On the importance of Scientific Communication

The consensus of the value of scientific communication – public communication of science-related topics to non-experts – is so strong that the National Academy of Sciences convened a symposium on the topic in 2012 (http://www.nasonline.org/programs/sackler-colloquia/completed_colloquia/science-communication.html). Since then, it has become typical to have the opportunity to participate in organized discussions and workshops on the topic at annual meetings of most scientific organizations. Publications that focus on the topic are also increasing in number annually in the peer reviewed literature and most large granting institutions now require proposal applicants to include a description of how project results will be translated to non-scientists. Even President Obama has called on scientists to become more involved in ‘outreach’ (http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v12/n6/full/nn0609-665.html). All of these factors support what appears to be a rapid inertia towards a STEM community that considers scientific communication as a fundamental component of research. But… is it?

In the absence of expert-informed scientific communication, the public is relegated to relying on watered down, and often, inaccurate soundbites of scientific research largely via journalists. This mis-, or at times, incomplete information transfer can result in lackadaisical (and in some case, antagonistic) attitudes towards pressing issues of global importance (e.g. climate change, GMOs, stem cells), subsequently affecting education reforms, healthcare standards and policy actions. It seems obvious that the responsibility of communicating scientific results to individuals outside of the research bubble would fall on scientists; however, outreach efforts can be largely stifled by a lack of training in graduate school, as well as by an absence of reward in early career stages.

This need not be the case! Scientists should be empowered to increase exposure of their own work outside of their research environment. This can be accomplished through baby steps (and sometimes, you can even get paid for it! http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/funding/public-engagement/). Some ideas:

- Open a twitter account (check out http://www.tweetyourscience.com/ to learn how)
- Start a blog, or at least, contribute a blog post (check out http://blog.wellcome.ac.uk/category/series/how-i-write-about-science/ for writing tips)
- Make a youtube video (check out http://scifundchallenge.org/blog/2013/05/25/video-as-a-tool-for-science-outreach/ for some hints)
- Write an opinion piece for publication in the popular press (check out http://extension.oregonstate.edu/eesc/how-to/write-killer-op-ed-piece to learn how)
- Invite groups to your lab or field site. These can be school groups, or any type of special interest groups (e.g. girl scouts).
- Engage non-scientists in discussion and debate (reading this will help you communicate more effectively: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088473)

Scientific communication can be difficult, time-consuming and seemingly futile. However, it’s important for facilitating public education and engagement, and is also a valuable strategy for propagating the life of your science (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/scientists-do-outreach-or-your-science-dies/).

labconscious scientific communication