By Daniel Garcia
As grad students, we talk about our research all the time and we’ve (hopefully) become experts at giving lab meetings and poster presentations. Unfortunately, outside the lab is a different story. I know I’m guilty of being part of many conversations with friends that devolve into lab jargon, leaving the non-scientists in the group dazed and confused, and then we change the subject to avoid having to explain the details of confocal microscopy. In grad school, we aren’t formally trained to communicate with the public, but this isn’t a new skill to learn: scientists have been practicing science communication since the dawn of the field.
The Ancient Practice of Science Communication
Science communication, or SciComm, has a long storied history. The ancient Greeks would
impart knowledge during public debates, where discussions ultimately led to experimentation and the development of the scientific method. In the 16th century, Galileo’s support of the heliocentric model of the solar system led to his persecution by the Catholic Church. However, what really bothered the Church was that he was communicating this idea to the masses. Later, the industrial revolution revived intense public interest in science and technology, fueling the popularity of public lectures by renowned scientists and engineers. For example Peter Cooper, architect of the first steam-powered locomotive in the US explained how steam engines and machines worked at the General Society for Mechanics in New York. This brings us to the modern era, where we look to scientists like Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy to help explain the natural phenomena of our universe. It’s up to the next generation of scientists to continue this tradition of translating science to the public. But before you get your SciComm on, you should understand how public perceptions of scientists can affect how you SciComm.
The Perception Paradox
The key to successful science communication is understanding the perspective of your audience. Public perception of scientists has a huge impact on our efforts as science communicators, but there seems to be a paradox. On one hand, the public really respects scientists. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), research shows that scientists are highly regarded by the general public, ranking only second to members of the military (military scientists must have it really good!), and well above members of Congress. The public also views scientists as problem solvers, seeking their expertise for policy decisions and solutions to society’s problems. So, positive perceptions of scientists do exist, but scientists have not taken full advantage of this opportunity to reach the masses. The lack of proper public engagement allows the public to fill in the gaps with their own preconceived notions, likely influenced by the media and popular culture. This has led to the formation of negative perceptions of real scientists. Scientists often get a bad rap, presented as socially awkward nerds (see Big Bang Theory), or as evil mad scientists trying to take over the world (see any Spiderman movie villain).
Evidence for this phenomenon is seen in the “Who’s the Scientist” project, where 7th
graders took a tour of the FermiLab, a particle physics research center in Chicago, and were asked to draw a scientist before and after the tour. The “before” drawings depicted men in white lab coats with disheveled hair, thick-rimmed glasses, accompanied with descriptions like “kind of crazy,” “talks fast with many ideas,” and “mean wicked laugh.” After the tour, the drawings and descriptions are drastically different. Drawings depicted more women and less stereotypical lab equipment, with descriptions like “loves their job,” “explains things very well,” “have other fun hobbies,” and “normal people with not-so-normal jobs.”
It’s clear that damaging stereotypes of scientists are prevalent, but it is also clear that just spending time with scientists for a day can change these perceptions. Negative stereotypes may not stop people from respecting scientists, but they do stop people from relating to scientists. By viewing scientists as fellow citizens, the public is more likely to support our work and feel connected to the science that we do. Negative perceptions also breed mistrust and skepticism, leading to the spread of misinformation and giving rise to fear of modern technological advances, like GMOs and vaccines.
Are you a scientist? Join the SciComm Movement!
By engaging in science communication, we can humanize scientists and dispel the caricatures prevalent in popular culture. So grad students don’t just roll your eyes when your uncle asks you if you’ve found the cure to cancer yet. Engage people and break down misconceptions. Encourage and foster curiosity, provide a window to our everyday lives as scientists. Even simple ways of engaging, like giving a tour of your lab to family in town for the holidays, can help engender positive attitudes towards science.
With the advent of social media, science communication has become much easier. Scientists have new platforms to talk about science, making it easier for the public to engage in the science they are interested in. Facebook is a great place to promote research and scientific accomplishments, especially for its potential to reach such a large audience. Many scientists are taking advantage of the popularity of podcasts to discuss science in fun and innovative ways. There are even some scientists using Snapchat to give followers an inside view of daily life in the sciences.
#SciComm and other related hashtags are used daily on Twitter, and the 140 character limit forces scientists to distill their message to an easily digestible blurb. The SciComm movement has become so important that an entire center is dedicated to training scientists to communicate with the public; they have a lot of great resources, so go check it out!
For tips on how to communicate your science, check out Nina’s post “Sharing Science with Anyone”. For more ideas on how to get started with SciComm, visit our Career Development Resources page.
- ASBMB Art of Science Communication online course, 2015
- Gregory, J. and Miller, S. Science in Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility, 1998, p. 1-26
- Big Bang Theory, CBS, 2007-2016
- Spider-Man 2, Columbia Pictures, 2004