate science communicators, accessible scientific findings, and transparent motivations for research will help improve the situation. Social media are currently providing unprecedented learning opportunities and are closing the accessibility gap (as you can see by visiting some of the examples linked above), but we must remain aware of the caveats involved. Perhaps additional training in journalism or science communication would help scientists understand how to market their work through emerging communication technologies. Institutions should also do a better job supporting and even rewarding researchers’ outreach activities. We have made great strides in breaking down the barriers between scientists and the public, and we must continue to ensure that whichever means of science communication we choose is both effective and accurate. Like a scientific experiment, we must continually optimize the technique and adjust our methods as necessary.
Editor: Chris Hensley