Which role should scientists play in communicating science?

2020-12-15

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.

2 kommentarer

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  • Jonas Tegenfeldt

    I agree completely! Really nice presentation by Mai-Thi Nguyen-Kim. She brings up the very core of science.

    One good point that is worth keeping in mind is that we should be aware of, and communicate, the limitations of our knowledge. This refers to not only uncertainties and error bars, but also the context in which a given theory is valid. This is absolutely essential for the people in the audience so that they can apply the knowledge appropriately.

    Another point that was not mentioned, is that we need to understand that experts are experts in their own field and possibly in some general tools that can be applied broadly, but they are not generally experts in everything. Experts cannot in general be trusted to make priorities. A virologist will give us advice how to avoid catching a viral disease. A toxicologist will teach us how to avoid being poisoned. A dietician will advise us what food to eat. However, they are not equipped to give us advise in the case we need to choose between being exposed to a virus, a toxin and unhealthy food. That is the realm of politics and it requires expertise of its own.

    2020.12.16

  • Arko Olesk

    Very much agree. Every scientist should get a science communication course during their training. This is not only to give them basic media skills but even more to give the understanding why it is important for them to engage the public with their research.
    Lack of skills is one of the barriers to scientists' involvement in science communication. The universities can do much to support them more, for example by incentivising public communication activities and providing professional support by communication departments. However, there are situations that cannot be left to the PR people to handle because the scientists are the most trusted source by the public.
    In terms of quality, I'd like to share some work we did recently: 12 quality indicators for science communication - https://questproject.eu/how-to-improve-science-communication-consider-these-12-guiding-principles/

    2020.12.17