Sscientists can be brilliant communicators. We are trained to work with collaborations large and small, present our work in journal articles and conferences with clarity and purpose, and generally enjoy chatting with each other. Communication is a fundamental element of scientific life. Yet when scientists try to engage the public, they run into barriers to getting their message across and can often find their messages manipulated.
As a scientist heavily committed to science communication, I see my colleagues fall into the same pitfalls over and over again – even assuming they messed with each other in the first place. Science fails to effectively communicate its own process and values to the public. And attempts to disseminate vital information risk being distorted by media interests, co-opted for political purposes or ignored altogether. As a result, I think the public is slowly losing faith in science because they don’t see scientists as trustworthy. people.
According to the Pew Research Center, American adults who have “good” or “high” trust in scientists have risen from 87% to 77% in the past two years alone. And since the vast majority of science depends on public funding, if the public does not agree with science, then I fear our future as an institution is in jeopardy.
Research has shown that simply giving the public more information isn’t the best way to fix this. It is crucial that scientists find ways to communicate more effectively and directly with the public, so that the public can gain access to the minds and hearts of scientists. In other words, they need to see scientists as people they can empathize with and learn to trust. To do this, scientific institutions must support these efforts through media training and institutional incentives that are currently lacking in the academic landscape.
In most top research institutes, the main responsibility of a scientist is to get more grants. Anything that supports this, for example, writing proposals and publishing well-received papers, is rewarded by the institution through promotion and tenure. On the other hand, anything that doesn’t support this – including engaging in public communication – is often treated as a distraction.
I have seen this discouraging atmosphere play out in my own career and that of my colleagues. And that personal experience is backed by evidence. A 2012 study of scientists’ attitudes towards outreach found a grim outlook, with 74% of survey respondents listing one or more barriers to engagement in public outreach, including the lack of support or encouragement from their institutions. Meanwhile, less than half were able to offer potential solutions. These findings are echoed in another study published earlier this year, which suggests that, 10 years later, many obstacles remain. Using focus group discussions, the scientists “noted the pressure they felt to focus on research and teaching, rather than public engagement in the name of tenure and promotion requirements.” In many cases, the study found, mentors actively discouraged graduate students and young faculty from engaging with the public.
Science fails to effectively communicate its own process and values to the public.
The little science communication that comes out of academia seems to be mostly the product of a passionate hobby, rather than a facet of a professional career – and that’s assuming scientists even have time for it amid the pressures of publish or perish and other obligations. In that same 2012 survey, one of the most damning comments came from a graduate student in physics who wanted to eventually pursue a career in outreach. When asked how they navigate graduate school, they said, “The best way to do it is to keep your mouth shut and keep going until the end.”
Yes, science popularization is difficult. But scientists are used to doing difficult things. If they were rewarded for their public communication — making science communication training part of their professional development and making engagement with the public part of the portfolio that leads to tenure and promotion — I’m convinced that they would find and develop the necessary tools to do so effectively.
For scientists who want to communicate their work to the public, the media landscape can be difficult to navigate. While there are many journalists who are careful to incorporate science into their work, there are others in the media whose interests do not always align with the interests of scientists. So we see good science twisted into bad messages. For example, the pseudo-scientific documentary “What the Bleep Do We Know?” interviewed real scientists but edited their interviews to appear as supporting outrageous claims. And there are countless headlines that exaggerate or even directly contradict the science described in the article.
When working with the media, scientists should check the publication history of the journalist and media outlet they are working with and, if possible, request a review of quotes used in the article. It should be noted, however, that many outlets, including Undark, do not allow quotes to be reviewed verbatim in the interests of journalistic integrity. If so, scientists should ask a fact-checker or editor to contact them and provide a summary of the citations provided.
It is perhaps unsurprising that scientists fall into the mismanagement of their own expertise, as “Working with the Media 101” is not part of any graduate science program that I came across. Although some universities have begun to offer media training certificates and workshops, participation in these programs is often a voluntary initiative rather than a requirement of postgraduate training.
Scientists can be quick to blame the media for poor science communication, but ultimately these stories wouldn’t exist without scientists participating in the process: generating the research, helping with their university’s press release process, and make themselves available for interviews. And many of these scientists have absolutely no training or orientation in media relations. Academia’s disincentive to science communication not only silences scientists, it leaves scientists who wish to be heard ill-prepared to deal with the media.
Unfortunately, scientists themselves sometimes participate in this distortion, leveraging their reputation and level of public trust to further their personal agendas and their own quest for glory. For example, Andrew Wakefield has spent years propagating the false idea that vaccines cause autism – an idea based on fraudulent research. In my own field, recently a group of astronomers claimed to have found evidence of life in the cloud tops of Venus, a story that created a media frenzy. These claims were immediately challenged by other astronomers, with much less fanfare. The bottom line is that poor science communication is a contributing factor to declining public trust in scientists.
Unfortunately, there will probably always be a small number of bad scientists. But that’s why it’s doubly important for good scientists to understand the power of effective communication. If we develop a culture and expectations where scientists have a more intimate relationship with the public and where non-scientists have a better understanding of the scientific process, then I think people will have better tools to separate right from wrong.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that scientists fall into the mismanagement of their own expertise, since “Working with the Media 101” isn’t part of any graduate science program I’ve come across.
Social media offers an unfiltered method of communication, where scientists can be more directly engaged with the public. Although scientists need to spend time and energy building up an audience, it should be leveraged more as an important tool to reach people individually. While the majority of scientists use social media, many of them use these platforms to connect with each other, rather than the public. Scientists should use this new voice to speak directly to the public, removing the barriers and distortions placed by gatekeepers.
Scientists need to reveal the messy inner workings of their process so that the public can appreciate and understand our methodology and the conclusions we reach. And institutions must make science communication a literal requirement of being scientific.
Yes, science is messy and often comes up with conflicting answers before settling on a solution. Yes, the science is nuanced, with each result surrounded by caveats and assumptions. Yes, science is human, an imperfect instrument for studying the world.
But people don’t connect with science, they connect with people. To restore trust in science, we need to expose as much of the humanity – and humans – of science as possible.
Paul M. Sutter is a research professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Computational Science at Stony Brook University and a visiting scientist at the Flatiron Institute in New York. He is also an author, presenter and speaker.