Sunday, October 28, 2012

For the love of science! (Or, why we need science communication)

Science in Australia is often referred to be being "under attack", not only because of the pressures of finding funding and establishing a career, but because there are so many issues where people don't understand the science behind a particular problem. Examples of current issues include genetic modification of food crops, vaccination against disease, and climate change. Despite strong scientific evidence, hundreds of studies, and a general scientific consensus on each of these issues, there are vocal opponents of each. Whilst questions and concerns surrounding each of these issues are valid, there is often strong evidence that can allay these concerns, if only we could communicate the science.

Science is a mystery to most people. Perhaps that is because it is never explained in terms that are easily understandable, because people have never learnt how to think scientifically, or because science in something that only super smart, lab-coated scientists do, a job as cloaked in secrets, mystery and bafflement as that of wizards or solicitors. Science never makes the headlines unless it is controversial, dangerous, or about to cure us of a disease. Of course, once you read past the headline, the message is usually less spectacular than first claimed, but people often don't know how much to believe, and take stories at face value. We can tell people that our work is important, but this means nothing if they do not understand how that work is important. I strongly believe that we need people that can reach out and fill that gap, retrieving science from complex, jargon-filled journals and hyperbolic news articles, and presenting it in a way that is accurate and easy to understand for everyone. We need to demystify the science.

By talking to school students about our science, we can begin to challenge those perceptions of science as being like some secret society. By showing students how science can relate to their day-to-day life, introducing them to science in a way that is interesting and approachable, we can begin to foster a higher level of scientific literacy in Australia. By taking the time to talk to our political representatives, explaining our projects and their implications for society, the effect of see-saw policies on the ability to conduct our research, we can begin to move toward sustainable, proactive science policy that will benefit not only Australia, but the international community. By engaging with the media, communicating with journalists about our work, learning to write for a broader audience, and changing the habit of portraying every scientist as wearing a labcoat whilst gazing meaningfully at vials, we can engage with our audience, and open dialogue with those that will eventually benefit from our work: the community.

The way we as scientists communicate with the public needs to evolve. Science for scientists is no longer a viable strategy, and simply causes more confusion in our already conflicted society. We need to learn to explain our science to anyone who has an interest, and attempt to encourage those who don't. We need to use whatever resources are open to us, be it newspaper, blog, Twitter, podcast, or the local pub. We need to write, we need to talk, but most importantly, we need to listen. 

We need to take science to the people.

Neysa xo

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