Science communication, or “SciComm” for short, is in a state of punctuated equilibrium. And, if you don’t know what that means, then perhaps we’re not doing our jobs as scientists and science communicators.
Punctuated equilibrium is the idea that evolution proceeds quickly after long periods of relative stability in response to rapidly changing environmental conditions. SciComm is undergoing a rapid burst of evolution – it is changing a whole lot in a very short amount of time in response to a changing environment. The internet and social media offer extraordinary new tools to bring the meaning and importance of scientific discoveries to the masses. But, because many scientists have been a little slow to join this party, some fields have been overrun with misinformation, alternative facts, and conspiracy theories.
We all turn to multiple sources for information: friends, the internet, social media. Too often, these sources lack input from an expert voice. As scientists, we aim to advance knowledge and solve problems. An often neglected, but equally important, part of our job is to communicate our work to scientists in other fields, to policymakers, and to the non-scientists who fund our research through their tax dollars.
As our fields have become more complex, some Americans have given up trying to understand what we do, leading to scientific illiteracy (which has real-world consequences for people and our planet). At the same time, we have a new movement of citizen scientists who want to be engaged and involved, but can’t find the pathways to do that. The gaps between beliefs of scientists and non-scientists are wide. We, as scientists, have to do a better job of communicating science.
Communicating is easy; to do it well is hard. Not only do we need to spread the word about our discoveries, we also need to engage non-scientists in a conversation and exchange ideas on a human level, building empathy and trust. As a group, we generally fail at this because we aren’t trained with the tools necessary to become effective communicators. We use too much jargon, fail to provide sufficient background, (often mistakenly) assume what our audiences know, don’t know, and want to know. It is no surprise that people don’t understand us! As many of us have seen, this frustration can devolve into a general mistrust of intellectuals and scientists, fanning a flame of skepticism for the scientific process itself.
We hope to bridge this gap in several ways by using the #SciCommPLOS blog as an outlet for effective science communication. Our two major goals are:
- to highlight interesting and impactful science in accessible ways, and
- to teach scientists about the art of storytelling as an effective means to communicate science.
We hope to build bridges between scientists and the general public, by explaining why science is cool and important and meaningful and necessary. We hope to convey our enthusiasm for science as a process and a way of seeing the world.
Now, a little about our team…
Bill Sullivan co-founded a science blog in 2014 called THE ‘SCOPE, which examines the science behind popular culture. Jason Organ was an avid reader of this blog until he discovered that Bill’s office was literally down the hall. At that point, Jason begged Bill to give him a shot at writing for THE ‘SCOPE, and a great partnership was founded. At about the same time, Jason had established his own science outreach blog, Eatlemania!, which describes the natural history of animals being eaten by the flesh-eating (dermestid) beetle colony in his lab (Bill was thrilled to learn these creepy crawlies were just a few steps away from his office…ick). Both of these blogs were established as means for becoming better communicators of science – and we’d like to think it has helped considerably! But Jason was further bitten by the #SciComm bug when he stumbled upon the work of Krista Hoffmann-Longtin, who is an expert in teaching communication, and specifically, in using innovative experiential activities (like improvisational theater) to enhance science communication. All three of us are now actively engaging scientists in ways to improve communication by co-teaching courses and workshops at the Indiana University School of Medicine and IUPUI. We are looking forward to using #SciCommPLOS to showcase the importance of science and effective science communication, and sharing a lot of awesome science along the way. More information about each of us is below. Please do get in touch!
Krista Hoffmann-Longtin, PhD
Krista Hoffmann-Longtin is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies in the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, and an Assistant Dean in the Indiana University School of Medicine Office of Faculty Affairs and Professional Development. Her work focuses on communication education, faculty development, and organizational/professional identity. In 2016, Krista was highlighted by the Indianapolis Business Journal as one of their Forty Under 40 young professionals to watch. Prior to earning her graduate degrees, Krista worked for The Weather Channel and Indiana Public Radio. She’s not a native Hoosier, but she did the tour of Indiana schools earning a BA from Ball State University, an MA in from Purdue University, and a PhD from Indiana University. Her work has been published in Academic Medicine, To Improve the Academy, and the Journal of Faculty Development. Follow Krista: Website, Twitter.
Jason Organ, PhD
Jason Organ is Associate Professor of Anatomy, Cell Biology & Physiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, where his research examines how bone and muscle structure influences how they work. Jason earned his MA in Anthropology from the University of Missouri and his PhD in Functional Anatomy & Evolution from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He has published over 25 peer-reviewed research papers on evolutionary and mechanical adaptations of bone and muscle in scientific journals and over 40 peer-reviewed teaching modules in digital human anatomy references. Jason also has consulted for several science outreach programs including Inside Nature’s Giants and Minute Earth. He recently served as a member of the Board of Directors of the American Association of Anatomists and used this position to advocate for the importance of effective science communication and public outreach. Follow Jason Twitter.
Bill Sullivan, PhD
Bill Sullivan is the Showalter Professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology and Microbiology & Immunology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, where he studies gene expression in infectious diseases. Bill earned his PhD in Molecular & Cell Biology from the University of Pennsylvania. Bill has published over 70 academic papers in scientific journals and written articles for Scientific American, Scientific American MIND, Salon.com, GotScience.org, WhatIsEpigenetics.com, Dumb Little Man, ASBMB Today, and more. Bill also serves on the Advisers Team for the Epigenetics Literacy Project. Bill’s research has been featured in popular press outlets including IFLScience, ScienceDaily, Fierce Biotech Research, Disease Buzz, and more. He has been interviewed by CNN Health, the Indianapolis Star, the Examiner, Medical Daily, and The Scientist. He has appeared on Science Update with Bob Hirshon, Dr. Mike’s SciComm podcast, and SWR2 German Public Radio, and served as a consultant for the Everyday Elements program on YouTube. Follow Bill: Laboratory website, Facebook, Twitter.
The Public Library of Science (PLOS) is a nonprofit publisher and advocacy organization founded to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication. Stay connected to #SciCommPLOS by following us on Twitter.