Public engagement with science is now more important than ever. Is it time for scientists to step outside their comfort zones?
Scientists are trained to approach the world through the scientific paradigm to come to well-informed conclusions. Taken in its entirety, science and the scientific method seek to make falsifiable predictions that are testable through experimentation; when a hypothesis does not hold up under scrutiny, it is either modified or discarded on the path to the correct one. Experimental design, observation, explanation, transparency, repeatability and a thorough peer review process make up the framework we use to build and organise knowledge in the form of testable explanations.
While learning the scientific method is paramount for budding scientists, the commendable skills of communicating science to the broader public and effectively advocating for critical thinking have largely been excluded from formal scientific training. The consequences are particularly evident now, with scientists struggling to engage and inform the public on socially charged issues such as climate change. Although the scientific consensus represents our collective rational and logical thought, mistrust and misunderstanding of science is on the rise, and strategies for engaging the public face an uphill battle. It’s important to delve deeper into this issue and ask what can be done to better communicate science to the wider community.
Science communication allows scientists, educators, and journalists with various backgrounds and scientific expertise to articulate and contribute knowledge, ideas and perspectives to public audiences. The field aims to increase transparency, promote public discourse and bring general attention to science. In Australia, we’ve seen a significant increase in science communication across institutes and organisations in the form of social media platforms, online magazines, science festivals and television.
Despite this, a 2014 report by the CSIRO discovered that community attitudes towards science and technology in Australia are on a downward trend, with young Australians less engaged or interested in science than older Australians. Furthermore, the study found that science and technology news is most commonly heard “just in passing” as part of general news media, and not from the scientists themselves. Altogether, 40% of the general population is unengaged or uninterested in science. Distressingly, these studies show that even though we live in an era of mass entertainment with various media platforms at our disposal, scientists are not effectively engaging with the general public.
Of course, science communication is not an innate ability and does require deliberate practice and careful attention to language, but it is quite possible to be both an effective communicator and a working scientist. The famous US science communicator Carl Sagan is a perfect example, who, as a scientist and a public figure, taught both future planetary scientists and the general audience about science. Many of his astronomy courses at Cornell University incorporated required reading on critical thinking — including the importance of skepticism — with topics covering logic, rhetoric, and evidence-based argumentation. He advocated for scientists to give 10% of their time to public science education, hoping this secular tithe would safeguard future funding and support for science. His ability to turn complex scientific jargon into an allegory of the human condition not only helped to dispel the long-held stereotype of a scientist in a lab coat scratching out equations, but served as an important model for many scientists today. His work laid the foundation for current science communicators — such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox and Bill Nye, to name a few — who have strategically attached science to the pre-existing scaffold of popular culture.
While these science communicators make scientific knowledge accessible to the general public, many of the fellow scientists I interviewed thought science communication is important but didn’t do it themselves. One of the main reasons stated was a lack of confidence, as many academics haven’t received any communications training. Another main concern was that many overworked and time-poor academics, whose job description rarely includes engaging the public with science, often feel they could accomplish more if they focused solely on their research.
The result is that journalism and reporting are typically the main conduits for disseminating scientific information to the public. Unfortunately, many articles and news segments in the mainstream media oversimplify and generalise their scientific content to the point that the basic facts presented are obscured, misleading or blatantly wrong. The problem seems to lie between scientists and members of the media — while scientists want to get a certain message across to the broader public, few scientists know how to go about it properly, instead using complicated discipline-specific jargon that leaves non-specialists confused.
Understandably, much of the public has a poor understanding of how research is conducted or how scientific conclusions are reached, especially when it comes to assessing future risk. This has led to the spread of both unintentional and deliberate misinformation and we see this continuously happening around topics such as climate change, genetically modified organisms, germ theory, antibiotic resistance or childhood vaccination. Questionable organisations and individuals seek to discredit the reasoned scientific consensus reached by researchers, meaning scientists are constantly competing against sensationalist click-bait stories that are reported with a poor understanding of their scientific significance. It’s these mistakes and exaggerations by the media that can impact the public's confidence in scientific claims and discourage scientists to engage with the public.
As scientists advance in their academic careers from undergraduate to graduate students to post-doctoral researchers, they become increasingly specialised in their chosen discipline. These disciplines (and sub-disciplines) are becoming increasingly disparate, requiring scientists to become better communicators so that they can forge collaborations with scientists outside of their own specialised area. Academic institutions need to revamp their graduate-level research programs and implement courses incorporating explicit training in the communication of science to a general audience. The intent should not specifically be to train future scientific journalists, but to provide communication skills to research scientists to enable them to better convey the details and impact of their work.
At the same time, institutes should encourage graduate students and early post-doctoral researchers to participate in outreach and science engagement programs, with the aim of taking science out of the lab and into the streets. This could be in the form of organising or participating in community events on- or off-campus, hosting a tour of their laboratory, or visiting schools and students. Science is negatively affected by stereotypes of scientists as cold and calculating lone researchers who are untrustworthy and don’t have the public’s best interests at heart. By directly engaging with the public, scientists put a face to the job title and show that they are regular people.
One program that is changing the face of science engagement in Queensland is Wonder of Science, whose mission is to create a strong science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) culture in schools. The program is aligned with the Australian curriculum and it gets students involved in challenges that promote investigative, inquiry-based science through teamwork and collaboration. Students are engaged in the scientific process themselves and they present their investigations and results to peers and teachers in university-based settings. Instead of telling students they must listen to what scientists say, there is an emphasis on the students developing their own scientific skills and reasoning — in this way, they are taught from a young age to think critically and logically about the world around them, using evidence to inform their opinion.
The Wonder of Science program is unique in that PhD students and early career researchers become Young Science Ambassadors who guide and mentor students. The Young Science Ambassadors are a diverse group of students from different backgrounds and nationalities, which means that students from underrepresented groups have role models they can relate to. The program also allows graduate students to develop their science communication skills and build lasting relationships with schools and communities. In the process, Ambassadors improve their teaching and mentoring skills, both of which are critical for senior scientists to have. Programs like this are paramount in Australia where there is a growing skills shortage in STEM, and more need to be developed.
The future of scientific progress in society should not solely rely on individual science communicators — instead, scientists should hone their communication skills to focus on embedding science back into society and the public's thinking. This is not only important for science students, but also those in other industries that are responsible for disseminating science to the mainstream public. We need to promote scientific literacy so that everyone can understand and discuss the scientific issues reported in the media with informed arguments rather than opinions.
An understanding and love of scientific culture needs to be reignited in the young minds of the next generation. We need to push harder for an education system that teaches evidence-based decision-making as we tackle some of the most difficult challenges that humanity has ever faced. When scientists learn to communicate more effectively with an engaged, scientifically literate public, we will all be able to make informed decisions about the pressing issues that face society.
Edited by Ena Music