“…if scientists could communicate more in their own voices-in a familiar tone, with a less specialized vocabulary-would a wide range of people understand them better? Would their work be better understood by the general public, policy-makers, funders, and, even in some cases, other scientists?” -Alan Alda
I love science.
I have spent many years teaching science and I feel like I have a pretty broad understanding of most scientific concepts.
However, last week I attended a 3 day meeting with a variety of respected researchers who are studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico, and I was struck by how little of the presentations and panel discussions I was able to absorb, especially when it came to the more abstract nature of their work. If I, a person with a marked interest and a science background, was struggling for comprehension, what must it be like for the general public?
Now of course the audience at this meeting was made up of people who were in the know and didn’t need their science “dumbed down” if you will, but the language seldom changes when efforts are made to communicate with those outside the scientific sphere. Science communication and outreach are fast becoming important facets of research and are starting to become tied to funding in big ways. As the looming sequester has the potential to shrink federal support for research and development (R&D) by US$57.5 billion over the next five years (Nature), it is imperative that scientists work to build a case for the relevance of their work and that means targeting those who do not necessarily speak the same language that they do, namely taxpayers and policymakers!
Where do information professionals come into play in all this? Well, our work is intricately tied together with the researchers and academics that we serve. Their cause is our cause and our background in outreach, communication, and research can be a valuable tool in making scientific research more accessible and relatable.
Source: Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, from the October 2011 issue of Physics Today, page 48:
Some Helpful Resources
-A self-directed course on scientific communication from Nature
-Similar resource from the American Association for the Advancement of Science
-The Journal of Science Communication
-Presentations from the National Academy of Sciences Colloquium “The Science of Science Communication”
-Science communication competitions!
National Science Communication Institute
This is a great presentation on social media for scientists.