Speak Up

I feel the need to discuss whether scientists should be made to communicate their work. This is mainly because this Friday at the weekly SciParty I was surprised to find myself fighting for the opinion that no, not all scientists should have to communicate their work.

I’m still asking myself why I did this mainly because I think that science in general should be made more accessible to the public and people have the right to know what is going on in those mysterious labs. I think to make science more accessible scientists should at least try and make their work publicly available for people like me who want to know more. I suppose this is what academic journals and papers are for though, but there is the valued opinion that non- scientists, i.e. the public, would not be able to interpret these nor be interested in their content.

Now that I think about it, there are at least three types of science communication: scientists communicating to other scientists (journals, papers etc), scientists communicating their work to the public (public outreach) and specialised science communicators telling the public about the work of scientists (my future). There will obviously be more types that I haven’t come across but for now, this is what I have discovered in my 21 years of being on planet Earth.

On Twitter I posed the question that there were perhaps only two types of scientists: the communicators and the researchers and that there was no time for both. This tweet was made only as a question to promote discussion and I was amused that so many people thought that I was ignoring the fact that people could be both. This was not the case. I was somewhat battered by people disagreeing with me but that’s the world of social media discussion for you! I loved that people were willing to speak out against a statement which they thought was wrong because staying silent when your beliefs are contradicted goes against human nature.

For me, that tweet did have some merits. I mentioned that some scientists may not have the time to do science communication and just want to focus on their research. I think this is true of a few people I have come across and for these people, dedicated science communication enthusiasts are the way forward. Using people whose job is to solely promote a scientist’s research and make it exciting to the public can be a way for busy scientists. This third party approach can also take the stress off trying to solve lab problems to make a major break-through at the same time as having to think of ways to make the research interesting to the public. People are creative in different ways and communicating to non- scientists could be something that may be absent from a particular researcher’s skill set. Additionally, science communication may not appeal to all scientists which I think is totally fine. Forcing someone to do something that they are not interested in is a non- starter and could have detrimental effects on the quality of their communcation in the way that they come across. That is not saying that it will though, it again depends on the individual. A lot of people may argue that if you’re excited by your research then you can communicate effectively but if you’ve put all that excitement into carrying out the research there may be none left to put into telling anyone else but your dog when you get home weary and mentally drained.

If a researcher/ scientist is interested in public sci comm then great! Get them enrolled on a course and set them on their merry way! I think there should be a choice though, and the people who want to leave pubic engagement to a dedicated person shouldn’t be cast aside and told that they are elitist; the work that they are doing is still important! That said, there are scientists who dislike telling the public what they’re doing altogether, even if someone else communicates it for them.

Scientist do communicate their work though. All these journals and scientific papers are made so that groups of researchers can tell other interested groups of researchers what they have found. This transfer of knowledge then allows the groups working on the area to level-up and push their studies onto the next phase. I think that it isn’t necessary to communicate all the intricate details of research to the public because even though they may be told that this has a significance in their lives, they may not be able to see it.

Something that springs to mind is genetics. Even though a scientist may be infectiously enthusiastic about a gene that encodes a specific type of proton pump in the membrane of Yersinia entercolitica, a member of the public would struggle to see how this relates to them or their lives. They may not even know what Yersinia entercolitica does, what it is, where it’s from and why anyone would want to study a tiny part of it that you can’t even see down a light microscope. This type of research is lost in translation; if a long chain of explanations is needed before you get to the point of why it is relevant, interest may be lost and you look down to see them scanning the area for Pokémon on their phones instead.

It depends on the audience but this type of intricate research is best being communicated to people that have a basic understanding if the topic, for example, they know what genes are and that Yersina entercolitica is a bacterium often found in food.

The ability to communicate your research may not just lie with the individual or group of researchers. Often, research institutions or companies will only allow certain parts of the research to be publicised because they own your research and not you. This could be true for universities and the groups which work within these labs. As a group, you may be able to write a paper when a significant finding is made but whilst you work on the finding, individuals may not be able to tell the world their results because they aren’t allowed to. Ofcourse you can tell friends and family like I’m doing with my undergrad research but posts on social media about what I’ve found so far is not possible. It is possible to talk about it at research conferences though, like the Society for Applied Microbioloy’s Early Career Scientist Symposium. I’m assuming that you have to get permission from your supervisor and I know that this may not count as ‘public’ communication but still, it’s a start.

So, after that ramble I’m going to conclude that scientists should not be forced to communicate their work publicly. That said, if they won’t do it themselves they should get others to do it for them such as science communicators or public outreach specialists. Access to knowledge is vital and the only way that we can make science real is to let the public in on a few of its secrets. If it is all kept behind closed doors, no one will want to open them for fear of what might be behind them.

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