The Sciences

Improving Communication Between Scientists and the Public: Start Younger, Try Harder?

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 15, 2010 5:13 PM


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This is a guest post from a member of Science in the News (SITN), an organization of PhD students at Harvard University whose mission is to bring the newest and most relevant science to a general audience. For over a decade, SITN has been presenting a fall lecture series at Harvard Medical School, with talks on a diversity of current and newsworthy topics, such as stem cell biology and climate change. SITN also publishes the Flash, an online newsletter written by graduate students at Harvard, which presents current scientific discoveries and emerging fields in an accessible and entertaining manner. SITN engages in additional outreach activities such as "Science by the Pint", and hopes students at other institutions will also make the commitment to strengthen science communication.

The following post is from Harvard graduate student Rou-Jia Sung. I recently attended an event entitled "Standing up for Science," which was held as part of the Cambridge Science Festival and organized by the UK-based group “Sense about Science.” The event was organized as a forum to bring people together to discuss the issue of science and the media: how these two entities perceive one another, and how the public perceives them in turn. From my perspective as a graduate student, the bulk of science is not as black and white as the public might perceive it to be, but is made up of shades of gray; as you set up your experiments to address a particular question, you realize that it is extremely difficult to produce widely general rules and definite conclusions, simply because not everything is known. Doing science is a bit like starting a paint-by-numbers kit, without knowing what the final picture is supposed to be. In order to complete the work, you first have to focus on properly coloring in the individual sections. And in scientific research, there are a multitude of painters, and the grand picture is so large, it is likely we will not see it completed in our lifetimes. This brings us to a major hurdle in science communication: it is difficult to understand, interpret, or even be passionate about something that is incomplete. As the public, we are much more interested in seeing the final work of art than the work in progress. Given then the nature of scientific research, it becomes challenging to bridge such a gap in perspective and communication between the public and science. There are a few programs available to train scientists on how to interact with the media, such as the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program; however, the majority of these courses are designed for and available only to advanced scientists. Why not introduce these types of courses at the level of graduate school, as part of the graduate curricula? Or even begin at the undergraduate level--to increase student awareness that clear and effective communication is critical within one’s research field, but especially with a broader audience. Strengthening this culture and kind of communication will require improvements and innovation, and students are perfectly placed to begin contributing to this and making their voices heard. Science in the News, a graduate student group at Harvard, presents an annual scientific lecture series to the public. But only a small portion of students get this kind of experience during their education, and there are compelling reasons to have compulsory training in communication. Of course, in addition to fostering communication skills and priorities in the science community, are there ways to better prepare the public to better understand the subtleties behind scientific research?

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