Calling all Brave Travelers

May 28 2013 Published by under Academia, Activism

I want to talk to the scientists out there who are doing world-shaking work. Hello? Does anybody know your names?

So begins yet another "call to arms" for scientists. We aren't communicating, we aren't getting out there and making Star Trek-like movies about the inner biology of the cell (which I would TOTALLY watch and help with, btw), and this is, entirely, our fault.

I like a lot of these calls to arms. I think they are important, as many scientists still hide away, convinced that in times of difficult funding, they just need to, you know, submit two grants per cycle instead of one, and well aware that they do not get anything professionally out of giving a TED talk. Scientists get no direct benefits from sci comm, making the long-term benefits much less salient. But while I think they are important, the details of some of these calls bug me. The current example is no exception.

So to this latest piece on Medium, here is my response to your question:

"I want to talk to the people who think they can fix the Science PR problem by getting all scientists to do [X]*. Hello? Have you been on the internet lately?"

*Where [X] is one thing, say, that all scientists should blog or should all communicate in some manner. I personally believe that we could fix it all with all Nobel Prize Winners sitting for LOLcat photo shoots, but then, I know I'm too idealistic.

The author of the Medium post thought he was telling us all to communicate more. Despite the popularity of TED talks, the popularity of science blogs, the Mythbusters, most people just aren't interested in science. Obviously this is no good, we need people to think science worth investing in, for the sake of more research, more knowledge about the world, more cures, and more solutions to extract ourselves from the messes our species likes to get in. But science is not popular, and the author suggests that this is because scientists have not invested in pop culture. What the author believes is needed is that the big name scientists, who are doing "world-shaking work" get out there and spread the good word of science.

I'm all for spreading the good word (I spend a lot of time doing it, after all). But there were several things in this article that gave me some raised, skeptical eyebrows.

Here we go:

1) So many people are doing it right. 

There are loads of science communicators out there. Some of them are scientists by profession. Some are journalists. Some are neither. Many are excellent at what they do. The article is peppered with references to these things: blogs (though it only references ScienceBlogs and SciAm via Bora, which makes me wonder just how much research was done before concluding the terrible state of science communication), TED talks, TV shows, books. Not to mention the many outlets of science communication which were probably unknown to the author (or at least unmentioned): youtube channels (far more than just the one viral video, there are youtube channels of science that go on for years) and story colliders and podcasts (there ARE science radio shows other than RadioLab! NPR's Science Friday is just one of many examples). And so I wonder why all of these things are so readily dismissed as not being effective enough? Of course we need more science communication, but for an article that was complaining of a dearth of outreach, there were a LOT of links.

And as many people keep saying, over and over, there is more to science outreach than Hollywood. There is more to science outreach than getting Einsteins and Brian Cox to to pose in leather jackets. There is more to science outreach than school children, and there is more to science outreach than the internet. All of these things are science outreach. All of them are needed. And there are MORE than scientists to do them. There are people who specialize in science communication, who really do put a lot of effort into getting it right. They may not be the biggest scientific fish in the sea, but why does that matter? There are many brave science travelers out there, many of them brave pioneers, blazing new trails in new forms of media. Bloggers, videomakers, storytellers, artists. Let's call for more brave travelers, but let's also acknowledge that many already exist, and are busy doing excellent work. In many of these calls to arms, it almost seems as though current efforts (though often mentioned), are being dismissed. Yeah, those are good, but if BIG NAME scientists did it it would be better. We need another Carl Sagan! Not these other people who's names we don't know yet.

The piece felt more than a little dismissive of the many efforts out there, in part because of the premise:

2. We need big name scientists to do the outreach.

The author wants those big guns, the people doing world-shaking work. He wants them out communicating their science. I have to say, in some cases, I totally agree, but in many cases, I don't. Not all scientists SHOULD be communicating. We all know that people differ. Some are social and would be great at outreach. Some are like your great uncle Earl* and should never be put in front of a camera for fear of the horrible things that are going to fall out of their mouths (live spiders or racist epithets, you decide!). Some fall in between, maybe they are just kind of awkward in front of a camera. Or maybe, and this may come as a surprise, they are doing world-shaking work because that's what they really want to be doing, and communicating about it is the last thing they are interested in. And maybe, in some cases, we should leave them to it.

After all, as I mentioned above, there are some GREAT communicators out there, scientists, journalists, and many other professions. Communicators who can serve as a bridge, who tell us what science is up to, and do it in a fantastically awesome way! I would hate to see these excellent communicators dismissed in favor of putting scientists in front of cameras when all they have to offer is a Nobel Prize and jargon-filled phrases (obviously, not all of them are that way, many aren't! And jargon is sometimes necessary).

And all this emphasis on these BIG names bothers me more than that. Big names are fine. Everyone wants someone to look up to. But small name researchers make great communicators too. I know I'm not winning any big prizes soon, but I'd like to think I write a witty, educational blog post now and again. Why is fame the most important thing here? Why do we need a big scientific name? Why can't we make our names, say, through the outreach we do (and some solid, but perhaps lesser known science)? If no one knows who these big names scientists are anyway (as the article implies), then why is it necessary that they be the ones to do the outreach? After all, many of the science communication success stories the author cites GOT THEIR NAMES through their outreach. Who were the Mythbusters...before Mythbusters? No one outside his field knew who Neil deGrasse Tyson was before he started doing outreach. These people made their names THROUGH their outreach. The emphasis on Big Names that are ALREADY big seems really elitist.

And the emphasis on Big Networks is a bit old school.  Yes we all flock to the theaters to watch Twilight, but the demographics of most TV stations and radio stations are growing steadily older. In contrast, the internet is drawing more and more people in, of all ages. So why do we need to go to Hollywood? Hollywood is nice, but the internet stands a good chance of succeeding, too.

When it comes down to it, I agree with the basic premise, we could always use more science communication. But before saying that we need more Brian Coxes or Carl Sagans, those who propose these sweeping claims should take a look around. We are here! We are here, we are communicating as hard as we can, and doing it in a wonderful variety of ways. There are hundreds of science bloggers alone (let alone those on other platforms, like, say, Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr), and many are in high profile "Big Media" organizations like SciAm, Discover, National Geographic's Phenomena, Slate, Wired, the Guardian, the Smithsonian, Forbes, SciLogs, PLoS. There are even more great organizations that are more independent, like this here Scientopia, Field of Science, Southern Fried Science, Lab Spaces, Freethought blogs, Occam's Typewriter, CENTral science, DoubleXScience, I could GO ON. And that's not even including the many truly excellent independent science bloggers who choose not to be affiliated with networks, but still manage to make large impacts in science communication. There's an entire spreadsheet from the most recent Science Online meeting on other science outreach projects. Some of us are really popular and incredibly creative! Dismissing our work out of hand is not just uninformed, it's kind of insulting. Call for more brave travelers, but take note: some of us have already joined the caravan.

FINAL NOTE: Some of my ideas for this post came from Twitter, particularly conversations from Karen James and others. Thanks to Karen for making the Storify!!

*Note: I do not have a great uncle Earl.

[View the story "Reactions to @docuguy's post 'Why Science Needs Help Talking About Itself'" on Storify]

14 responses so far

  • Geoff says:

    Disagree that not all scientists should be communicating. Sure, not everyone should be in front of a camera. But as you point out, there are lots of different outlets: some scientists are great writers; some are great teachers; some are musicians (go Chris Hadfield!). Dissuading the great uncle Earl types will only encourage exactly what you are trying to avoid, namely having only "science superstars" be the faces and voices of science, while also perpetuating the stereotype of nerdy, anti-social scientists. Things will only get better when EVERYONE is on board (which will have the added bonus of getting rid of these "we need to start doing better outreach!" posts)

    • scicurious says:

      A fair point, Geoff. But I also wonder...why do all scientists NEED to communicate? Can't some just be there on bring your parent to school day? Or just be there recruiting students for summer lab work? I think that if all scientists should communicate, we should definitely accept that not all will communicate in the same way. Some would rather not. We have science communicators to make up for those people. Is that a terrible thing?

    • scicurious says:

      Also, this is making me think more. What does it MEAN when we say "all scientists should communicate"? Usually it's couched in terms of things like "all scientists should tweet" or "all scientists should blog". And that's something I really think is kind of silly. But if we couch "communicate" in wider terms: go to the school fair, agree to speak to journalists, etc, it seem extremely sensible, of course they should all communicate!

      But there's also the question: what do they get out of it. We're all motivated by salient rewards. Grant writing gets grants (in theory). Paper writing gets faculty position which in turn gets grant fodder and grants (in theory). Service is rewarded by the institution, but extends only to committees for the institution. Teaching similar. Can we get institutions to require or reward outreach, and if you do, how do you measure it?

  • Geoff says:

    Well I guess what I meant by "communicate" was "talk to someone or someones outside of the lab." It doesn't take much: I used to chat with the janitors and dish washers on my floor about what I did in the lab, completely informally. There are a multitude of outlets, so we should encourage (train?) researchers to use whichever they feel most comfortable doing. Small or large, it all has an impact.

    Definitely agree that science communications are critical, especially since they (you) do such a good job of turning the minutia of science into something interesting. But Ed Yong's piece from last week ( brings up another good point: communicators can only work with what they are given. If a scientist can't translate enough excitement or enthusiasm about their own research for a press release or scientifically-focused article, that's a major problem. Simply getting people better at doing that would have a huge impact, and would (hopefully) create some small bit of momentum towards broader science communication efforts.

    More formally, however, communication is in fact something that IS necessary, seeing that the majority of scientists are funded by the federal government, meaning (by extension) every tax-paying citizen. I mean, as a taxpayer, I sure want to know that my money is being well-spent. Every grant starts off with something along the lines of "this research is important because it will cure cancer blah blah blah." Shouldn't that be more than BS? Isn't it in fact a form of science communication?

    As for the question of motivation, that clearly is a longer-term issue. We are working to push administrations to at least recognize the value of outreach/sci-com, which I feel is the first step towards getting some sort of official recognition. It will still be a hard sell to the majority of researchers, but I think baby steps is the proper approach here. The system isn't ready for a large-scale change in approach (yet). Also have another outlet up my sleeve. Stay tuned...

    • Janne says:

      "Well I guess what I meant by "communicate" was "talk to someone or someones outside of the lab." It doesn't take much: I used to chat with the janitors and dish washers on my floor about what I did in the lab, completely informally."

      With that kind of criterion, I frankly don't know a single scientist that doesn't already communicate. We talk with our spouses, commisserate with our friends, chat with extended family and neighbours.

      If that's what it takes then Mission Accomplished, Job Well Done, Ice Cream for Everybody! Of course, I suspect that wasn't the aim of the original author.

      And I also believe many researchers are not really able or willing to do more than that; and should not be forced to. You don't demand of every phycisian, policeman, firefighter or brewer that they have a media prescence or spend time explaining their work to the public. They leave it to representatives that have the interest, ability and resources to do a good job.

  • Thanks for writing about my article on Medium. I'm not sure, but it seems like you are suggesting that I think all scientists should be bloggers or at least have their own TV shows. Well, no. Not everybody is so great at blogging, or at TV. Luckily, there are lots of channels out there now for science and for scientists, channels we might not have thought to use, even a few years ago. NASAs Instagram feed is looking like a great idea. There are some impressive YouTube videos out there that give a pretty good shot at explaining complex things.

    Science doesn't need to be a soundbite or to be 'pop' to have broad appeal, and the person creating the media doesn't have to be famous at all. They just need access to a channel with broad appeal. But, some may ask, who cares about broad appeal? I think you need to aim for broad appeal if you want to get more science into the national conversation.

    Some will always look at promotion or self-promotion with the same sort of expression they reserve for cleaning the septic tank out back. Somebody has to do it, and hopefully not them. But, as is often repeated these days, we're all in the communications business now. If more scientists participated (because it was fun and because they wanted to) it would increase the level of science awareness in the world. It would bring more science and science thinking into the (inter)national conversation. I don't see how that's bad. There will always be scientists who don't want to reach a broad audience and that's just fine. But for those scientists who do want to reach out, why not make it easier, suggest ways to do it, and help?

  • Karen James says:

    Lee, thanks for responding here and on Twitter. Unfortunately your original post seemed a lot more aggressive towards us scientists than these more recent (and more thoughtful) comments, and that's what we're responding to.

  • Barkeron says:

    We don't need to turn science into a multi-million entertainment franchise, we need politicians who redirect the BILLIONS of taxpayer dollars away from the pathologically bloated military-industrial complex and invest it into the scientific community!

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