Talk science to me. Why researchers should engage with the public.

The media today is a maze of information that no-one can quite grasp. Especially when it comes to science. It frequently hits the front-pages of newspapers and over the decades has become an excellent way to attract attention – mostly because it’s easily put into an emotional context that resonates with all of us. Just the word cancer will cause an upsurge of emotions and memories in most people. A more mediocre journalist will use it to create a feeling of fear in his readers or, similarly, excitement upon the blatant announcement of a sensational cure. Scientists are finding a cure for cancer on an almost daily basis now. How many of these miracles translate into real, effective treatments is another question.

In this wealth of – often inaccurately interpreted – information it is difficult to find a bearing. Journalists on a recent event of the Science Media Centre (a fantastic organisation to help researchers deal with the press) in London blamed the lack of time for proper investigations which then leads to poorly interpreted results. Often it is the public engagement department of an institute itself that passes on exaggerated information about findings from institute-based labs in an attempt to attract more attention. The overall consensus was that scientists mostly remain careful in the way they describe their data, anxious not to make any further claims they then have to prove to their peers. However, the media doesn’t have this restriction. They do not need to show evidence and a reserved, cautious explanation which includes the more doubtful aspects of a study is mostly too complex to go down well with the readers.

Maybe because of this there is an increasing call for scientists to explain their own work, as a way to circumvent coloured interpretations by the media and to leave it in the hands of someone with a more trustworthy intention. Recent surveys done by ipsos-mori indicate that people trust scientists to tell the truth (ranked 3rd) more than journalists (ranked 13th). Another investigation about the public attitude to science showed that there is an increasing interest in scientific issues and people consider it as important in their daily lives.

The results of the Ipsos Mori study: 72% believe science is important in daily life.

The results of the Ipsos Mori study: 72% believe science is important in daily life.

Dudi Warsito from the Karolinska Institute has written an interesting article about the benefits for both parties when scientists interact directly with the public via social media such as twitter or blogs. It does not only help to prevent misinformation and increase the exposure to specific research but also helps to establish connections, therefore improving expectations on both sides.

Scientists and the public are more dependent on each other than might be immediately obvious. Some funding bodies such as Cancer Research UK, the single largest funder of cancer research in Europe, rely almost exclusively on donations. Other funding bodies make decisions based on evaluations that there is a need for the project, a target group which will benefit or a positive impact on society. And obviously every governmental grant is funded by tax payers (with or without their consent). By communicating their results researchers therefore notify the public of the outcome of their investments.

Of course, a scientist cannot spend hours a day on articles explaining his or her research – in fact, the most common statement I hear from my colleagues is that they do not find the time in between benchwork, conferences, talks, labmeetings and grant applications to do any more writing. However, communication is part of the job description. According to the survey mentioned above, 22% of people expect a researcher to be good at communicating. What better way is there to learn this than with the help of social media?

A scientist who has in-depth knowledge about a subject but is not able to communicate it on a level which allows a non-specialist audience to understand essence and implications of his/her work will not be successful. Mark Walport, the Chief Scientific Adviser for the Government, went so far as to claim that “Science is not finished until it is communicated”.

I think this is very true in a way, albeit frustrating for a scientist to hear who marks the end of his project with a successful paper submission. But how much of the “active” communication job will a paper actually achieve – at least outside of the immediate field and perhaps direct competitors?

I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts about this.

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  1. […] listening to the speeches I remembered one of the first articles I posted on this blog – on the 24th of May 2014 – about an ipsos-mori survey that had just come out. Results indicated that the public highly […]

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