Reaching Out: The Uphill Battle to Institutionalize Science Communication
Early in December 2012, I was invited to speak at one of the largest and most diverse scientific conferences in the United States, the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting. This year, 20,000 scientists, students, researchers and media experts descended on San Francisco, California to discuss everything from chemical cycles occurring in the earth’s crust, to the atmospheres of distant planets.
I had been invited there to speak about science communication and in particular, a course and science speaker series I helped to co-develop in 2009 called “Engage”. However, I am a plant ecologist with no ties to geophysics (other than the fact that plants often live in dirt) and so most of the scientific talks were either irrelevant, or inaccessible to me. It wasn’t that the talks and posters weren’t interesting (atmospheres around extra-solar planets?!) but they were often full of jargon, equations and complex graphs. Granted, I was way outside of my scientific field, but I think this inaccessibility at a very interdisciplinary conference really highlights an issue of burning importance in the scientific community.
Scientists, on the whole, are rather terrible at sharing their research with anyone outside of their immediate field. And I am certainly not the first to say that this is a serious problem. We are, as the old proverb (or curse…) goes, “living in interesting times”. And unfortunately, in these interesting times, the stakes for life and all of its diversity are high.
On the issue of climate change, there is incredible consensus amongst experts that the climate is, in fact, changing in a way that is unprecedented in earth’s history. And yet, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2011, only 63% of people believed there was solid evidence that the earth was warming, and only 38% of those believed it was due to human activity. This disconnect between what scientific research shows and what the public believe, is apparent in other areas of science as well. A 2009 Pew survey found that while 87% of scientists agreed that evolution by natural selection is the process shaping life on earth (a disappointingly low percentage, in my opinion), only 32% of the general public agreed; a nearly equal proportion believed that life had been created as-is since the beginning of time (31%).
Something is wrong. And I am sorry to say that, in this case, it is scientists that are wrong. Despite having all of the evidence, and all of the expertise, we have apparently failed to share this information with the general public in any sort of convincing manner. And perhaps most disappointingly, according to Pew Research, scientists feel that this is largely a failing of the public (85% of polled scientists feel that the public “doesn’t know very much about science”).
Which brings me back to my talk at AGU. As I mentioned before, I was invited there to speak in a special session organized around improving education in science outreach and communication. For those who are unfamiliar, organized sessions are kind of a big deal. Typically, sessions are organized because the topic is timely, and of critical importance. AGU had gone out of its way to promote this session, asking AGU directors to attend. And the session was packed full of excellent presentations by faculty and students from some of the top universities in the United States. Fantastic courses bridging the gap between scientific research and outreach had been implemented all over, using unique and innovative curricula. One intrepid graduate student from Stanford, Mike Osborn, has incorporated new media into his course, simultaneously teaching students how to talk about science, interview senior scientists and stitch it all together into a publicly available free podcast. This is the cutting edge!
And yet, despite the incredible speakers, the vigorous promotion, the acknowledgement by AGU that science communication is critical, the attendance at the session was absolutely dismal. The audience was mainly composed of other speakers in the session and attendees with active ties to the science communication field. At most, there were perhaps 50 people in the audience, sitting in a room with enough chairs for 200. At the end of the session, the organizer asked whether any directors were in the audience; director count: 0. According to my experience and of the other speakers, this is not an uncommon occurrence for science communication sessions.
In these interesting times, when “the only home we have ever known” is changing in a way that might make life on earth far more difficult, scientists are failing to express the urgency of this situation. And while I earlier faulted scientists for this failing, the real culprit is the scientific system itself. Science outreach is, clearly, not a priority. Scientists are not rewarded for outreach, or for making their work accessible. Often, there is no opportunity for graduate students (who ultimately become scientists) to receive any training in how to effectively communicate their research. And when those opportunities do exist, graduate students may be dissuaded from taking advantage of that training by their advisors, who see it as a waste of time and funding dollars.
This viewpoint is slowly changing, but it is an uphill battle. As funding dollars and public interest in science decrease, the institutions which train and employ scientists are becoming aware that barricading the doors of the Ivory Tower isn’t working anymore. Open access journals are flourishing, and in some progressive schools, science communication is moving to the forefront of graduate education. The University of Washington College of the Environment, the new home of the “Engage” course and speaker series, is just such a school. Improving science communication training is one of their stated goals; so much so, that they were willing to fund my trip to AGU to share the word about “Engage”, and to fund a graduate student instructor for the “Engage” course, a job which previously had been done on a strictly voluntary basis. The College of the Environment has made the choice to acknowledge and legitimize the role of science communication training for scientists. Hopefully, other institutions will follow suit, this making these “interesting times” merely proverbial, rather than cursed.