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.