Scientists are extensively trained and therefore the experts in their fields. Accordingly, there should be no better person for communicating the significance and limitations of their research than them. However, this is only true in part. While some of them are natural communicators and already take part in public outreach and science communication (scicomm), there are a lot of scientists who would like or need to communicate but lack the needed communication education. Indeed, scicomm is not part of the typical education of a researcher.
Speaking for myself, I did not have any classes targeting scicomm during my bachelor’s or master’s studies. In that sense, I was pleased to see that my university offers a scicomm course at third-cycle level – until I found out that it is reserved for social scientists only. For now, scicomm is remaining trial and error with a pinch of intuition for me.
Scicomm training should be a fundamental part of a researcher’s education, but it will not be the solution to all problems. Performing research itself is time-consuming by nature. If we want scientists to reach out to the public we do not only need to train them, but also make it desirable and rewarding to do scicomm. There need to be solutions such as funding or taking public outreach into consideration when evaluating candidates for a new position or grants.
Furthermore, scientists should be supported by their institutions and be able to fall back on them if they are contacted by the press to talk about their science, as well as for designing a scicomm-strategy to make new research results publicly available. The current pandemic is illustrating this need nicely as it brought a lot of scientists, especially virologists and epidemiologists, into the focus of worldwide discussions. Scicomm and public outreach also carries risks which should not be left to the communicating scientists alone.
However, we also need to understand that just because a scientist is sharing information does not mean that it is true. Especially this year scientists have gotten a lot more attention than they used to. Unfortunately, between many good voices sharing credible information, we have also witnessed scientists and medical doctors spreading false information. This does not necessarily originate from a bad intention, but as scientists are people, too, they are subject to an own opinion and making mistakes. They can even be very right with one claim, but extremely wrong with the next. This is especially problematic as the general public often has the expectation that scientists should know it best.
Recently, the German science journalist and chemist Mai-Thi Nguyen-Kim has brought up the idea that scicomm is in need of quality control, norms, and shared values (link to her Youtube video). If we want to increase and maintain the trust in science, we need to make sure to only share evidence-based information and teach the public how to differentiate between good and bad sources of information. The key to trust and credibility is transparency, so we need to be extremely clear about limitations of new studies as well as parts that are personal opinion. This also holds true for science communicators in general.
With all that said, I still do strongly believe that we need scientists taking part in science communication and public outreach, too. No one should be forced into science communication, but in my opinion, everyone should be able to fall back on a communication tool kit that they have acquired as a training in their education and/or a designated science communication office in their institution.