Time for scientists to start thinking about how they communicate

We all need to explain the impact we have our society as funding programmes shift from basic to applied research.

Science HeaderAs a Linguistics PhD student, I believe there are several different reasons (laziness, desire to live up to the ‘boffin’ label, force of habit) why academics don’t often communicate well with the general public. This is an issue not confined to one discipline. If we are not going to communicate any of our subjects effectively, then how do we expect non-experts in our field to understand a) what we’re talking about, and b) why what we’re talking about is important?

Explain or inspire?

You see, it is ultimately up to us as the scientists (be they cultural, social, human, physical or computational) to explain our subjects to the public in such a way that they understand without being patronised. It is not the responsibility of the public to work hard to understand us. Now, there are many who might disagree. In fact, Professor Brian Cox, he of the ‘wonders’ (and D:Rream, because apparently it’s compulsory to mention his pop career when writing about him), has spoken out about the BBC asking him to ‘dumb down’ in his scientific jargon to make it easier for the public to follow his programmes. His response during an interview in The Telegraph back in January 2013 was: “But I don’t want everything to be clear – I want to confuse people a little so that they go away and read a book.” And you can see his point, perhaps the point of communication for the sciences is to inspire non-experts in their pursuit of knowledge and challenge opinions and perceptions, rather than just handing them information on a plate.

Who are we inspiring?

When I say non-experts, of course, I don’t just mean non-academics. Experts in the books of Margaret Atwood are (generally) not also going to be able to understand the intricacies of String Theory, nor would we expect an immunologist to be able to explain Role and Reference Grammar (in all honesty, not all linguists can explain that one!). Ours is a wonderful and vast world of knowledge, ready for anyone to take a peek inside and find something new to discover. No one person can know everything, so of course us ‘boffins’ (if we choose to call ourselves that) are not experts in everything. Which is why it is important to not only educate the general public as to our subjects, it’s also important to inform our fellow academics.

I had a conversation recently with a colleague working in the field of digital curation. We had begun by discussing the importance of communication in the light of the recent ‘Discover Research Dublin’ event, which ran for its second year here in College in September. Her project is multidisciplinary and she works closely with computer scientists. She was expressing her ire at the inability of her colleagues at ‘the other end of campus’ to understand the needs of the humanist. Her point was that it was their responsibility to learn about our subjects. This is partially true. When working on a multi-disciplinary project, it is of course useful to learn a little about all the subjects within the project in order to gain a more rounded viewpoint. The lack of funding is driving more and more collaborative projects between the humanities and the information sciences, so the need for a more holistic approach to research may well be necessary. But is it entirely the sciences’ responsibility to learn about the Humanities and Social Sciences, or shouldn’t some of the responsibility rest with us AHSS researchers to make our subject understandable?

There is a perception that AHSS subjects are ‘easier’ than Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) subjects. After all, you can’t perform brain surgery or rocket science without a considerable amount of training. But it is entirely normal to read a book without having to take an exam in the art first. The practical and logistical barriers to further opportunity within the fields of both are a little different. What isn’t obvious, though, is the training an AHSS research undergoes in order to do what they do. Of course anyone can pick up a book and successfully read it.

Lateral thinking
What an AHSS researcher does, though, is directly apply lateral thought to the context of that book, its place in society, the potential impact of the book, the actual impact of the book, and why that book is significant. Even if the caterpillar turns into a beautiful butterfly at the end, or the female protagonist goes willingly to the gallows after killing her abusive husband. That lateral thought is the kind of thought that more and more technology companies are looking to recruit. Google has already rolled out a programme to recruit more doctoral graduates from the Humanities, citing the strong transferable skills that a PhD can bring in any subject. The ‘soft skills’ of the Humanist, those skills that obsess over the minor plot point, or grammatical element, are the skills that can make a piece of technology not just useful, but necessary.

So perhaps it’s time that scientists in all fields start to reflect on how well they are communicating, and who they are communicating with. Because with a shift in funding programmes across Ireland and the EU from basic to applied research, we all need to be able to explain the impact we have on society, and inspire our colleagues and the public in the same things that fascinate us.

Photo: greenpyramidlabs.com