By Elizabeth Zale, BA
Among the insights relayed during ComSciCon 2019’s Science Policy Panel, an important take-home message rang clear:
What defines a good scientist is changing.
It is no longer sufficient to execute precise bench work, reach statistical significance, and publish academic articles. In order to keep our research funded and our work valued at all levels of society, we need to become more effective communicators.
In addition to sharing our research with experts in our own disciplines—something most of us do already—we need to reach out to scientists in other disciplines, as well as non-scientists. This can help generate higher awareness and more interest among the public in our research. It is our responsibility to inform society about our work, which any taxpayer has a right to know.
- Respect Your Audience
It is a misconception among scientists that distilling our research into jargon-free explanations cheapens the work. In reality, developing the skills to explain even the most technical science in a direct manner is empowering and liberating to the rationale behind the research.
As Cynthia Bartel, PhD, an Atkinson Center Postdoctoral Fellow, points out, this process is unfortunately often characterized as “dumbing it down” — a phrase rampant in the scientific community. “It’s insulting to your audience,” she insists, because it disregards the reality that everyone has “different expertise.”
In other words, if a non-scientist cannot understand our research, it is a mistake to assume it is their failing. “Effective communication takes work,” stresses Maryam Zaringhalam, PhD and AAAS Science & Technology Fellow. “Treat your peers as your audience, hone your skills on them.”
- Ask Questions
When engaging with scientific skeptics, it is important to avoid getting defensive—a reaction that is alienating and damaging to our educational goals. “Science is not a platform to prove you’re smarter,” warns Teresa Stoepler, PhD and director of the InterAcademy Partnership for Policy.
Instead of telling people what to think, Dr. Zaringhalam suggests asking questions of skeptical audiences “to get at the root of their beliefs.” She further cautions that groups such as anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers “aren’t a monolith.” Rather, Dr. Zaringhalam reminds scientists that historically marginalized groups have a warranted distrust of the scientific community.
- Keep it Brief
Brevity is potent, especially when it comes to policy settings.
Dr. Bartel’s time on the Capitol Hill taught her that “even a one-minute pitch is too long.” To grab the attention of representatives, we must be able to explain our research “in fifteen seconds, in the clearest capacity.”
Given the low numbers of voting members of Congress who hail from STEM backgrounds, journalist Jay Branegan argues that this is an opportunity for scientists to speak truth to power. “Congressmen who know nothing about science require that scientists help guide them,” he opines.
- Leave the Ivory Tower
Academia relies on scientists’ ability to question and critique, as does our democracy.
We need to leverage our expertise to foster evidence-based thinking in our legislators and fellow voters. As Dr. Bartel reminds us, “people are already, in their observations and concerns, citizen scientists.”
It is imperative that we expand the definition of a “good scientist” to someone who is accessible to the public and can communicate in simple yet effective language. Moving forward, let us invite skeptics to the conversation, instead of calling them out.
Let us strive to ask questions that are powerful enough to bring out anyone’s inner scientist.
Call to Action
In order to practice exerting these civic duties, Drs. Stoepler and Zaringhalam advise:
- Call your representatives: house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative
- Comment on open policy proposals: regulations.gov
- Write blog posts: blogs.plos.org/thestudentblog
- Apply for fellowships: aaas.org/programs/mass-media-fellowship; aaas.org/programs/science-technology-policy-fellowships
Thanks for reading.
About the author: Elizabeth Zale is a second year PhD student studying Immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine and Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City. Previously, she obtained a B.A. in Biological Sciences from the University of Chicago. Her interests lie at the intersection of research science and social justice.