Science & Public Outreach

Working and funding science is not what it used to be. Even just ten years ago, a wannabe scientist or a Ph.D. Professor could stick with speaking only the science jargon and have a successful career without even once having to deal with the public. Except for a few exceptions, science was some kind of secret world. After learning the basics in school and successfully passing the tests, you were welcome to a world of seclusion, either in the lab or on the field. Funding came through your ability to deliver long and complex reports, filled with graphs and tables, equations and numbers. Articles were published in magazines that cared little about design with pages and pages of text. There was even a certain snobbism, dismissing the general public as below its realm of expertise. The content of its research was made only to those with the ability to decipher its riddles. The science world gleamed in its own little private universe, proud of its isolation and complexity.

Then the world changed!

Gone are the days of institutional financial security. Due to many factors, but aggravated by its own insulation, the science community is today unable to fund its research the way it use to. Governments and schools dealing with their own budget cuts have had their treasury chocked. With their primary source of revenue gone, scientists must now turn to a new world to support their work – the public! Whether by the form of individual or corporate sponsorship or online fundraising like Kickstarter, science studies and projects have to find new ways of reaching out to what has been for them, a foreign audience. Jenny Rohn, founder of LabLit & Science is Vital is on the spot when she says:

“Scientists ignore ‘the outside world’ at their peril. The general public has the power to deny your funding or restrict your experiments. It’s important to reach outside your laboratories, offices and field stations to engage with the wider world, to show people that science is essential and that researchers are working hard to help address important issues — that they are the good guys, not the enemy.”

The task might sound fairly simple and straight forward but the reality could not be more different. The marketing world spends billions every year trying to learn how to reach efficiently their client’s audience, with many still failing. While the science community is just starting to understand the challenge it has at task, it is still far from grasping the meaning of it and what it entails. The biggest mistake it does is to believe it only needs to use the new media outlets with the same scientific jargon. They could not be more wrong.

Communication is first and foremost a system built on an intricate web of social and emotional realities. It is not a simple question of elaborating knowledge through words and pointing to what they believe to be quite self explanatory. The human species is complicated when it comes to explaining why we do what we do even if we know it is wrong and not in our best interest. I have written many times about how science needs to change its narrative, how it needs to leave its comfort and often pretentious secular zone. (The Need for a New Story, Knowledge, our Achilles’ Heel, The Climate Change Issue)

Kate Pratt from Katie Ph.D wrote in Soapbox Science that:

“They (scientists) often shrug off the latest miscommunication in the press as the fault of some lazy journalist who didn’t read the press release correctly. They do not consider that they are perhaps to blame, and, instead of trying to improve their communication skills with the lay-public, they withdraw quietly into the protective shell that is academia… and when these individuals make an effort to reach out: other scientists deride them for being attention-seekers, especially if they do so using platforms such as blogs or social media websites. These behaviours have to change. If they don’t, science will continue to be seen as a closed off and elitist realm, and the public will continue to feel shut out, disenfranchised, and suspicious. Science has too long ignored public relations, marketing, and personal branding, and it’s time for that to change.”

She is right! When the science community fails to communicate its message, it is extremely quick at putting the blame on the receiver’s end.

As if this was not complicated enough, the format of communicating has seen its foundation thrown in the air and the jury is still debating as to when and how it will land back. We like to believe that today’s technology has made communication easier and cheaper. While it might be true in theory, in reality the process has become quite complicated, overwhelming, frustrating and can become relatively expensive. The internet is in constant flux. Social media tools come and go like seasons. If they stay, their monthly design and interaction overhaul make life impossibly annoying to any media and design specialists. What were only a few platforms to work with has now evolved into a panoply of services, all just slightly different from one another. On top of everything, the delivery of the content keeps reinventing itself every couple of years. Every time it does, the public develops new habits and communication strategies have to be redone. Television and radio were pretty straightforward and consistent. Even though through time they became smaller, lighter and thinner, their concept and functionality stayed the same. But now we have smart phones, and tablets that not only become more powerful every two years but also constantly change the way we interact with them.

So what to do?

Three words – hire media specialists! Yes, that is correct. By this I DON’T mean hire a scientist to write blogs. I mean hire someone who doesn’t know much about science but is expert at reaching out to the public through videos, photos, and writings. A content producer, a person who knows how to manage and maximise social media. A person who can create a compelling multi media story around your project. Would you hire a public relation person to do an in-depth analysis of the chemical reaction created when supercritical fluids from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean come into contact with salt water? No, my point! Focus on trying explaining the work and science to one person and let that person do its magic. There is only a handful of scientists in the world that are capable of doing science and translating it into a compelling narrative. Don’t assume that all scientists have the capacity to create captivating content. The days of long blogs with simple photos are gone. Today it is about videos, interviews, behind the scenes moments, strategic posts on Facebook, Google +, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest and it is about linking all these platform together. Kaite Pratt again on the topic”

“… they (scientists) rely, a lot of the time, upon active volunteers. We need to pay more heed to these ideas, fund them, and move them from the world of science communication and into the world of general public appeal. Of course there is a long road ahead, but it is time to acknowledge that this is the road we have to take. Science has a PR problem, and we need to fix it.”

Science can be fun. Science is fun! You don’t have to dumbed down the content to reach out to the public. Many have been really successful at doing it. Think of Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Think of the television show Nova on PBS. But understand that it might not be your cup of tea. Don’t be ashamed of it. You don’t have to like doing it or even understand it. But simply understand that communicating your work, studies or projects has become essential, not only for funding reasons but also because it is part of your mandate as a scientist to teach and educate the word.

Here are some interesting quotes

James Gleick: “I also believe that analogy is the way humans learn and explore our world. It’s true at some level that a physicist will say that the language of nature is mathematics, but I also believe that any physicist in creating his or her own understanding of the world is automatically thinking in terms of analogies. I believe that any scientific model or theory is a kind of analogy, which is to say imperfect, flawed by definition and at least incomplete. It’s a model, it’s not the world itself.”

Jonathan Foley, professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour and director of the Institute on the Environment: “Being on social media is essential for anyone who wants to turn their research and teaching into real-world outcomes. If you’re not using social media today, then you’re missing a great opportunity for broader education and engagement, which is part of our missions as a 21st century land grant university.”

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, “Ultimately, everyone in this room is on some level an entertainer. We are competing for readers’ attention against blogs, video games and movies. What I’m trying to do is tell stories that can take people from place A to place B, not just in a narrative arc but in terms of their understanding of a subject. It can be tremendously rewarding to be taken on a journey like that.”

Jeremy Yoder “It wasn’t that long ago that we were taught to write scientific papers in a passive voice. Social media demands a more personal touch…”

Jared Diamond, author of  The Third Chimpanzee, Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: “Everyday you can read a scientist complaining that the public doesn’t understand science.That the federal government doesn’t invest enough money in science and science education. But what it comes down to is that most scientists and academics just don’t want to do the things that would help the public… Unfortunately, an occupational hazard of being an academic who writes for the general public is that you’re going to get flak from other academics who’ve spent their whole lives being told to write in the precise fashion for the five experts in their field. A theme as big as the differences between traditional societies and modern societies deserves a book that is 100,000 pages long but no one is going to read that.” 

Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable?
Reaching Out: Science has a PR Problem
How scientists can reach out with social media
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