Wednesday, October 21, 2015
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
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…”
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
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.