I recently had an opportunity to attend the Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego. The Experimental Biology comprises 7 scientific societies who come together to have one (HUGE!) meeting once a year. There was tons of interesting science reported, from the science of Yogic breathing to the effects of fructose on the body, but most relevant to the Mendeley community as a whole was the panel discussion on communicating your science. The panel included a Nobel Laureate, Paul Berg, Joe Palca from NPR’s Science Friday, Megan Palmer from SynBERC, and Cara Santa Maria from the Huffington Post. This was a diverse panel and got quite exciting towards the end.
Paul Berg shared a long historical perspective on communicating science to the public, starting from his work on recombinant DNA to more modern issues like the H5N1 Avian Influenza pandemic scare. It’s because of the work of people like Berg that scientists were able to develop recombinant DNA technology, and the biotech boom is largely due to recombinant DNA technology. In some parallel universe, scientists didn’t manage to communicate the safety and risks of recombinant DNA to the public and in that universe, techniques which form the basis for the most commonplace and routine tasks in a biology lab are encumbered with regulations or agaist the law. To avoid a situation like this arising with future research, Berg says communicating science is equally important as writing papers and grants. If the government outlaws research on a topic, not even the most well-written grant on that topic can get funded. Berg ended with a call for more non-scientist members of the public to be present at policy discussions to make sure careful thought is given to concerns that may not be obvious to scientists. He left open the issue of how to best address those concerns. Does he think it’s just a question of education of the public or is there a need for more understanding among scientists about how policy is made and what ethical concerns may arise? He also returned to the importance of communicating your science to the public in a rather spectacular way during the Q&A. More on that in a bit.
Joe Palca was an interesting speaker because he started as a lab tech & went to grad school, but moved into communications in the face of the dry research climate of the early 80s. He had some great advice for scientists talking to reporters. For example, big science news of broad general appeal comes around maybe several times a year, whereas many reporters have several deadlines a day. Because of this, and because the media generally has a hard time distinguishing between science news that’s really important and that which just has the right PR spin, he says the way the news model works for the general media just doesn’t work for science and science communicators have to figure out a better way. More on that in a bit, too. His best advice for scientists (and one of the most retweeted quotes) was for scientists to stop putting down other scientists who are good at communicating.
Megan Palmer shared her policy experience, making the point that communication to government and policy makers operates on a very different set of rules than other forms of communication and encouraging scientists to make themselves available for sharing their expertise with policy makers while understanding that policy makers may have an infuriating set of priorities relative to the needs of the research.
Cara opened with the line, “I’m from Huff Post, don’t throw anything at me”, alluding to the parade of pseudoscientific nonsense that frequently stains the pages of that publication. She needn’t have bothered, though, because no one laughed and she went on to give some of the most memorable and useful advice of the whole session, talking candidly about the need for a publication with lay readers to answer the “how does your work affect the world?” question that is rarely addressed by scientists doing basic research. She had quite a bit to say about understanding your audience and learning how to communicate with them as opposed to just talking at them. The most popular sentence of the whole session was “Don’t underestimate your audience’s intelligence, but do underestimate their vocabulary.” In other words, drop the jargon if you want the public to get what you’re saying. She finished by touching on the scientist-reporter dynamic and how social media allows scientists to get around the fear of being misquoted by allowing researchers to communicate directly to the public, even if you have little audience.
There were some interesting questions that dug a little deeper into the issues touched on above. Palca talked about the power of anecdotes in communication, despite their statistical invalidity. “If someone’s friend’s brother’s kid got a measles shot and later developed some strange disease, that person is likely to believe the measles shot caused it, despite all the evidence to the contrary.” I’ve personally had discussions that went almost exactly like this & I know many of you must have had as well.
Sparks didn’t really fly until towards the very end, though, when Berg broached the topic of scientific self-promotion. After about 30 minutes of discussion about the importance of communicating with the public and how the media tries but often can’t and sometimes doesn’t want to get the science right, Berg says he thinks all scientist communication should be filtered through the media and that it’s inappropriate for a scientist to blog about their research. Scicurious is certain that Berg got his Nobel by toiling away in the lab and doing no self-promotion whatsoever. Others pointed out that a blog is exactly what science communication needs – it helps a scientist learn public communication skills, it gives a scientist the ability to get the story right, and provides the perfect defense against the fear of being misquoted or senationalized by a reporter.
What do you think? Is it just a cultural shift or an attempt by older scientists who’ve already made it to keep the attention for themselves?