Scientists are well accustomed to the ‘publish or perish’ maxim, but they are now being urged to communicate their work in ways that stretch beyond the A4 boundaries of a scientific paper.
Keys to science
Academic publications have acted as purveyors of knowledge for hundreds of years, but their liberal use of specialist and inaccessible language and their often hefty subscription fees beg the question: should they be the only ones who hold the keys to science? And should they remain the sole outlet scientists turn to in order to disseminate their hard-earned findings?
Andrew J. Wright of George Mason University thinks not. In a paper published in January in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, he urges scientists to engage with audiences wider than those typically reached by academic papers, or, at least, to get some help in the art of engaging.
He argues that it is time for scientists to step out of the ivory tower and participate in everyday discourse, taking the time to correct scientific misconceptions in the media and ensuring that their findings reach key decision makers. His is a call to arms, inviting the foot soldiers of science to act by taking a few minutes out of their busy day to speak to a science journalist or attend a science communication workshop.
Changing public perspectives
In a world full of potential sources of misinformation, where scientific mistrust is rife and it is often difficult to distinguish pseudoscience from the real thing, the way in which researchers communicate their findings to others merits careful consideration.
Not only will the ability to help disseminate findings strengthen grant applications, but it is also a responsibility shared by all scientists.
When scientists engage with the public, it is a win-win situation: not only do decision makers and society at large benefit from this interaction, but, with criteria such as outreach and public engagement starting to appear on grant application forms, scientists would be foolish not to. However, when confronted with public misconceptions of topics such as climate change and vaccines, scientists are quick to point the finger at the media. Shouldn’t they instead accept more responsibility?
This is the view held by Bryony Graham, a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Oxford. In a blog post recently published by BioMed Central, she invites fellow scientists to verify publicly available information whenever qualified to do so. Not only will the ability to help disseminate findings strengthen grant applications, but it is also, she says, a responsibility shared by all scientists.
Of course, scientists are not trained in public engagement or journalism, nor should we expect them to be naturally gifted communicators. The ability to translate scientific concepts into plain language without losing impact or meaning is not -and should not- be expected of scientists. Participating in science festivals or writing a blog post should be a choice. Speaking to a press office or emailing a journalist need not be.
Indeed, these are likely to become daily tasks, on an equal footing with analyzing raw data from an experiment or completing a final leg of fieldwork. Whether scientists will be quick enough to catch on is another matter.
One thing is certain: the ways of communicating science are evolving and, soon, ‘engage or die’ may replace ‘publish or perish’ as the ‘sink or swim’ dictum of the scientific world.