As more learning occurs online and at home with the global pandemic, keeping students engaged in learning about science is a challenge…
By Kate Stone
Kate Stone is the founder and CEO of Science Connected, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Funding and in-kind donations are provided by the Clif Bar Family Foundation, Awesome Without Borders, Google.org, the Pollination Project, and individual donors. Kate’s professional background is in applied linguistics, higher education, and journalism. Below she describes the results of the first year of the organization’s open-access science publication, GotScience Magazine.
When I was a graduate student, I had access to a wealth of research, data, information, and peer-reviewed journals. When I left grad school, I no longer had any of that access, just like the vast majority of the public. So I asked myself some questions: How might the world be different if everyone had equal access to science education and responsible science communication? What if we all understood how the world around us works? What if we all understood the scientific method and iterative nature of science that builds knowledge and decreases uncertainty over time? Collectively, might we do a better job of evaluating the quality of evidence, making informed decisions based on that evidence, and create a healthier and happier world for ourselves and future generations? And finally, does the news-consuming public really just want quick sound bites and sensational headlines—or, if we translated academic research into accurate yet widely accessible resources, would people read them?
Science Connected is the nonprofit that I founded to explore these questions, because citizens in a democracy need to be able to think scientifically and make evidence-based choices. “If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights,” wrote Carl Sagan (1995).
Unfortunately, researchers who want to share their work with the general public face obstacles. First, there is the reading level differential. In the United States, the current average reading level of newspaper articles is grade 11. By contrast, I recently ran samples of physics papers through the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. The average level was grade 16, with the added challenge of highly specialized vocabulary. In the words of scientist and writer Adam Ruben, “Nothing makes you feel stupid quite like reading a scientific journal article” (2016). Second, paying for access to peer-reviewed journals is not always an option for many individuals. The costs can be prohibitive. Third, tenure-track faculty face publishing pressures that often preclude public outreach. It can be difficult to find time to do outreach when it’s not incentivized by the academic system. And of course, sharing science with the public via mass media can be frustrating to researchers who discover that their findings have been sensationalized, overgeneralized, or reduced to misleading sound bites.
Misleading science reporting does a disservice to scientists and to everyone who reads the news. However, sharing science with the public can be intrinsically rewarding and of tremendous societal value. Scientific literacy is important in a modern, high-tech society where we make decisions about issues such as pollution and climate change, health care, education, and giving everyone the option of pursuing a STEM career.
GotScience Magazine is a volunteer-powered project of Science Connected. GotScience translates complex research findings into accessible insights on science, nature, and technology. The project has two main components, the first of which is our digital magazine. We collaborate with researchers, publishers, natural history museums, video creators, and citizen scientists to bring reliable, comprehensible science to a broad audience—for free. The second component is the GotScience STEM Education Resource Center, whereby we create collections of articles that have appeared in the magazine and work with curriculum design experts to use those as the core content of supplemental science lessons for US grades 7 through 12.
So, how do we report scientific research findings to the public? First, we flip the structure upside down. The overall structure of an academic paper is the opposite of a short-form news article. Second, we match writers with copy editors to explain any overly technical concepts and words. Third, we include 20 varying degrees of detail, such as references, images and videos, definitions, and supporting research.
We believe that widespread science education and responsible science communication go hand in hand. Below are some of the statistics that motivate our work.
- Only 26 percent of American 12th graders perform at or above grade level in science (NSF, 2014).
- Half of university graduates are women, but only a third of those work in STEM (US Department of Commerce, 2011).
- Minority women make up less than 1 in 10 scientists and engineers (NSF, 2016).
So how are we doing? Pretty well, it turns out. We track the number of articles we’ve published, people who have read the articles, science journalists we’ve mentored, teachers who have downloaded our free guides, and organizational partnerships we’ve established. This data will continue to be collected and reported annually on our website. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, we make all our reports and financials public.
Together, scientists and journalists can build bridges between complex scientific discussions and accessible ideas for the future by delivering comprehensible research findings to the global public. What we’re doing is part popular science magazine, part research journal, part open university, and part citizen science project—adding up to a multimedia effort to empower everyone to develop scientific literacy.
My team and I have set out to achieve these goals: respect scientists and collaborate with them to faithfully report on their work; respect our readers by explaining how research is conducted; never sensationalize or misrepresent research; not report pseudoscience or mistake correlation for causation; not be beholden to advertisers or shareholders; never infringe on anyone’s intellectual property rights. Our goal is simple: to create public access to knowledge of the amazing world of science in which we all live.
Our writers start with press releases from universities, journals, and research groups, then read the full papers, reach out to the scientists with questions, fact-check everything, and write up the results for everyone to read, targeting an 11th grade reading level. We do this in cooperation with scientists, universities, research labs, museums, and publishers, and with the support of our team of copy editors. We also work closely with scientists who want to explain their work to people beyond the scientific community and with people from diverse professional backgrounds who want to practice responsible science communication.
We are working to ensure that all citizens can access science information and education, learn about the world we all share, and participate in meaningful discourse about science, nature, technology, and environmental sustainability. And remember our question about whether people want to know more about science than just sound bites and sensationalism? Yes, people do.
Edited by Bill Sullivan, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.
Author: Kate Stone
National Science Board (2016). Science and engineering indicators 2016. Retrieved from https://nsf.gov/statistics/2016/nsb20161/#/
National Science Foundation (2014). How proficient are U.S. 12th graders in math and science? Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/nsb/sei/edTool/data/highschool-06.html
Reuben, A. (2016). How to read a scientific paper. Science. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2016/01/how-read-scientific-paper
Sagan, C. (1995). The demon-haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Random House.
U.S. Department of Commerce (2011). Women in STEM: A gender gap to innovation. Retrieved from http://www.esa.doc.gov/sites/default/files/womeninstemagaptoinnovation8311.pdf