Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Scientist’s Obligation to Public Communication

Get out there and share your science! Source
I recently had the opportunity to attend a talk given by the popular and insightful Vincent Racaniello. For those of you who don’t know, Vincent is a virologist who made significant advances in Polio research, but has since taken on science communication and outreach later in his career. He is the host of the popular podcasts TWIM, TWIVTWIP, and Urban Agriculture. On a more personal note, Vincent has been one of my role models in my endeavors in science outreach and communication, including this blog.

I jumped at the chance to hear Vincent talk about his experiences and insights into science communication and outreach, as well as blogging and podcasting. I took away some helpful points both about the general obligation scientists have to communicate their experiences with the public and about making that communication as effective as possible. For this post, I want to separately appeal to the two categories of readers: the scientists and the non-scientists. For the scientists, I want to encourage you to start communicating your science to the public, and use some of Vincent’s pointers that I outline here. For the non-scientists, I want to “lift the veil” and give you an idea of the things scientists need to think more about, and how we want to better our communication with you.

1. Scientists are Publicly Funded

The public funds science for the most part. In my field of biomedicine, most research dollars are coming from taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This is also true for the National Science Foundation and other government granting agencies that provide a financial foundation for research. Because the public is funding research, and our livelihoods as scientists, it is our duty as researchers to give the resulting knowledge back. Additionally, and quite frankly, the public should be demanding this information of scientists, because it is the product of public funds.

2. Help Improve Scientific Literacy

Scientific literacy in the US remains low, and part of the blame rests on the shoulders of scientists. Scientists honestly like to hide away to perform their research in peace, and often fail to inform the public about their work as a result. This can promote a “just trust me attitude” by researchers who feel they don’t have to explain themselves because they know they know what is best. The problem is this results in a knowledge gap that promotes scientific illiteracy. Reaching out to the public is a great way to start closing the gap.

3. Don’t Be Afraid of Getting Technical

Science and math are near the top of the list of topics
people feel should be emphasized more in K-12
school. Source
Now we are getting more into the practical information for effective science communication. One point Vincent mentioned was that we should not be afraid to get a little technical in our blogs, podcasts, or whatever. There is a temptation to keep our public discussions in absolute layman terms, but many readers want to learn. Therefore, we should not be afraid to include a little technical information so that readers have a chance to dive deeper into science. It is also important to note that the inclusion of resources for further learning should still be included in the learning process.

4. Control the Information

There is little doubt among the scientific community that there is a lot of misinformation out there. Unfortunately this often comes from mainstream media who hypes science beyond its potentials or capabilities. An example is the constant promise of new drugs to treat aging, cancer, etc, without mention that these are often works in progress and will likely take many years of further work before a drug is available. By writing and communicating science, us scientists, who are often bigger experts on these topics, can provide more accurate and compelling sources of research information.

5. Publish Regularly

The last point I wanted to make was that Vincent stressed the importance of publishing regularly. He has found that podcasts that release episodes on set days have a greater following, likely as a result of listeners having a schedule for accessing the information. I am ending on this point because I think this is a great idea and I would love to try implementing this on my blog. Now maintaining a blog is a lot of hard work, but a regular posting schedule would be a really great way to keep this all more consistent. Therefore, I am going to try an experiment of publishing a blog post every week on Sunday. This way you always know when to expect new material, and I have a schedule I am forced to stick to. We will see how this goes.

So to finish up, there is a lot more to be done with communication in the scientific field. Scientists need to honor our obligation to reach out to the public, inform with solid science, and make the world a better place through constant dialog. To the non-scientists, you need to demand more information of the scientific community, and try to become more active as a non-professional participant in our global scientific endeavors. There is still a lot to be done, but right now we need to start taking those first steps in the right direction.


  1. Don't forget
    I look forward to the weekly posts---I liked the recent one on OneNote.

  2. Hi Steen,

    You are totally right. I updated the post to include it. :)

    And thanks for the feedback, I really appreciate it.