By Mikayla McCord
Science isn’t finished until it’s communicated. The communication to wider audiences is part of the job of being a scientist, and so how you communicate is absolutely vital” – Sir Mark Walport1
We’ve all been there – you finally find a paper that pertains to your specific research interests. Feeling excited and optimistic, you start reading the paper only to be bogged down by jargon and terms that only have meaning to the authors. What could have been a fun afternoon read turns into a chore, and a new topic you were interested in suddenly seems more arduous. Or even worse, you cannot even access that perfect article without paying a subscription.
Ineffective science communication does not only affect those in the science community. Most working-class Americans only have a high school science background, so ineffective science communication affects these people as well. Pew Research did a study on how well Americans know science based on their highest level of education in January 2019. Each participant was given the same science quiz of 11 questions. Part of the study by Pew Research is depicted in Figure 1, where Americans with, at maximum, a high school degree, averaged 5 out of 11 correct answers on the science quiz, compared to Americans with a postgraduate degree who answered an average of 9 out of 11 questions correctly.2 Science shouldn’t be this disconnected from public understanding – everyday people need to have access to up-and-coming research that could affect their daily lives, and it is our duty as scientists to make our work accessible to both our field and the general public.
How can you make your hard work more accessible?
- “Explain it to a 5-year-old”
Take a few minutes and watch the video “Neuroscientist Explains One Concept in 5 Levels” by WIRED.4 In the video, Dr. Bobby Kasthuri, who specializes in the connectome, a map of the neural connections in the brain, explains his work to people with varying understanding of neuroscience – including both a 5-year-old child and a specialist in the connectome project. What I love about this video is how Dr. Kasthuri modifies his explanations based on the knowledge of his audience. It is important that all of us learn this skill, so we are able to effectively communicate some of our more complicated research to people who don’t have the scientific background that we do. To practice this, try explaining what you did in lab to a close family member well enough that they understand it.
2. Utilize a science blog to present your research in an accessible way
Dr. Anne Osterrieder, a plant biologist at Oxford, is a researcher that believes in the importance of public outreach and making science available to the public.4 On her website plantcellbiology.com, she writes articles about her research in laymen’s terms, so they are applicable to people who don’t have a PhD in biology.5 To further her impact, she also creates cute science cartoon videos with songs so schools can use these to teach their students about science. Making a website, or utilizing a pre-existing one, with videos and articles about your research is a great way to reach a wider audience, especially if you want to reach people who do not or cannot read a primary journal article. Luckily, Penn State has the Lions Talk Science Blog that can be a great way for you to make a quick article about your research or an interesting science topic!
3. Give public talks
While this idea might not be possible in the current pandemic, giving an informal talk about your research provides another avenue to present your work to a wider audience. DC Science Comedy is a group of scientists, ranging from NASA employees to recent PhD graduates, that go to bars and do stand-up comedy about science after their day jobs.6 Kasha Patel, a member of the DC Science Comedy group, said that part of her job is to “distinguish the difference between fact versus myth for the general public”. Shannon Odell, a recent neuroscience PhD graduate from Weill Cornell University, mentions that science and comedy are actually really similar: “Jerry Seinfeld, he’d be like, what’s the deal with airplane food? … Whereas scientists are just like, what’s the deal with rising CO2 levels?” Scientists in DC Science Comedy use jokes and funny stories to make science seem more approachable and understandable. Scientific topics like rising CO2 levels or the COVID vaccine might seem scary and difficult to the general public, but the way DC Science Comedy uses comedy to explain these topics makes them seem less daunting. I’m not telling you all to drop out and become stand-up comedians but finding new creative ways to reach the general public is a great way to make science more accessible.
4. Reach out to a wider audience on social media
Most up-and-coming scientists have Twitter and Instagram to keep in touch with other scientists in their community, but not many are using their platform to reach the millions of people on social media who don’t have a science background. One of my favorite science social media users is Darrion Nguyen, or @lab_shenanigans. He uses his platform on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to create funny posts about science and his experience in a research lab. I’ve been following him for a while, and it is amazing how many people comment on his posts saying that his ways of explaining complex scientific ideas help them in their high school or undergraduate classes. For example, check out this video he made explaining the differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic transcription and translation. One of the comments on the video even says, “I’ve learned more from you than I did for my BS in Biology!”. If more scientists and PhD students use social media to communicate science, our impact beyond the science community would be outstanding.
The job of a scientist is not only to perform benchwork, write journal articles, and attend conferences with like-minded people. Our job as scientists is to ensure that what we discover is communicated to the public in an effective way!
- Sobczak, K. (n.d.) The Power of Science Communication. Industry Mentoring Network in STEM. https://imnis.org.au/2018/05/the-power-of-science-communication/
- Kennedy, B. & Hefferon, M. (March 2019). What Americans Know About Science. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2019/03/28/what-americans-know-about-science/
- Alzheimer’s Disease Facts & Figures from alz.org: https://www.alz.org/media/Documents/alzheimers-facts-and-figures.pdf
- Osterrieder, A. (Feb. 2018). How should researchers talk about science to the public? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2012/feb/20/making-science-accessible
- Plant Cell Biology website by Anne Osterrieder: plantcellbiology.com
- Ahmed, I. (Nov. 2019). Stand-up scientists use comedy to reach beyond the ivory tower. Phys Org. https://phys.org/news/2019-11-stand-up-scientists-comedy-ivory-tower.html