The importance of science communication

I am really hot on science communication, obviously. In addition to Dino Base (moderator, general discusser and blogger) and Ask A Biologist (admin and overlord) I am working on another new site (details will be announced at the right time). When I can, I contribute to other forums, blogs and send off the odd article to some of the popular dino and palaeo magazines, and while back in the UK I would go out of my way to go along to schools and talk about dinosaurs and zoos and conservation etc. to try and engage kids a bit more beyond looking down a microscope occasioanlly. With a few obvious exceptions (some bloggers just never stop – like the phenomenal PZ Myers) I probably do more than probably 99% of scientists. And for me, that is actually a big problem.

I guess there are two extremes in the attitude of researchers to science communication – the ivory tower “we must get on with our work, and why try to explain the intricacies of our work to the mortals who can barely tie their shoe-laces” and the “what is the point of what are we doing, if the only people who understand are our collaborators?”. You can guess where I stand.

Still, the former extreme actually has more merit in some ways – we are paid to do a job, and while it can be fun, this blogging etc. takes time and money either personal or professional to achieve. If getting that Nature paper published secures you a job and the money to pay off your debts or support your family, should you get back to work, or try and write an article on it for a blog? No choice there. And we do have a fundamental duty to our employers to get some work done, and that does not necessarily include going out into schools, talking to journalists or starting websites.

However, I also think the other point of view is essential. I am not suggesting for a moment that science communication should form the bulk of anyone’s work – far from it, we are researchers first. But then, I think far more scientists should try to engage the public beyond the odd press release when they get an exciting new paper published. If nothing else, these people ultimately pay our wages and we should try to give them something in return – I consider it almost a courtesy to tell them what we are doing and why it is interesting.

Beyond this however, there are, I believe, huge reasons to try and communicate with the public. It is in everyone’s interests to have an educated audience – they can appreciate our work, and take far more from it that if they are ignored. At the risk of being cynical, a little PR never hurt anyone, and if we want to encourage them to think of science in a good light, then getting them excited and committed to our research is only likely to increase our funding, and get them pubic on our side where there are problems.

It is too simplistic a view, but would scare stories about MMR, genetically modified food, and ideas like creationism or faked moon landings last more than a week if every member if the general population had a really good grounding in science? If everyone understood the principles of which science is founded of investigation, theories, testing, review, repeatability, parsimony and the rest I simply cannot see crystal healing lasting and astrology long as concepts.

This is unlikely to happen, but it does not prevent us from making a difference. We can give public talks, we can create websites, write in magazines, visit schools, and just generally get out there. I want people to be inspired by science, I want kids to want to be scientists, I want the public to think our work is important, worthwhile and honest. And I think that is possible, perhaps not in a real sense of a utopian science loving society, but we can increase our outreach hugely.

Just imagine if each research (lets say postdoc and above) gave just a single 30 minute public talk each year. We would reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people directly. That equates to a minimum amount of effort yet the results would be hugely influential. Imagine the excitement that could be generated in a school if a genuine Nobel winner came to talk about his work? The inspiration to some of the kids listening could last a lifetime.

I also feel that those of us whose work is based in the life sciences have a special role in this area for two very different reasons. First of all, we are under far more pressure that many other disciplines – global warming, extinction, environmental disasters, and of course creations affect the life sciences directly. The chemists and physicists do not really have the same kind of problems as we do in this area. Again, engaging, educating and communicating with the public can at least partly relive these pressures. They can gain confidence in us and out methods and conclusions and what we are trying to do. There is a serious PR problem with science and groups like AiG are good at it. They might have no substance, but they aggressively go after public support in a way that science does not, or refuses to. It is seen as a distraction, but take that to the extreme – if the public and ultimately the politicians thought our work was irrelevant or actively contrary to the public will, that research money would dry up damned fast.

Secondly, it is far easier to engage the public with biology than other disciplines. It is hard to make string theory, Fermat’s last theorem, particle physics, or carbon-hydrogen bonds exciting, or simplistic for anyone other than the well educated or very interested, but dinosaurs, pandas and rainforests are inherently fascinating for the average punter. OK, so some concepts in biology are no simpler that mathematics in five dimensions, but some of the basics *are* easy to communicate unlike other areas of science. Humans are living animals and everyone understands that we need to eat and sleep, that we age and heal, we breathe and our hearts beat, we have skin and hair. These things give us an instant frame of reference and allow us a simple channel of communication and that gives us a huge advantage over say, chemistry.

In short, (like that’s ever a possibility with me writing): science communication is important, we are not doing much now and could do a lot more, a little effort can go a long way (even if uncoordinated) and the benefits could be genuine – better support and understanding from the public as well as a new level of interest and enthusiasm for research. Surely it is not too much to ask people to devote an hour or two a *year* to write a single blog post, give a talk or send some photos to a magazine.

Sadly it appears that all too often that is the case with researchers, and I honestly think that this has a profoundly negative effect on our work. If the public are not interest, or worse, are actively disdainful of our efforts we will lose grants, students will not want to study science, and we will be unable to influence pubic and political opinion over issues like global warming and education. We have the power to try and change this, but far more effort is needed individually and collectively. Right, now back to the research!

This is a revised Mk.1 post, to see the original, plus comments etc., please go here.

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