Showing posts with label Media. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Media. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Scientists + Communication = ??

An academic is expected to be a jack of many trades – handling research, teaching, mentorship, administration, committee work, reviewing, grant-writing, and editorial duties. Science communication is increasingly being added to that list as well. Outreach, public engagement and science communication are all terms thrown around (e.g. the 'Broader Impacts' section of many NSF grants, for example, includes the possibility "Broaden dissemination to enhance scientific and technological understanding"). Sometimes this can include communication between academics (conferences, seminars, blogs like this one) but often it is meant to include communication with the general public. Statistics about low science literacy at least partially motivate this. For example, “Between 29% and 57% of Americans responded correctly to various questions measuring the concepts of scientific experiment and controlling variables. Only 12% of Americans responded correctly to all the questions on this topic, and nearly 20% did not respond correctly to any of them”. (

Clearly improving scientific communication is a worthy goal. But at times it feels like it is a token addition to an application, one that is outsourced to scientists without providing the necessary resources or training. . This is a problem because if we truly value scientific communication, the focus should be on doing it in a thoughtful manner, rather than as an afterthought. I say this because firstly because communicating complex ideas, some of which may require specialized terms and background knowledge, is difficult. The IPCC summaries, meant to be accessible to lay readers were recently reported to be incredibly inaccessible to the average reader (and getting worse over time!). Their Flesch reading ease scores were lower than those of Einstein’s seminal papers, and certainly far lower than most popular science magazines. Expert academics, already stretched between many skills, may not always be the best communicators of their own work.

Secondly, even when done well, it should be recognized that the audience for much science communication is a minority of all media consumers – the ‘science attentive’ or ‘science enthusiast’ portion of the public. Popular approaches to communication are often preaching to the choir. And even within this group, there are topics that naturally draw more interest or are innately more accessible. Your stochastic models will inherently be more difficult to excite your grandmother about than your research on the extinction of a charismatic furry animal. Not every topic is going to be of interest to a general audience, or even a science-inclined audience, and that should be okay.

So what should our science communication goals be, as scientists and as a society? There is entire literature on this topic (the science of science communication, so to speak), and it provides insight into what works and what is needed. However, “....despite notable new directions, many communication efforts continue to be based on ad-hoc, intuition-driven approaches, paying little attention to several decades of interdisciplinary research on what makes for effective public engagement.”

One approach supported by this literature process follows 4 steps:

1) Identify the science most relevant to the decisions that people face;
2) Determine what people already know;
3) Design communications to fill the critical gaps (between what people know and need to know);
4) Evaluate the adequacy of those communications.

This approach inherently includes human values (what do people want or need to know), rather than a science-centric approach. In addition, to increase the science-enthusiast fraction of the public, focusing on education and communication for youth should be emphasized.

The good news is that science is respected, even when not always understood or communicated well. When asked to evaluate various professions, nearly 70% of Americans said that scientists “contribute a lot” to society (compared to 21% for business executives), and scientists typically are excited about interacting with the public. But it seems like a poor use of time and money to simply expect academics to become experts on science communication, without offering training and interdisciplinary relationships. So, for example, in the broader impacts section of a GRFP, maybe NSF should value taking part in a program (led by science communication experts) on how to communicate with the public; maybe more than giving a one-time talk to 30 high school students. Some institutions provide more resources to this end than others, but the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of science communication should receive far more emphasis. And the science of science communication should be a focus – data-driven approaches are undeniably more valuable.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't keep perfecting your answer for when the person besides you on an airplane asks you what you do though :-) 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Gendered assumptions and science: still a problem

Sometimes I feel like covering sexism and science has the potential to trigger a weary response, a feeling that this is well-travelled territory. And generally, academia is fairly self-aware about the causes and consequences of its current gender gap (see the special issue in Nature). But then I hear or read something that disappointingly reminds me that society as a whole still has a ways to go.

The first was a minor story. The curator of “I f--king love science”, a widely-followed Facebook page on things scientific and otherwise, happened to reveal that they were Elise Andrew--a female. While this seemed to be a non-event, apparently young men everywhere (i.e. on the internet) were shocked that their mental picture of a male scientist was untrue. Many comments fell along the lines of “you’re a girl?!” and “all that time picturing a man!”. Even more frustrating was that commenters also mentioned Elise’s appearance – attractive and female and a scientist--apparently this was so surprising as to be worthy of comment. And while I wanted to dismiss this as being limited to problems with Internet culture and hardly indicative of larger societal trends, something else happened – Yvonne Brill, a brilliant American rocket scientist passed away. Her work on propulsion systems now helps keep communications satellites in orbit, and she was a successful engineer with an interesting career. She clearly deserved a national obituary, and she got one in the New York Times. It started:

“She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

By way of comparison, not one of Steve Jobs’ obituaries started with a mention of his hobbies or personal accomplishments, or his status as a father. The only other recently (2012) deceased female scientist I could think of, astronaut Sally Ride, similarly received an obituary in the NYT that emphasized her gender - "American Woman Who Shattered Space Ceiling".

The need of society, reporters, and popular culture to reconcile a female scientist’s gender with their occupation appears to still be common. So much so that the one science writer came up with the Finkbeiner Test (Columbia Journalism Review) to point out articles which rely on the “she’s a woman AND a scientist” trope. Such articles tend to mention:
  • The fact that she’s a woman 
  • Her husband’s job 
  • Her child-care arrangements 
  • How she nurtures her underlings 
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field 
  • How she’s such a role model for other women 
  • How she’s the “first woman to…” 
The point is not that it is always unacceptable to include such things in articles, but that unless the article is about sexism or balancing work-life balance, these facts are irrelevant when reporting on a scientist's professional accomplishments. Gender shouldn't be the default position when we consider scientists who happen to be women. And apparently this message still needs to be repeated. Some people have suggested that one equalizer is to simply to also ask male scientists about their personal lives more often. However writer Finkbeiner notes that these questions rarely improve science journalism: "They’re [scientists] all normal human beings and the thing that makes them so interesting is the science. So, if you want to humanize them, talk about their motivations. Talk about how they got interested in their field. Talk about the part of their life that led them to become such an interesting scientist—because childcare is not interesting."

Note: while problems with gendered assumptions is a very general societal issue, academia isn't totally blameless. Having served on a number of lecture organizing committees, I've noticed that if the email for speaker nominations doesn't explicitly say that we wish to nominate male and female scientists at the top of their careers, female scientists are rarely nominated. Students' mental image of a top scientist tends to skew male. If that simple note is included though, nominations begin to approach gender ratios for professors at that career stage.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Science 2.0 - science comes of age on the Internet

by Marc Cadotte, Nicholas Mirotchnick and Caroline Tucker

The Internet is not just for lolcats and porn anymore, scientists have begun using it in constructive ways. The past few weeks’ controversy about the ability (or lack thereof) of bacteria to incorporate arsenic exemplifies how the relationship between science and the Internet is changing. If you’ve missed the debate over the recent Science paper, researchers funded by NASA’s exobiology/evolutionary biology program published experimental results suggesting that a Halomonas species could incorporate arsenic into its DNA in the absence of available phosphorus. This paper received extensive attention in the mainstream media, but also vocal criticism, which was expressed primarily through postings and comments on scientific blogs. Until recently, for scientific communication the Internet has functioned primarily as an electronic source of published journal articles. Earlier attempts to take advantage of the Internet’s potential (immediacy, accessibility, and ability to connect individuals, organizations, and ideas) in scientific discourse have been mixed (e.g. Nature Precedings versus PLoS ONE). The use of blogs as a forum for scientific debate suggests that this is changing: posters tended to be active scientists and the comments were similarly knowledgeable. In contrast to this online approach, the authors of the Science paper stated that they would only respond to peer-reviewed critiques and would not engage in discussions on the blogosphere.

The story of the arsenic-utilizing bacteria highlights an emergent tension in the transition to internet-based scientific discourse. Traditional communication in science has been primarily unidirectional, from the authors of a study to the readership of a journal. Any discourse transpired on the pages of a journal, regulated by editorial and peer review. This gatekeeping meant that this discourse was technically sound and kept personal grudges and tangential discussions to a minimum. This also meant, however, that only a few voices were heard, the discussion was slow (occurring over months) and only happened for one back and forth (journals will not devote precious page space to on-going discussions and debates).

This method of discourse is changing. Journals have experimented with online discussion or commenting features on their websites. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, for example, has a correspondence page with discussion threads for each paper they publish, and PloS ONE allows for comments to be posted to every paper they publish. While, in concept, these are positive developments for scientific communication, commenting features are seldom, if ever, used. The main obstacle to their success is that they are only available on the publishers’ websites, but scientists access articles in many different ways, from database searches to library links. Few scientists actually go to individual journal websites to access papers. This is not to say that there are not discussions about scientific papers occurring online. As highlighted by the arsenic bacterial episode, blogs are an important avenue for discussing and disseminating new ideas in science. Blogs may not, however, actually foster conversations very well. One person or a few people usually run them and there is little discussion among blogs (a comment on a blog post at blog X will not be part of the discussion of the same story at blog Y). Rather, the greatest potential to foster discourse is through virtual networks where people are linked together either through friendships or professional self-identification (e.g., as fisheries biologists), with Google Reader being a particularly powerful communication tool.

It’s exciting to think about what the future of science will look like, given the changes that we’ve already started to see. The major upside of new channels of communication is that they give us the potential to quickly reach thousands of readers, instead of the handful that usually read any given journal article. They also let us communicate in both directions, and in real time. The pitfall, of course, is that they’re free-for-alls; anyone can blog about science.

But here’s what’s unexpected: these free-for-alls have been amazingly reliable at filtering out the bad and promoting the good. Inaccuracies are pulled from Wikipedia faster than anyone had predicted, the social news site Reddit is “astonishingly” altruistic, with users eliminating offensive or erroneous comments from the site and promoting other users’ questions and problems, and the reputations of blogs are shattered if their content becomes unreliable. Social networking has revolutionized the way we consume news, with sites like Facebook and Twitter launching the best articles into viral webspace. The open-access world has evolved self-regulating mechanisms that work surprisingly well so far and if these media are to continue to grow, we will have to ensure that these mechanisms remain built-in.

Seems like an easy task, right? Apparently not. For some reason, academics are slow and conservative when it comes to adopting new media. A letter to Nature two weeks ago scolded scientists for not contributing their share to Wikipedia pages. Various facebooks for academics, like Mendeley and ResearchGATE have emerged, but last week, another Nature article complained that researchers aren’t jumping on the bandwagon. These sites are potential collaborative goldmines, but we seem to be incapable mastering what tweens can do with two thumbs.

It’s not so hard to imagine a world where anyone with a broadband connection can contribute creative ideas to science, the good ideas get automatically filtered to the top and the information is all free to anyone. In this world, children count ants (or bees!) in their backyards and upload their data to global networks. Revolutionary discoveries are published instantly on blogs and thousands of scientists get to decide if they’re valid. Every gene ever sequenced and every tree height ever measured can be readily downloaded in an Excel (or OpenOffice) spreadsheet. In this world, the report on our little arsenophilic friends might never have been published in Science, because instead of being reviewed by two referees, the thousands of readers on the blogosphere would have filtered it out, if was in fact porous.

Academics should be the first, not the last, to adopt new communication tools. We are no longer limited by the postal service, email or PDFs; the web has gone 2.0 and we should follow suit. So go forth, young researchers, and blog, edit and share. And then go tweet about it all so your eight year-old kid knows how hip you are.

Monday, February 2, 2009

I have one of the worst jobs in science!

According to Popular Science's annual ranking of the worst jobs in science, I (no really me!) have one of the worst jobs. They list scientists doing triage -that is having to evaluate which species to save given that we can't save all, as being particularly crummy. They specifically cite my study of phylogenetic uniqueness and ecosystem function as an example. Well I guess it is a little depressing to try to evaluate which species should be saved over others, but I don't think it is as bad as a medical waste burner...