Stop trying to guilt people into science communication

2019-01-21

Science communication is virtuous. It’s the process of taking inaccessible research results from the locked vaults of the ivory tower and sharing them with the masses. It’s the obligation of every scientist to make sure that their research can be accessed by as many people as possible and to dedicate time and resources to scientific outreach.

Yea, right.

Say this to a research scientist the day after they just received a big grant and they’ll probably agree with you, but how about at other times during the year? How about telling this to the young supervisor who just lost the last person in their group or to a postdoc with two months left on their contract and no sign of an extension.

The moral arguments for communicating science ignore the fact that whenever we use them on a group of scientists, a large proportion of these scientists could be fighting for survival. The best-case scenario for communicators is that our message falls on deaf ears. Nobody hears us and nobody cares. However, what is likely to happen is that we build up resentment by making people feel selfish for not engaging in scicomm when their research group will disintegrate if they don’t get their next grant.

The moral case for scicomm is obvious and in times of plenty, scientists will engage. What we need to work on is explaining how scicomm can be used as a powerful tool for professional development of modern scientists. We need to explain how scicomm can be used to help researchers flourish and succeed. Here are a few of the ways that engaging in scicomm can strengthen an academic profile.

CV/resume
Being able to add scicomm acheivements to your CV adds an extra dimension and shows funders and employers that you understand the importance of communicating with peers and with the taxpayer.

Getting noticed
It can be hard to get noticed when it comes to submitting abstracts for conferences or getting citations for your paper. There are many scicomm methods and platforms that can help promote academic work.

Understanding your science better
Learning to take complex scientific ideas and explain them simply can help to understand the research field, as well as societal context for it.

Finding collaborators
If you are making an effort to explain your science and promote it using social media, maybe your potential collaborators are too.

Influence
Gaining credibility and influence is increasingly being done via scicomm. Publicising and promoting your work using social media can help research to quickly enagage with peers, politicians, journals and funders.

Improving your research seminars
Scicomm projects normally produce a bounty of material that can be used to enrich academic presentations from talks to graphical abstracts.

Building your network
Travel is expensive and money is tight. How about using scicomm and social media to connect with researchers, journalists and funding bodies around the world from the comfort of your couch. Yes please!

If you think I’ve missed anything, please let me know in the comments. I’ve also painted a very positive picture of scicomm here but what about the downsides? Again, please let me know what you Think.

4 kommentarer

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  • Eva-Maria Diehl

    What about the future generation of scientists?
    Your area of research gets more attention and kids in high schools could become inspired and might consider university studies for their future education.

    2019.01.23

  • Jessica Abbott

    Also improves your teaching and grant-writing, I would say.

    2019.01.24

  • Does not matter

    "Nobody hears us and nobody cares."

    Scientists don't have a huge lobby in the real world. Hardly anything is known about the working conditions, temporary contracts etc.
    Do you tell you work 60 hours or more in a lab on an under-averaged salary? Your contract ranges from 3 months to 2 years, and after two years you cannot be employed because you might be too old? (Max. 3 years of postdoc life after obtaining a PhD, but what happens if you project does not produce high impact results quickly?) Will you manage to get within three years a professorship? Or you are employed by KTH on a scholarship, if you are lucky, you don't have even a pension scheme? Or do you find yourself in a struggle to find a job in industry to be able to pay for your living and suddenly your PhD is pretty worthless?

    Science communication should not show only the good sights, e.g. winning a grant. It should also show what constant struggle you have as a postdoc slave, how bad postdoc or PhD projects are outlined, when you don't have access to resources or machines.... Or should science communication be used like instagram to show an illusion? I think social media shows often a false world.

    If you want to make science public, I would demand free access to journals, and second, free access to all data taken, in particular at large scale instruments with detailed explanations on the specimens.

    2019.01.24

  • Ben Libberton

    Great points! Scicomm can definitely inspire the next generation and I think it helps with grant writing a lot.

    I agree that scicomm should also not only show the good side and the struggle of scientists is something that should be talked about more. I was actually quite impressed by some of the coverage of the US Government shutdown highlighting the problems in science.

    I would like to add two points to the third comment, which was very passionately written. Firstly when the author says:
    "Or should science communication be used like instagram to show an illusion?"
    I think this point of view can lead to people dismissing communication platforms like Instagram because people assume that everything is fake and this is the way the platform has to be used. That's not always the case but also, just because that's the way that some people use it now, it doesn't mean you have to use it that way. What's to stop a scientist starting an Instagram account to talk about the difficulties in getting funding? I think this would be pretty popular.

    Secondly, while a agree that free access to data and journals is a positive thing, I think it is different from science communication. Most people would not be able to interpret the data or scientific literature even if they had access to it. To make it public, it has to be interpreted and translated into a language that is meaningful for a larger audience.

    2019.01.28

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