Thoughts on Science Communication

I read this piece by Paul M. Sutter, “Science Has a Communication Problem – and a Connection Problem.” His conclusion is scientists can earn public trust if they are visible and sharing the scientific process. I think that’s right. He talks about the difficulties in using traditional and social media to convey science. I relate, and I tried to articulate my thoughts on the subject below.

The boundary of scientific understanding expands all the time. It takes time and effort to take discoveries at the frontier and deliver them to the public. Whose responsibility is it to provide accounts of the new territory of human knowledge? More scientists should take on that role, but there is neither incentive nor training to do so. Most scientists hone a specific technical skillset and communication style that works within the scientific community. Making time to build another, parallel skillset and communication style is hard.

As a scientist, I am just starting to come to grips with just how difficult science communication is. I want to share my love of the subject, but I don’t necessarily know how. It goes beyond avoiding jargon. Providing the right background and choosing the appropriate level of simplification (not to mention holding the reader’s interest) are all new skills. And there are other dangers: I have not had media training. There’s a media minefield I barely know exists. I do not know how to navigate it. Sometimes it seems that the more interesting and engaging the media, the riskier it is to publish.

The hurdle to good science communication has nothing to do with the availability of scientific information. We have more access to journal articles and raw datasets than ever before. Most people do not have the background to understand that information. We could blame education and say the lack of public interest is just scientific illiteracy. But that misses the point. Science communication must meet people where they are. Better education might help the next generation receive science better, but that does not help us reach people today. Plus, how are we to encourage better science education if the voters today do not value it for their children?

There are few incentives for professional or academic scientists to engage in public communication. Academics have a publish-or-perish incentive. An academic’s social relevance, likelihood for promotion, and likelihood of getting a grant are all dependent on peer-reviewed publications. There is incentive to win grants: grants mean a little more salary but more important they are the lifeblood of an independent research career. To keep doing the experiments that are interesting, the program needs grant funding. Young professors are encouraged to spend every second on publications and grants. Expending effort elsewhere might cost a young academic tenure; it could cost an older scientist his reputation. In some regards, outside academia the incentives for science communication are even weaker. Accidental disclosure of an idea can kill a patent. A controversy can kill a small company.

As a consequence, science communication comes mostly from dedicated media outlets and hobbyists. It comes from a place of passion and dedication. Communicating clearly for a lay-audience takes practice. Writing for new audiences is a hard skill to master. Media training, writing groups, peer support are all ingredients in helping seasoned professionals learn to share their interest more broadly. This can also help prevent problems. Scientists without media training have fallen into some traps. They have given interviews to documentarians who turned out to be flat-earthers. They have been misquoted in partisan media outlets who are only interested in building a narrative to support their propaganda. Training can help scientists vet interviewers, and communicate in ways that are harder to misconstrue.

Despite the difficulties, every scientist should be concerned about how their work is communicated to the general public. We want people to value our work. It is intrinsically satisfying to share something we value. There are practical reasons to engage the public, too. Sharing science and inspiring interest in science helps draw in the next generation of scientists. We must also acknowledge that taxpayers are the ultimate source of public funding for science. If we want research to keep happening, then we need their support.

We want people to understand the science that makes their modern life possible. Modern medicine, agriculture, and all modern conveniences are all built on science. Also! Science is interesting and a source of wonder and joy! As a society, we should love art and music and science not just for their extrinsic benefits (prettier corporate offices, more profitable entertainment companies, high investment returns for breakthrough biotech startups). We should also appreciate the intrinsic value of pursuing great things: knowledge and beauty among them. The universe has order, and we can learn it if we try. The academy and scientific funding agencies should help guide the scientific enterprise toward that lofty goal. And that includes helping and supporting scientists who want to share their discoveries with everyone.