Scientific Communications and the General Public


There is a phrase that Albert Einstein used – “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” In my opinion, this quote is imperative to the training of current and future scientists.

When I tell people what a do for a living (biomedical research, in case you were wondering), I typically get a wide-eyed glance of confusion and fascination. After explaining my research at the most basic level, I get a general “Oh, that is cool/great/interesting (insert whatever compliment here)”. Why is it so hard to communicate science to the public?

Not to toot my own horn, but I think that I am pretty good at communicating scientific information to the general public. Unfortunately, this ability is due to teaching as an adjunct professor at a small City of University of New York (CUNY) school and NOT being trained as a biomedical scientist. To be perfectly, honest did not get into tutoring & teaching (starting in graduate school) because I loved scientific communications. I got into it because I needed extra income to live and enjoy New York City, which one really cannot do on a graduate student’s stipend. Extra income aside, I really grew into loving scientific communications, via education. Not to be sentimental, it makes me feel so accomplished, as an effective communicator, when a student asks me if I will teach another science class that he or she is going to take in the following semester.

Incorporating scientific communication training in science

For most U.S. scientists, we all go through same training regimen – a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctorate in a specific area of science. During that training, the communications aspect of science is generally overlooked. Yes, at the graduate and postgraduate levels, we publish manuscripts in various biomedical journals, so we know how to write for other scientists. Our type of publishing is great for a specific audience; but, the writing is very dry and complex to most of the general population. Most journal articles follow the sequential formula of: explaining the background of the research, providing specific details about the techniques used, then reporting the significant conclusions. For effective scientific communication we have to flip that concept into something like this: articulating the bottom line, then providing basic details in plain English.

A component of scientific communications needs to be added to the training of up and coming scientists because there are few training opportunities for this skill set.  Although communicating scientific information to the general public is very important, it is necessary for as scientist to market him/herself for a career outside of wet science. In the traditional career path, biomedical doctorate holders work to achieve a position in Academia (or Industry). However, latest trends show that 1 out of 11 Ph.D. holders will obtain a faculty position (that’s less than 10%!!!!). Essentially, the research market is becoming too saturated, so Ph.D. holders need an exit strategy from this traditional career path. Often job descriptions of careers in scientific/medical communications require some training in “non-academic” writing, which many doctorates do not possess. Of course, a person can gain skills in scientific communications, but he/she will have to seek opportunities outside of their formal training. Basically, when Ph.D. holders attempt to enter into the realm of communications, they are often passed over for these positions because we are “overeducated” but “underqualified”. Then, if you are lucky enough to get a position in scientific communications, you often have to start at an entry level with other candidates straight out of college, even though you have 5+ years of scientific expertise over them. It is a bit of a depressing situation – spending years of training only to get “crumbs” once you finish. Although depressing, there are medical/scientific communications agencies that are beginning to understand the value of Ph.D. holders in this field.

Keeping science alive

As we know, governmental funding for many scientific programs are being cut or completely eliminated in this new administration (another topic for another post). For biomedical research, governmental funding is the bread and butter for getting your work out there. Being able to effectively communicate science outside of the ivory towers can build extra support for science, especially from people who are responsible for these funding decisions. It is easier to gain support for embryonic stem cell research, if a politician and his/her constituents understand, in basic terms, what embryonic stem cell research is and how it will directly affect them in a positive manner. Plus, effective scientific communication encourages more participation from the population in process of biomedical research (i.e. increased enrollment in clinical trials).

Concluding remarks

As scientists, we have to understand that we are responsible for going to the public, because the public is not going to come to us. Often scientists are seen as impersonal and standoffish; we already have to fight against the “mad scientist” stereotype. The best way to get to the public is to break down barriers and stereotypes that characterize science as being complex for one to understand unless you have an advanced degree. Let’s make science more accessible to various audiences, thus making it more inclusive and diverse.

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