Among other things, Twitter is an excellent echo chamber. But the benefits of seeing dissenting viewpoints far outweighs the satisfaction of getting your own ideas reinforced. Recently, I was drawn to a thread where a scientist and a science communicator locked horns to discuss whether scientists should be responsible for science communication. After many exchanges of 140 characters and a hastily written article, it became clear that it is time to give voice to the many young and upcoming scientists and communicators who believe that science communication by scientists is paramount.
What is Science communication and why is it important?
Science communication, which didn't even exist as a field until the nineteenth century, came up in response to the emergence of 'Public Science' - undertakings that are not just funded by private patronage and Royal Societies, but by Universities and other public institutions. Science communication is quite simply, conveying the results of science, to the public. The field gained credibility because the public benefitted from scientific advances, including the steam-powered printing press, which greatly enhanced public education through books. Science communication today remains fairly unchanged - it still involves talking to the lay public about how science is done in various fields, the salient results of major experiments and how new data from these experiments changes our understanding of the world, as we know it. Not only does this help us to make informed decisions in our daily lives, it also empowers us to choose candidates for government office whose policies are scientifically sound.
Who should do it and how should it be done?
I am going to argue/explain why I think performing science communication is vital for scientists by listing out the most common excuses that people have used NOT to do science communication. I will also propose ways in which science communication, done by both scientists and science communicators, can be encouraged and improved.
1. This work is too 'complicated' for the public to understand
Explaining science can be as complicated or as simple as necessary, depending on the questions asked. Communication of concepts can be individually tailored to the audience at hand.
a. To begin with, assess the general education level - is the audience the lay public? Do they have a working knowledge of basic science? Can they be pegged at a high school or college level?
b. The level of exposure to science in daily life is also important. Is the audience from a metropolis with a large number of universities that are famous for doing science? Are they famous in other fields such as business or law?
c. And finally, gauging the level of curiosity is critical. Are they mostly non-scientific but with a curiosity for science? Are they scientists themselves and are curious about other scientific fields?
Nobody is too stupid to understand science. What it needs is paring down huge difficult concepts into smaller stand-alone chunks that can be easily explained and later linked. Some abstract concepts can be difficult to 'un-package' to a lay audience and they might need the help of comparisons and metaphors. But no concept is 'unexplainable' or 'un-understandable'. When approached properly, with the right examples and the correct flow of thought, even quantum gravity can be easily explained to a high school student.
2. Some results are too 'sensitive' to be spoken and explained out in the public
In both basic and applied sciences, certain results need to be handled carefully before they can be released to the public. Researchers can work with patent offices to ensure that their intellectual property can be transformed into profitable products. In such cases, prematurely releasing information to the public can be detrimental. That being said, effective science communication can still easily straddle the requirements of financial necessity and public edification. Explaining how a drug molecule works to cure disease, or how lasers allow iris scanning can be done while allowing the researchers to reap the benefits of their efforts.
Very explicitly, science communication is disseminating the results of research that has been funded by public money. Scientific grants are funded by government budgets, which in turn are fuelled by the public taxpayers' money. If the public deserves to know how their tax money is used to maintain roads, run schools and improve infrastructure, then why should they be kept in the dark about how their money is being used to advance science?
3. Scientists have too much on their plate already
Choosing the path to becoming a career scientist is by no means straightforward. The challenges for a pre-tenure scientist are to generate a solid body of scientific publications, mentor students, write to private and public granting agencies for money to keep the laboratory funded and finally, fulfill teaching and administrative obligations as mandated by the university. On obtaining tenure, the university will guarantee the scientist a permanent position, regular salary and some funds to keep the laboratory running. Thus, in comparison to many other professions, science academia relies on an unrelenting, unwavering commitment on the part of the young scientist, despite extreme financial and personal hurdles. Science is a demanding discipline and yes, indeed, scientists do have a lot on their plate.
But science communication is varied and adaptable. Many interactions can count towards scientific communication. For example, taking a day out of the year to go talk to school and college students about scientific careers, volunteering to give a short talk at a local bar on a science night about your research, allocating time to talk to the university's science communication representative, mentoring an interested school student, writing articles for newspapers and magazines, maintaining a working and updated webpage to chronicle the laboratory's scientific advances and publications and tweeting about new advances in the field. All these count towards science communication and all of them can be performed voluntarily, with flexible hours at one's own leisure.
4. It is not the scientists' 'job' to communicate to the public
Aptly phrased by Bernard of Chartres, we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. All new knowledge is discovered while standing on already well-established truths. These truths are hard to understand and difficult to scale - much like climbing giants. Since scientists are the ones who took pains to climb to such heights to see the horizon, who better to explain how beautiful the sunrise looks from up there!
Doing science has not been and never should be, just another 'job'. Scientists are among the few and fortunate that work on the very limits of human knowledge. It is our duty and privilege to create new knowledge and push existing boundaries, side by side with the best and brightest minds in the world. And therefore, in my opinion, communicating science to the public is in fact, the best chance scientists have to inspire young minds and motivate the lay public to know more about their world.
It is also very easy for scientists to wash their hands of this important task by claiming that since they have published in a scientific journal and passed peer review, they are under no obligation to explain anything else to the public. This point of view is not only dangerous in the short term, but also absolutely detrimental to science in the foreseeable future. There are two major explanations for why publishing in a journal is not equivalent to science communication.
a. Scientific papers are specifically written to pass peer review. This means that all scientific papers are written to explain new results of the field to other scientists in the same field. They are written in highly technical language for effective communication between scientists in the same field. A normal layperson reading any given paper from a scientific journal, without any background, will fail to understand anything.
b. The way the scientific publishing system is currently designed, it is impossible to get hold of any peer reviewed and published work from a well-known journal, without paying a substantial sum of money for subscription. Unless one has access to a university or an allied subscription, it is not possible for the public to read any of the articles published in for profit, closed access scientific journals.
Thus, even though a scientist can claim that they have done their communication duty by publishing their work in a scientific journal, the net result is that the public is still in dark about their work, simply due to lack of access. Therefore, the onus is on the scientist to make sure that their work actually reaches the public.
5. It is 'demeaning' to discuss science in social media
Science does not exist in a vacuum. It is a deeply human endeavor and it is intertwined in our social fabric. Social media, like all methods of information distribution, is a tool. There is nothing demeaning about using a tool that makes it easy to reach out to a potentially large audience. It is, in fact, unforgivable not to. There are many different styles of communication to suit every need: Twitter for short updates; Blogging for long form; Podcasts for better speakers and storyboards for visual explainers. The only effort is in the choice of the medium.
What can be done to improve status quo?
Science communication can be significantly improved by making it a priority for both scientists and communicators. Following are some ideas that might inculcate better scientific literacy among communicators and instill a sense of social responsibility among scientists.
1. Incentives to help scientists:
a. Include science communication as a course in graduate schools. Just as medical students have a residency year to begin practicing medicine, graduate students in science can have an option to work with local and national science agencies to improve the penetrance of science in the country.
b. Increase opportunities to interact with the public. Regular public lectures held in universities can promote interaction between scientists and the lay public.
c. Voluntary sign ups for public communication courses. Motivated scientists should be given the chance to hone their communication skills by learning from experts in media and communications.
d. Incentivize science communication by providing extra funding from the university. Universities and public institutions can promote effective science outreach by rewarding the extra time spent by the scientist through salary bonuses and intramural and seed grants.
e. Balancing with other responsibilities. If a scientist meets a specific target per year of adequate science communication, the university can relieve them of some administrative or mentoring duties.
f. Use history of science communication as a metric for awarding tenure. Just as the number of publications, grants and mentored students are used to decide the eligibility for tenure, a scientist should also be judged by the merit of their outreach. A good scientist with excellent communication skills can effectively influence policy making and large scale funding decisions, significantly improving the field as a result.
2. Incentives to help science communicators
a. Make science communication courses act as an interface between journalists and scientists. This will help dispel any misunderstanding and miscommunication between how scientists wish their work to be projected and how communicators 'package' it for wider distribution.
b. Make it a legitimate career choice. Whether it is approached from the science side, or the media side, science communication should be made a valid career choice with a clear future and achievable goals.
c. Allow better access to graduate level courses so that communicators can learn or brush up on basic knowledge.
d. Include science communication as a course in graduate schools to encourage good communicators to discover their talents and build a pool of excellent science communicators for the future.
As scientists in training, we learn and master many difficult protocols and techniques. Evading science communication simply because it is difficult, time consuming or not important enough, reflects more on how much we value our own work and its place in posterity.
A modified form of this article was first published as a rebuttal in The Wire (https://thewire.in/91026/science-communication-desiraju-twitter/)