As scientists we are all too familiar with the response from many non-scientists when we say, “Oh, I am a Molecular Biologist [or insert field of study here].” They are often visibly taken aback, as if recognizing that we are untouchable in some way and they fear they’ve gotten too close. I’ve even seen family members quickly scurry away as they apologetically insist they “don’t understand science” and don’t want to engage in further conversation. The stereotype of scientists isolated in their ivory tower is hard to overcome when there is a fundamental lack of discourse between scientists and the non-scientific public.
This lack of interaction is an example of what Dr. Jane Lubchenco referred to as “The Science-Society Paradox” in her keynote address at the ASCB annual meeting in December 2015. She was referring to the barrier between scientists and society and why communicating scientific information is so difficult, yet absolutely necessary. Dr. Lubchenco offered a reason for this, citing a recent study by Fiske and Dupree which found that scientists are generally seen as being “competent but cold” by the American public (1). She emphasized the importance of how scientists and science are perceived by society, and challenged those in attendance to break the negative scientist stereotype. Dr. Lubchenco noted that one of the most effective ways to change the perception of scientists is to train and empower scientists to communicate effectively. I believe this call to arms extends to all scientists as we aim to dismantle the barriers between scientists and the general public, and I will offer some suggestions on how to easily hone your science communication skills.
In order to communicate effectively with lay audiences, scientists often need to acquire new skills and even a new “language” that will allow them to translate complex technical findings into information that is accurate and digestible to the general public. However, this process is not easy for most of us. Therefore, we need to promote communication training in a friendly and fun environment, much like that of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The Center for Communicating Science offers classes and workshops for scientists of all training levels (e.g. graduate students through faculty). They are most notable for the “Improvisation for Scientists” training, which aims to “free scientists to talk about their work more spontaneously and directly, to pay dynamic attention to their listeners and to connect personally with their audience.” To empower our trainees, this year, SPEaC aims to hold an improv-style communication workshop for UTSW students and postdocs to practice their science communication in a relaxed and safe environment. We hope to demonstrate that effective communication is easier than expected, especially when applicable analogies and metaphors are used, and that scientists are seen as more trustworthy and approachable when we convey science through relatable experiences.
A great avenue for practicing science communication without formal classes or workshops is through scientific outreach efforts. These can be tailored to any audience, as trainees can seek out opportunities to communicate directly with children, teens, or adults. Outreach events can focus on educating the public about general sciences and health, or the ongoing research efforts at the local university and/or medical school. Volunteering to give talks in schools, participating in your local science museum activities, or helping to judge science fairs are all great ways to hone your communication skills while also helping the general public understand the importance of science and research.
In addition to outreach efforts, scientists can also communicate directly with the public through social media and blogging. By using social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook, scientists can serve as critical mediators in disseminating scientific information by sharing advancements directly with society. In the process, scientists can practice their communication skills as they translate the information to a more general audience and emphasize the importance of the discoveries for all mankind. Furthermore, you can use the Internet to spread scientific information through non-written means. For example, you can use your artistic side to convey science through comics, infographics, and digital or other art mediums. The Internet is also ideal for sharing videos that convey science in a fun and artistic, yet accurate manner (e.g. iBiology, FASEB’s Stand Up For Science). SPEaC recently initiated the “Ask a Scientist” program to combine our outreach efforts with communication training. “Ask a scientist” invites people within the local community to submit their questions and have UTSW scientists answer them in a YouTube video. This is a great way to practice your science communication to audiences of all ages, and can be easily adopted at any institution.
In order to gauge how well you are currently able to communicate scientific topics to the general public, I urge you to challenge yourself and assess your science communication skills. Your first mission is to make a video for your non-scientist friend or family member translating scientific findings from a recent paper in your field, and then later evaluate their understanding of the information you presented. From this interaction you can gauge your communication strengths and weaknesses. You can then practice and refine your science communication skills through volunteering/outreach, blogging and social media, attending a communication workshop, or even making your own “Ask a Scientist”-style video. I encourage you to repeat this video translation exercise many times over your training period until you feel confident that you’ve mastered communicating science to a lay audience.
Increasing science communication skills for scientists is necessary to resolve the science-society paradox. To close her keynote address, Dr. Lubchenco urged us to change the narrative about scientists and science through smarter engagement with the public. Perhaps with the skills acquired through increased communication training we can finally engage non-scientists in a meaningful conversation and dispel the scientist stereotype.
- Fiske ST, Dupree C. Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2014;111 Suppl 4:13593-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1317505111. PubMed PMID: 25225372; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4183178.
Editor: Sarah Elkin