Thursday, April 23, 2015
Scientists in all fields engage in a series of steps to communicate the science.
1) Research: Yes, scientists have to do research. Usually a lot of it. Generally this starts with a literature review to see what other scientists have published before. What are the key questions that need to be asked...and hopefully answered? How and why is this research potentially important? Scientists do the research, conduct the studies, and collect the data.
2) Analyze the Data: In these days of supercomputers, satellites, and "big data," the amount of information may be massive. All of that has to be analyzed. Sometimes this can take years. Generally there are teams of researchers working on a project. This can be especially true when that project consists of data collected from all over the world, from satellites, from oceanic transponders, from ice cores, and from potentially hundreds of other places.
3) Attend Conferences: An integral part of communicating the science is attendance at scientific conferences. Thousands of researchers can gather at some central location - or remotely via online symposium capabilities - and present short papers about their research. In between sessions you'll find scientists discussing the latest research. From experience I can confidently say that scientists are not shy about telling other scientists when they think they are wrong...or may have missed something. All of this helps bring out questions, and identify additional experiments to address those questions.
4) Publish: Science is the totality of all the research. Scientific studies generally examine individual pieces of a very large puzzle, and all of those pieces must be examined in context with all the other pieces in order to draw wider conclusions. Some of that is done at conferences, but mostly this is done by publishing the work in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Once published, the study can be looked at by any and all scientists with the interest and expertise to evaluate it. This usually leads to more questions, more studies, and more publications.
So if you're a scientist and you've gone through all of these steps you can consider your science communication done, right?
Wrong. You've only just begun.
Long gone are the days when scientists had the luxury of doing science in their lab or field site, publishing in scientific journals, and moving on to the next study while letting others communicate the information to the wider audiences. Today, with the ubiquity of internet connection and the prevalence of "Google Experts" (i.e., not experts), the chance of the science being misunderstood by the public is huge. Add in the professional lobbyists who intentionally misrepresent the science and you have the makings of a lot of people being misinformed.
The first step scientists and others must take is to understand that there are three distinct audiences to whom you must communicate the science.
(1) Other Scientists: This is the easy audience. Other scientists, especially those in the same field of study, generally will attend conferences in person and read the full scientific papers in scientific journals. This is how science has traditionally been communicated.
(2) Policymakers: These include everyone from regulators (such as EPA) through legislators (e.g., Congress, states) on up to the President of the United States (and his or her equivalents in other countries and international bodies). The bigger the issue the greater the likelihood that policymakers will have to pass laws or implement policies to deal with the issue.
(3) The Public: While it has always been the case to some extent, in this connected world the general public's role in making policy has grown exponentially. Policymakers (notwithstanding the disproportionate influence of lobbyists and rich campaign donors) are most influenced by public opinion. It is the public who are the real drivers of change. It is they who give policymakers permission (or pressure) to take action.
That is why the aforementioned lobbyists and donors spend so much time and money shaping public opinion. Often they do this by intentionally misrepresenting the science.
Think about that. Not only is the science often incredibly complicated, which can be hard for the public to follow, there are organizations and individuals out there intentionally trying to mislead the public.
Imagine them doing that without scientists standing up for the science. Imagine what happens when the science is misrepresented without any scientist correcting the misrepresentations. How is the public to understand the science when the only "science" they are presented in terms they can understand is misrepresented? And how are policymakers to make informed policy when they have been intentionally misinformed...and themselves intentionally misinform to avoid taking responsibility for action?
That is the take-home point of this particular post. Scientists must ensure that the science is accurately communicated. And that communication must be to all three audiences - other scientists, policymakers, and the public.
Since the methods for communicating to each audience are different, future posts will examine the specific challenges and present specific communication tips for communicating to each audience in ways each can understand.