Peter J Stogiospeter works at the University of Toronto and is a PhD Biochemist.

blog photo

Every scientist knows that our work is filled with technical jargon, complex ideas and concepts that can be difficult to communicate to other scientists and even more difficult to the general public on the whole. I don’t know many scientists that communicate their work to anyone other than scientists in their field, their students, institutions and funding agencies. Think about that. Hardly any scientist discusses their work with anyone outside of the world of science. Most scientist’s work will be published in journals that the public will never even have heard of, let alone have access to, let alone actually understand.

I think this is a total travesty. In my opinion, it is critical for academics to discuss their work with the public and a shame that this does not happen more.

Why we should communicate with the public?

At a basic level, scientists serve the public interest. We work on society’s biggest problems. The work we do is vital to understanding and treating disease. We create innovations and products that change people’s lives on a day to day basis. We drive economic development.

When it comes to academic research, scientists should not have a monopoly on knowledge and its possession. If we make a discovery, it is our duty to share it with the world. It is true that academic journals have a central role in disseminating research, but I think it is a shame that the public does not access these journals, nor are there many generalist scientific journals that would be more accessible to the public. Anyway, scientists don’t publish in generalist journals; they only publish in established, rigorous and peer-reviewed journals. This is as it should be, because peer review is an essential component to producing and communicating quality research, but an unintended consequence of this is that the vast majority of research science is isolated to those ‘in the know.’

A further consideration is that it is the public, as tax-payers, that fund research and expect results. We should be obligated to disseminate our work in a form that is accessible to the public. Thankfully, many funding organizations now mandate their research be published in open access journals, so at least the public does not have to pay to gain access.

Why don’t scientists value communication with the public?

I think much of the blame can be placed on scientists: too often we isolate ourselves from connecting with the public. Many colleagues have told me they think it is futile to talk about the details of their work to the public, so rather than making the effort to explain their work in terms understandable to non-scientists, they don’t even try.

I have also heard from scientists that the ‘framing’ of their research by non-technical publications or media outlets distorts from the accuracy and purity of their work. ‘Framing’ can mean presenting the underlying science in a way that is inaccurate or exaggerates the work, or even worse, using science to advance an agenda or to influence others. This is certainly true, as I frequently read articles in newspapers or magazines about science that are amazingly inaccurate or use a scientific study to advance controversial public policy. But I think part of the blame may lie with the scientist themselves: perhaps a tighter engagement between the researcher and the media would allow for stricter oversight of the accuracy and explanation of the science. This is a complex problem and unfortunately instead of engaging to address the problem, most academic scientists disengage themselves from communicating with the public in this way.

Also, the research performance of academic scientists, and therefore their funding, is rarely based on how they connect their work with the public and so the researchers have no incentive to try.

This fundamental communication disconnect has lead to a perception of scientists as aloof, is often taken advantage of by filmmakers to create caricatures of scientists (sometimes humorous, sometimes not), as awkward, misunderstood, socially inept creatures. I think this is a real problem–the public always has preconceptions about scientists that are usually totally inaccurate!

Why bother communicating your science with the public?

Some scientists claim that communicating our science to the public is a distraction from the nitty gritty of doing science and publishing papers. Certainly communicating with the public takes time and effort to perform properly, but there are numerous benefits for a scientists? career, along with benefits for the public.

Benefits to the scientist:

  • Outreach to the public and wider scientific community can lead to unexpected new connections and new ideas that could stimulate your research.
  • Sharing your science with the world directly brings attention and respect for your work, which clearly has career advancement benefits.
  • The act of communicating itself helps to better organize thoughts, allows for identifying the critical/most important elements of your work, encourages creating better technical and non-technical presentations of your work, and improves overall writing and oral presentation skills.
  • The public (taxpayers) gain a better understanding of your science and therefore may be more entitled to support research funding increases in the future.
  • It’s fun! Telling others about your work can be very personally gratifying.

Benefits to the public:

  • The public gains a personal connection with the people doing the science.
  • The public is entitled to access to the science they fund.
  • The public actually is interested in your work. Your science is cool! The public is always fascinated by discovery, especially if involves an emotional connection to some aspect of their life. Never underestimate their caring and interest.

Conclusion

There are many ways scientists can communicate more directly with the public. These include writing a personal blog, updating their lab’s or personal website to be less technical and more accessible to non-scientists, popular science forums and message boards, and engaging with your institution’s research communication office. Most organizations publish newsletters or create websites showcasing the work being done, and act as intermediaries between the researchers and the media. Scientists can and should interact more with these communicators.

Most academic scientists are so focused on the technicalities of their work and meeting the requirements of their funding agencies that they lose sight of the larger picture. We serve the public interest, not just our own scientific interest and curiosity, and so we have an obligation and duty to share our results. I think most scientists have not given much thought to the benefit they might receive from such communication, or shy away from the complications involved. I hope that the readers of this blog will give some thought to the points I’ve raised and consider whether their legacy would be better served by confining their research to the closed world of science and the ivory tower or by getting the word out to a larger audience.

This was originally posted here.