The Current State of Science Communication
The word ‘communication’ is an overused power-word. When it is uttered, everyone will respond in unison. It is such a vague word that everybody can relate to in one sense or another.
For scientists, most will agree that:
- concise ‘communication’ is key when publishing journals, re-checking each draft before finalising it.
- They may also ‘communicate’ when applying for grants, simplifying their abstract to receive funding
- It is essential when they ‘communicate’ to a conference of fellow specialists.
- And they may also see the importance of ‘communicating’ science to the public.
But the brutal truth is, most of them do not see the value of using their time to ‘communicate’ their knowledge to the general public.
Take Professor Smith (not his real name) who teaches me Biochemistry. In class, he often convinces us to take a Master’s level Science Communication class:
“Believe me, this is one of the best classes going around in the university. If you go onto research, suggest to your supervisor that this is a really good subject to enroll in”
I would get all excited and bubbly, only to find out later when I ask him if he has a blog or do any public teaching, he replied bluntly, “unfortunately, I don’t have any time to communicate science to the public”.
Does he not see the irony?!
His whole career is based around ‘communicating‘ his knowledge to others. While he has the time to ‘communicate’ things that he believes are of higher value, like applying for grants, teaching lectures, writing drafts, peer-reviewing other articles, he does not have time to ‘communicate’ to the public!
The current state of science communication is not just limited to Professor Smith. Scientists recognise the importance of communicating their research findings to the lay public. In fact, 97% of scientists understand the advantages of the public learning about science, but only 56% of scientists actually ‘communicated’ science in any way in the year before.
The gap in scientists participating in science communication is troublesome – because scientists need to know that the public have a great interest in learning about science. Contrary to common belief, interest into Cancer and the Curiosity rover are greater than footy, Pauline Hanson and Brad Pitt. There is not a lack of interest into science, but the public are poorly informed because science ‘communicated’ by researchers are full of jargon that makes it difficult to read. 74% Victorians reported that their interest in science would be greater if it was, well, simpler.
Perhaps scientists need to know about the opinions from their peers. One metric scientists use to judge their research is through the amount of citations their paper receives. Well guess what? 12%, 27% and 32% of medicine, natural science and social science articles are not cited respectively. If all scientists care about is the ‘communication’ that takes place in a professional environment within the scientific community, surely more people will read it? Sadly, use of scientific jargon has been increasing, making papers harder and harder and harder to comprehend.
I guess most scientists aren’t even good ‘communicators’ in their own field. And that needs to change.