Improving Communication Between Scientists and the Public: Start Younger, Try Harder?

By Chris Mooney | June 15, 2010 8:13 am

This is a guest post from a member of Science in the News (SITN), an organization of PhD students at Harvard University whose mission is to bring the newest and most relevant science to a general audience. For over a decade, SITN has been presenting a fall lecture series at Harvard Medical School, with talks on a diversity of current and newsworthy topics, such as stem cell biology and climate change. SITN also publishes the Flash, an online newsletter written by graduate students at Harvard, which presents current scientific discoveries and emerging fields in an accessible and entertaining manner. SITN engages in additional outreach activities such as “Science by the Pint”, and hopes students at other institutions will also make the commitment to strengthen science communication.

The following post is from Harvard graduate student Rou-Jia Sung.

I recently attended an event entitled “Standing up for Science,” which was held as part of the Cambridge Science Festival and organized by the UK-based group “Sense about Science.”

The event was organized as a forum to bring people together to discuss the issue of science and the media: how these two entities perceive one another, and how the public perceives them in turn.

From my perspective as a graduate student, the bulk of science is not as black and white as the public might perceive it to be, but is made up of shades of gray; as you set up your experiments to address a particular question, you realize that it is extremely difficult to produce widely general rules and definite conclusions, simply because not everything is known. Doing science is a bit like starting a paint-by-numbers kit, without knowing what the final picture is supposed to be. In order to complete the work, you first have to focus on properly coloring in the individual sections. And in scientific research, there are a multitude of painters, and the grand picture is so large, it is likely we will not see it completed in our lifetimes.

This brings us to a major hurdle in science communication: it is difficult to understand, interpret, or even be passionate about something that is incomplete. As the public, we are much more interested in seeing the final work of art than the work in progress. Given then the nature of scientific research, it becomes challenging to bridge such a gap in perspective and communication between the public and science.

There are a few programs available to train scientists on how to interact with the media, such as the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program; however, the majority of these courses are designed for and available only to advanced scientists. Why not introduce these types of courses at the level of graduate school, as part of the graduate curricula? Or even begin at the undergraduate level–to increase student awareness that clear and effective communication is critical within one’s research field, but especially with a broader audience.

Strengthening this culture and kind of communication will require improvements and innovation, and students are perfectly placed to begin contributing to this and making their voices heard. Science in the News, a graduate student group at Harvard, presents an annual scientific lecture series to the public. But only a small portion of students get this kind of experience during their education, and there are compelling reasons to have compulsory training in communication.

Of course, in addition to fostering communication skills and priorities in the science community, are there ways to better prepare the public to better understand the subtleties behind scientific research?

Comments (7)

  1. JMW

    I often think of reading and writing as skills that need to be developed beyond more than the rudimentary level of achieving communication. It’s not enough to be able to read any given passage, but to be able to parse it, examine it critically, etc. And it’s not enough to be able to write so as to communicate an idea, but to do so as clearly and lucidly as possible (which, with me, is a work in progress).

    So when I see scienctists talking about communicating with the public in a a better way, and focussing on stuff such as “…a major hurdle in science communication: it is difficult to understand, interpret, or even be passionate about something that is incomplete…”, I think the author is missing the point. Even incomplete results can be understood, interpreted and exciting if they are presented properly.

    Or to paraphrase Arthur Conan Doyle…he wrote a Sherlock Holmes story in which the story was ostensibly written by Holmes himself, rather than Watson. And the opening paragraph read something like this:

    The ideas of my friend Watson are extremely pertinacious. I have often criticized his literary efforts in chronicling my work…”Try it yourself, Holmes” has been his invariable response. Now I find that, in taking up my pen to describe a case, I being to realize that the matter must be presented in such as way as will interest the reader. (emphasis mine)

    There needs to be more emphasis on communication skills – reading and writing. Our culture is drowning in multiple different mutually exclusive jargons – the legal, the medical, the scientific, the political – and we need a “Plain Language” renaissance.

  2. John Kwok

    @ JMW -

    i agree completely. Having effective communication skills is necessary not only in the sciences and engineering. But it is also possible – even necessary at times – to do a fine job communicating research in progress, especially when it is often funded by government funding agencies and relevant nongovernment organizations for whom reporting is an important part of any grant application (or of a grant funding research in progress).

  3. @1 and 2, there’s some truth to what you guys are saying, but presenting research in progress to a mass audience when you’re not even sure what the final picture will be is problematic, especially when the result turns out to be different than you promised. And we are often forced to over-sell the implications of our research in order to get funding.

    How will the public react when you tell them your painting will be a Picasso, and it turns out to look like a Thomas Kinkade?

  4. John Kwok

    @ Kevin -

    You’ve raise a fair point, but sometimes it is necessary to do what I have suggested, and not merely for public relations or some kind of educational outreach.

  5. I like the idea of teaching how scientists can better relate to the public and media at the graduate school level. Here at UC Irvine physics grads are required to TA at least 3 quarters even if they have fancy fellowships that will pay them to do research all the time. Why, because we are told as scientists we have to learn to become good teachers.

    I think part of being a good scientist “teacher” would involve, not only knowing how to reach out to students enrolled in your particular class, but the public and media in general.

  6. gillt

    Rou-Jia Sung: “As the public, we are much more interested in seeing the final work of art than the work in progress. Given then the nature of scientific research, it becomes challenging to bridge such a gap in perspective and communication between the public and science.”

    And so the public has this unfortunate misconception that science is about technology when it’s not. And since the public is only exposed to the finished product, which typically means the drug therapy or the shiny gizmo, they naturally lack both an appreciation and basic understanding of the scientific process–all the dead-ends and failed hypothesis littering the roadside are rarely if ever mentioned. We need more people who are exposed to scientific thinking at an earlier age.

    We do a bad job of educating our children in science that when they’re all grown up their eyes glass over at the mere mention of the word because it’s associated with the rote learning of esoteric minutia.

  7. Excellent post and I completely agree with you.

    We have been debating this @ ANU (Australia) recently. Some of the PhD students feel it is not our responsibility to communicate to the public, but someone elses role. Others feel we should be trained to communicate, and use resources available to us, like our Media Department for guidance and help.

    We have a Grad Cert in Science Comm at ANU. I undertook it a few years ago and it dramatically increased my confidence in public scientific writing and speaking. Was a great improvement with a small time committment of 2 1/2 days. I feel every scientist should do it.

    One of the problems is what media a scientist should use. Perhaps this is where getting advice from Media Departments would be helpful. I have a Blog that I write on (soilduck.com) and I also use Twitter and Facebook. TV and Newspaper are for big stories, and not general information. Using this kind of social networking and personal communication means that people can follow you on your journey of discovery – they can see you learning and they learn with you to find answers and questions.

    At the end of the day it is our responsibility to get information out to the public, so they are able to make informed decisions. Whether it be about best optical fibre networks or mining in Australia, the public and policy makers need to know the facts to make decisions.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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