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Communicating basic science: what goes wrong, why we must do it, and how we can do it better?

By Andreas Prokop, PhD, Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, University of Manchester

 

Is the current scicomm culture a lame duck?

Science communication (scicomm) has become a buzz term in the current science landscape. I fully support its importance and have been a scicomm “activist” for over 6 years, propagating the importance of fundamental biomedical research and the use of the fruit fly (Drosophila) as an important pillar within (see rationale). I have contributed to many science fairs and school visits, organised the Brain Box fair with over 5K visitors, am the driver of the Manchester Fly Facility, the droso4school and co-initiator of the Fly Indonesia scicomm initiatives, am the chair of the science communication committee of Fly Board and the communication officer of the British Society for Developmental Biology running an advocacy campaign together with The Node, maintain 5 websites, have published numerous blogs, papers and outreach resource repositories [LINK], and edited a recent special journal issue on scicomm in the biomedical sciences. However, I still find it difficult to say whether I have made any long-term impact – have I changed any behaviours? For example, my very well-attended plenary talk at a major fruit fly conference aiming to inspire the community about scicomm, was much applauded, but had no impact on viewer metrics of our key resource sites – not even short term. Similarly, it is easy to get carried away by likes and shares when spinning out ideas and resources across social media, but online metrics then usually reveal that very few have actually opened the links they liked or shared! Notwithstanding, I stay a believer in the major opportunities and the urgent need for scicomm, but also that we need to re-think our approaches, as will be explained in the following.

 

A need for multi-faceted dialogue

Defining scicomm and its many different facets is not easy. In my interpretation, it means establishing dialogue (in a variety of modalities) between practicing scientists (called “scientists” from now on) and a wide range of target groups to resolve reciprocal misconceptions, learn from one another and achieve mutual benefit.

Direct engagement of scientists with the wider public is usually done at science fairs, school visits, public presentations, etc. Many of these activities tend to be short-lived one-offs that reach a limited amount of people and, at first glance, may appear to be relatively low on ‘impact.’ However, there are opportunities if we open up to dialogue! Genuine engagement with pupils, teachers or visitors at a science fair can be a sobering exercise: the responses you receive make absolutely clear what topics and arguments come across, excite and are perceived as being important – and it is the “thumbs down” responses which should make us think about our own science! To put it bluntly: if you cannot explain your science and its importance, you either have not thought hard enough and need to refine your explanations, or you are doing the wrong thing and should consider changes in your research direction! If we use scicomm in this way, it will help to align our science with the wider society in the long term; this can be taken even a step further through citizenscience and other forms of actively involving the public in our research. Furthermore, it will provide the refined explanations and elevator pitches with which to advocate our science and engage with journalists to achieve improved and helpful press outlets. Even more, they provide profound rationales and simple narratives that will be as powerful when presenting our own science in grant applications, talks and publications.

Important aspects of scicomm lie in the hands of journalists or teachers. Scientists tend to have little influence on article or school lesson contents, although journalists reach audiences in their millions, and students at schools are the potential future scientists and will constitute and shape the future society which we would wish to embrace science. To engage in true dialogue with schools, scientists (and especially those working in basic research) have a deep understanding of topics that lie at the heart of school education. This offers powerful opportunities to carry the spirit of science into schools and the wider society. However, to do this in meaningful ways, we need to listen to and collaborate with teachers and school policymakers to understand and adapt to the realities of school life and the requirements of teachers. In analogous ways, we must establish efficient dialogue with journalists to achieve high quality outcome with a clear view to press outlets that are mutually beneficial, i.e. exciting and entertaining whilst being scientifically sound and balanced.

Finally, we need dialogue within our science communities. Harmful metrics, counterproductive expectations, bureaucracy, a shift in public opinion, and harmful publishing policies “bully us into bad science” by promoting self-focussed communities and mechanisms that inhibit true progress and passion for science (Lawrence; Cohen; Young; Smaldino; Martínez-Arias; Nerlich). As part of the current adverse developments, basic biomedical research (which is the life-blood for clinical application in the long term) is being sidelined in favour of applied and clinical research expected to generate revenue or quality-of-life improvements in the nearer future. Unfortunately, those few scientists who climbed the podium of success and obtained positions often feel no need to change what works for them, whilst many are kept too busy trying to stay afloat to find the time for taking action. Also here, dialogue offers opportunities to rectify short-term thinking through intelligent and well-framed dialogue with policy makers, funding organisations, publishers, as well as clinicians to achieve inclusion and collaboration towards higher quality science, rather than harmful competition for funding and recognition. Initiatives such as bulliedintobadscience.org (campaigning for a fairer research environment), a collection of essays (unfortunately behind a paywall) and our online campaign (both advocating developmental biology), or a recent eLife article (using history of science and social science arguments to discredit current policies) are good examples of scicomm within science communities.

 

Objective-driven long-term initiatives as an opportunity to establish dialogue

The catalogue of urgent communication tasks waiting to be addressed is impressive, to a degree that sticking our heads in the sand and carrying on as usual seems the only feasible response. As Sam Illingworth and I argued in an F1000R paper, isolated activities by scientists are hardly enough to address these scicomm challenges, also considering that we operate in a rather territorial landscape of scicomm where science and funding organisations, politicians and publishers show little tendency to collaborate and develop common objectives and frameworks. We still believe that scientists can achieve positive developments, but this will require long-term thinking, clear objective-setting and the formation of scicomm networks within research communities, where many little contributions to the gradual development of resource, strategy and implementation, can grow in momentum and achieve a lot for the community.

To show that this is feasible and how it can be put in practice, Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology kindly invited us to publish the special issueScience communication in the field of fundamental biomedical research“, which has generously been given free access status to fulfil its purpose of communication. As is detailed in the editorial, six articles describe objective-driven, long-term initiatives which were set up by biologists to engage in the various kinds of dialogue mentioned above; two articles describe how to develop multi-facetted strategies and resources for wider advocacy and scicomm (one promoting research on fruit flies the other on stem cells); two articles demonstrate how long-term collaboration with teachers and schools can be achieved leading to the design of curriculum-relevant biology lessons for primary schools and secondary schools; and two articles are concerned with dialogue within science communities, i.e. how to establish collaborations between scientist and clinicians and between scientists in Europe and Africa. All these initiatives (and many more are listed in Boxes 1 and 2 of the editorial) demonstrate how long-term objective setting can provide the creative space and time to achieve momentum and impact through gradually developing and improving scicomm strategies and resources, establishing helpful and often interdisciplinary collaborations, developing an online presence and strategies for sustainability (e.g. obtaining funding, achieving recognition and reward). Whilst this is clearly more than can be achieved by isolated scicomm activities, another two articles in our special issue go even a step further by addressing how learned societies can promote scicomm activities and initiatives, and how social platforms (here The Node) can help to create scicomm networks.

 

Achieving collaborations between scientists and academic science communicators

The special issue also addresses another important problem: the numerous and highly creative scicomm initiatives established by biomedical scientists are rarely published by biology or scicomm journals. As a consequence, this rich pool of strategies and resources is not being explained and shared and has little chance to inspire others to participate in scicomm or improve their strategies. Furthermore, those driving the initiatives miss out on publications as the main career currency for academic scientists. As discussed in our editorial, many biology journals seem to fail to see the importance of these initiatives for their field, whereas scicomm journals usually want to see statistical support and evidence (which scientists hardly have the time to deliver). We therefore recommended to authors of our special issue a descriptive and less evidence-based style, with the main objective of sharing experiences and aiming to generate a helpful and much needed scicomm strategy resource.

Many of these scicomm initiatives were developed out of individual intuition, thus providing colourful diversity. This offers fantastic opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration with academic science communicators (called “communicators” from now on). For example, by comparing and contrasting initiatives, communicators might identify new strategies that work well in practice, and through collaboration with scientists they would have opportunities to test and apply theoretical concepts in practical application. This, in turn, would introduce scientists to academic concepts of scicomm (and make them aware that such concepts even exist!), thus further enriching their strategy pools. To facilitate the latter, two articles in our special issue provide advice on general scicomm practice and on evaluation; these are written by communicators in a language accessible to non-specialists – further highlighting the current problem that field-specific publication styles can form a barrier to interdisciplinary collaboration.

In conclusion, the challenges of making science an integral part of society requires unremitting dialogue in many directions for which scientists hardly find the time. However, the strategies highlighted here provide solutions by focussing on long-term strategies, clear objective-setting, interdisciplinary collaboration and, ultimately, the formation of scicomm networks sharing resources and workload and maximising the outcome. As mentioned above, I still find it difficult to measure potential impact regarding my own participation in scicomm. However, I also feel that more and more people start lending their support (see our impact document) and maintain the hope that persistent continuation with our initiatives will lead to the necessary dynamics that will eventually result in the formation of scicomm networks with a realistic chance of achieving a better understanding and acceptance of basic biomedical research in society.

The author would like to thank Sam Illingworth and Aidan Maartens for helpful comments on this manuscript, Sanjai Patel for being a reliable brother-in-arms throughout the years, many other collaborators that can not all be named here, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Faculty of Biology, Medicine & Health (Manchester) for continued support of the outreach initiatives.

 

 

Andreas Prokop is Professor of Cellular and Developmental Neurobiology at the Faculty of Biology,Medicine & Health (Manchester). He studies the mechanisms that form and then maintain nerves for the lifetime of an organism, relating to aspects of ageing and neuro-degeneration. For this, he uses the fruit fly Drosophila as experimental object (see a recent school article). Through his role as academic head of the Manchester Fly Facility and communication officer of the British Society for Developmental Biology, he started systematic initiatives of science communication advocating Drosophila research and Developmental Biology, as is detailed in the blog post.

 


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Discussion
  1. […] At the Manchester Fly Facility, however, there is a team of scientists who actively make time. They do so, because they believe firmly and passionately in the importance and benefits of engagement, for both the general public, formal education, and the wider scientific community, and this is clearly spelled out in their “Vision, Mission, Purpose” statement, as well as in a recent PLoS blog. […]

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