Barriers to effective science communication

Jim Kirkland flagged up this interview with scientist turned film director Randy Olson which you can listen to here. Randy’s central tenet is that scientists are not very good communicators because they tend to try and express facts rather than tell stories that might engage people better – we can do substance, but not style.

To a degree, he has a point, people can always improve their skills and obviously I do think this area is important. However, I take a bit of umbrage with the idea that scientists are, de facto, bad communicators. Many are clearly not, and be definition the better ones often rise to the top – I can think of plenty who do or have done lots of good science communication. I can also think of plenty of others who I know are or could be great communicators but are not given the opportunity and that brings me to my central point here.

In my experiences and from what I have seen, there are far greater and more pervasive and profound problems than some (or even most) researchers being poor communicators. There is often a general or even specific lack of support for efforts in communication from whole departments and institutes, or even colleagues. You can find yourself actively dissuaded from taking time and effort towards sci comms. Even if not, then the sheer pressures that face many researchers mean that such considerations are relegated to the last thing to do of a very full and constantly growing list. When you couple that with the all too familiar stories of horrendous media handling of science (everything from terrible misunderstandings of absolute basics right through to fabrication of stories and deliberate misrepresentation of research) that puts a tremendous filter between the researcher and the public then is any of this a wonder?

Are scientists truly bad at communicating or just inhibited from being able to do so, and wary of a near hostile media, hide behind facts rather than let slip anything that could be misconstrued or spun out of context? Where are the funds to allow researchers to visit schools and amateur groups, where are the bursaries to let them take time off to write books or articles, where is the allotted time in their contracts to allow them to do this work? It is such a low priority that these provisions are rarely, if ever, made (and if they are out there, I’ve seen very little evidence of them).This is as much, if not far more, of a handicap than some being less good at communicating than they could be.

11 Responses to “Barriers to effective science communication”

  1. 1 Andy Farke 10/04/2010 at 10:50 am

    The “tenure monster” is perhaps a major reason behind this – universities value research (read “grant money”), teaching (a distant second for at least some schools), and service (to the university community, not to the greater community). Until communication with the public is something that’s valued by the bean counters, we’re going to have that barrier to science communication. In other words, I agree with you, Dave!

    Scientists who place a priority on communicating with the public may (rightly or wrongly) be looked down upon by their professional colleagues. Sometimes this is justified (e.g., for individuals where communication=sensationalization); sometimes it isn’t. There is peer pressure to avoid the public, in subtle and unsubtle ways.

  2. 2 qilong 10/04/2010 at 3:36 pm

    Dave and Andy,

    Has anyone actually considered that university attendance and coprorate attention increase with interest in science as brought about by better communication over, say, bare minimum? Or is there even a scale here? I would think that the more outreach and communication done by the researchers, the more attention the institution gets in general. I’m not sure how this works in China, Dave, or England, as the university system differs from the States, but many of ours are privately owned albeit government subsidized companies, and thus are corporations, rather than the classic elitist centers of learning that used to be the European model (and still is to some degrees).

    • 3 David Hone 10/04/2010 at 3:57 pm

      “Has anyone actually considered that university attendance and coprorate attention increase with interest in science as brought about by better communication over, say, bare minimum? ”

      Probably, though I’ve not spoken to anyone about it in detail. However, I would suspect that it could be a vicious cycle. Scientists are not given the opportunity to do good communication so it’s seen as unimportant / they are bad at it, so there’s no promotion of it….

      It’s odd, you often see universities milking the odd science celebrrity they happen to throw up but yet make no provision to help them or others to get into that position. They seem to see the value of being perceived as having good researchers on their books (because those people are communicating with the public and thus are being seen to do science) but then don’t seem to realise that they are breeding a culture (I think) that stops this happening more often.

      You do see grants / jobs that include provisos that you must spend X amount of time on science communication, but I have never heard of it ever being followed up on by a grant or governing body. It looks suspiciously like lip service.

  3. 4 Lab Lemming 10/04/2010 at 7:40 pm

    I think a more important problem is that there is no incentive from anyone to communicate science well instead of poorly. In fact, the outside world often inadvertently rewards sensationalizers over good communicators of how science actually works. Until a solution to that problem is found, it will be hard to get good science communication to be heard over the din.

    • 5 David Hone 10/04/2010 at 10:01 pm

      Very good points! Yeah, there is rarely any incentive for good communication (and indeed generally disincentives to communicate) which is not a good start, and sensationalisation (*not* helped) byt the media exaccerbates this I’m sure. Thanks for adding this in.

  4. 6 Manabu Sakamoto 10/04/2010 at 10:56 pm

    I don’t know why but the public perception that “scientists are bad communicators” seems to be very strong. Whenever I get asked what I do and I try to do my best to communicate it, I always get the “yeah, yeah, whatever; I don’t understand what the heck you are trying to tell me” kind of attitude. It doesn’t matter how well you communicate or how hard you try, they already think you are talking jargon and don’t want to listen to you. Of course, I am not the best of communicators because I tend to get too lengthy. For me I am trying to lay it all out in simple terms but it gets a bit wordy (try replacing technical terms with simple terms), so even the brightest of people can’t sustain interest for long. You have to be concise and to the point, “wham, wham, here’s what I do”.

    • 7 David Hone 11/04/2010 at 9:29 am

      “I don’t know why but the public perception that “scientists are bad communicators” seems to be very strong.”
      I think it’s a cultural throwback to the idea that we all wear tweed jackets, smoke pipes and sit in conference rooms in Oxbridge talking in equations. You did used to see that on TV with thinks like the Open University lectures or where people were interviewed as part of a TV series. Times have changed, attitudes, or perceptions, have not.

  5. 8 Manabu Sakamoto 10/04/2010 at 10:57 pm

    Also, it’s a bad idea to communicate science at a social gathering like a party – if someone asks you “so what do you do?”, don’t take it as an invitation for science outreach.

  6. 9 Andy Farke 11/04/2010 at 1:16 am

    Manabu said: “You have to be concise and to the point, “wham, wham, here’s what I do”.”

    Yes! In my opinion, every paleontologist (indeed, every scientist) should have a 30 second “elevator speech” in mind about what they do and why it’s important/interesting/relevant. Be prepared to explain why paleontology is relevant and interesting to _non-scientists_. This is horribly profane, but unless we can show non-scientists and non-paleo-geeks why they should care, our days are numbered.

    • 10 mattvr 11/04/2010 at 7:33 am

      I’d recommend being able to break it down into a simple sentence.

      I guess when you’re enthusiastic about your work, submerged in its technicalities and much of your communication takes place with similar people, it’s easy to forget that people on the ‘outside’ of that aren’t used to that language, and likely have no real idea of what you do.

      I’ve had this in the past with animation. What seems to work is to allow people to express their assumptions about what you do first. This seems to open a dialogue where you can tell them what it’s really all about based on what they’ve said to you.
      But you have to keep it simple, and recognize they’ll only want a low level of detail, no matter how excited about your work you are!

  7. 11 Tor Bertin 11/04/2010 at 10:15 am

    As food for thought, what was it that allowed Carl Sagan to do what he did as effectively as he did? I know he dealt with many of the same issues you raised in his professional life (some of his colleagues actively disdained the idea of public science communication), but I’ve heard many hail him as one of the most efficient science communicators of all time.

    Was there a different cultural dynamic when he was popularizing science, or was it his approach and personality?

    Good topic.

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