Sunday, January 05, 2014

Communicating science in 2014: Public Outreach

October 2013 issue of Science magazine
A few months ago, the magazine Science published a special issue on ‘communication in science’. Indeed, the way scientists exchange information has evolved considerably in the past decade, thanks notably to the internet and the rise of the open access movement. Conversely, older means of communication still fare pretty well; despite predictions of extinction, IRL meetings are still flourishing, and so are printed books… This year, I want thus to orientate this blog a little more towards questions related to science communication (internal and external) and how scientists deal with it. So I plan to write several posts about the way scientists communicate between themselves and with society. Here I want to start with how scientists communicate to the general public.

Science for the masses

Scientists today are constantly reminded of their duty to communicate their research to the public, and are encouraged to do what is called science outreach. I believe this to be fundamentally a good and a fair thing, if only because the vast majority of science funding is provided by the public society via taxes. In addition, and in my view more importantly, every citizen (as well as society as a whole) gain at a better understanding of science, this for pragmatic, aesthetic and philosophical reasons. 

In a 1963 lecture, legendary physicist Richard Feynman pointed out that the society he lived in was a highly technical one. But was it a scientific one? In the sense that society had acquired a scientific outlook, Feynman noted it was certainly not1. I hold Feynman’s statement to be as true today as it was in the sixties, maybe even more so. High-tech products are everywhere (transport, communication, agriculture, entertainment), but most of the times we ignore the science behind the technology. As long as it works, who cares? seems a common thought (to which I also fall prey, often enough). And technology is not the only issue: public health is also of great concern, as we live in the years of world pandemics, multiresistant strains of bacteria, and so on. 

The lack of understanding of what permits technological development may be disheartening, but more worrisome to me is how weakly the scientific mindset seems to permeate the population. Is that the scientists’ fault? I guess partly, but I would water down this by saying that this is society’s responsibility as a whole. But maybe I am painting too dark a portrait here. After all, the public is overall very supportive of scientific research. In the past couple of years, we even have seen a surprising rush of scientists in popular fiction (think CSI, Big Bang theory), which is probably a good sign. This means we have to keep up the good communication work!

Science outreach in the 21st century

In the past century, science communication was done in books and magazines, on the radio and on television. At the end of the 20th century came the internet revolution, and, needless to say, it has changed the game ever since. Scientists can now express their opinion and showcase their research through websites, blogs, videos, podcasts, social networks, tweets… you name it. Does every scientist use all of these new means of communication today? Clearly not, but many prominent and active scientists have embraced internet and its remarkable power of outreach. Let’s see what nice options are at hand:

Nowadays, research groups that don’t have a website are the exception rather than the rule. I believe that it also helps to make science more personal, as most websites put forward the actual people that are doing the research. If they are well done, they should appeal to the layman as well as the scientist.

Blogs are far less numerous than websites, for quite understandable reasons, but there is nevertheless no shortage of them. Recently, Jonathan Eisen (Professor at UC Davis, Open Access enthusiast and active blogger) came up with an impressive list of 100 blogs focusing on microbiology! We should not underestimate the power of emulation: it is after reading Jon’s blog and others that I decided that I should embark on the blogging boat as well. Personally, I enjoy blogging because it forces me to formulate ideas and reflections, something that I wouldn’t have done if not for web posting. 

OK, I admit I’m rather ignorant here. I know scientists use it, but I’m totally uninterested in Tweeter. I might be missing something big, here, but well… I guess I’ll live with it (or rather without it).

Podcasts represent the perfect blend of the old and the new: radio broadcasting and internet. The American Society for Microbiology, for instance, is increasingly using podcasts to share information. 

Pictures and Videos
The posting of videos and pictures on the web is on the rise, and more and more of these are made available to the public with few restrictions (for instance with a creative commons copyright). Anecdotally, we learned that scientists can befunny, and that they like Lady Gaga (but who doesn’t?). 

Despite fair warnings about the reliability of its information content, one has to admit that Wikipedia is a fantastic resource! In addition, we know that everyone is using Wikipedia as a source of information. Hence, instead of dismissing it, scientists have to make sure that their domain of expertise is fairly treated, not contaminated with misinformation, and up to date. This said, I haven’t so far taken part in Wikipedia, but I shall consider this in the future, for the aforementioned reasons. Wikipedia pages may contain mistakes, but this is true of many other web or paper-based resources, and at least Wikipedia is a dynamic system that allows multiple corrections and clarifications.

Books, magazine articles, TV and radio shows, press releases, etc.
Older means of outreach haven’t become obsolete. Far from it. Actually, in my view the most efficient and long-lasting ‘communicator’ still remains the printed book. There are science books that deeply influenced me, in a way that no website could have done, like Rostand’s “Pensées d’un biologiste”, Dawkins’ “Blind watchmaker” or Russell’s “Scientific Outlook”, and all three were written for the general public. What I mean to say is that new and old means of communication are complementary, and most often not in competition with each other. I am delighted to see that I can download for free on my e-reader plenty of science masterpieces that are in the public domain, thanks to websites such as Project Gutenberg. Does that mean I do not buy books anymore? Not at all. Even better, I will buy more books by contemporary scientists, since I saved some bucks on the classics!

It is also important that scientists write articles in popular magazines and newspapers. And here I think that scientists are allowed (and should be encouraged) to go beyond their strict area of expertise, and express their opinion as society members. Of course, “scientists” are not exactly a homogeneous group or lobby, but we share values and an outlook that are worth spreading. What is true for newspapers also holds for TV and radio broadcasts.  

Press releases organized by scientists and universities are important as well, but in the light of recent controversies over their content and use (for instance, the arsenic life story), I’d rather leave it aside, or rather save it for a longer development elsewhere. 

Let’s make this age scientific

Scientists have now more communication tools than ever before. So there’s every reason to be positive about the future of science outreach! To conclude, and to invoke again Richard Feynman, I wish that we can make our age a little bit more scientific. There’s a lot to gain for everyone.

1      1. “There is no doubt at all that today we have all kinds of scientific applications which are causing us all kinds of advantages. And so in that sense it certainly is a scientific age. If you mean by a scientific age an age in which science is developing rapidly and advancing fully as fast as it can, then this is definitely a scientific age. […] But if you mean that this is an age of science in the sense that in art, in literature, and in people’s attitudes and understandings, and so forth science plays a large part, I don’t think it is a scientific age at all. You see, if you take, the heroic age of the Greeks, say, there were poems about the military heroes. In the religious period of the Middle Ages, art was related directly to religion, and people’s attitudes toward life were definitely closely knit to the religious viewpoints. It was a religious age. This is not a scientific age from that point of view.” Richard Feynman, quoted from the John Danz lecture “This unscientific age”, in The meaning of it all (2007), Penguin books, pp. 62-63.

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