A Call for Better Communication in Science

I think it’s pretty likely that many non-scientists watched, retweeted, posted, and emailed John Oliver’s rant about the media portrayal of scientific studies. The segment was spot-on and the punchline was pretty simple: We (the public) want definitive, inflammatory, exciting headlines, and the media seems fine with overlooking the facts to deliver what we crave. The end results, unfortunately, are either misrepresentation of legitimate scientific research, or widespread reports of unreliable studies that often contradict each other, leading the general public to absorb incorrect information while wondering, as John Oliver eloquently put it, “is science bulls***?”


In a recent commencement speech to CalTech graduates, Atul Gawande addressed a very similar theme as he discussed the growing mistrust of science among the general public. The problem, he asserted, is that people stick to their intuition, and when pseudo-science, or misinterpreted science, lines up with their cultural or political beliefs it becomes enmeshed in their worldview, permitting little room for correction. In fact, he continued, “describing facts that contradict an unscientific belief actually spreads familiarity with the belief and strengthens the conviction of believers.” In other words, the attempts to correct these incorrect notions often lead to increased circulation of erroneous information.


In the past several years we have clearly seen the effects of these rapidly spreading incorrect notions, as with the concern by some over the vaccine-autism connection. While these fears are based on a study that has been widely invalidated by scientists, a subset of the public has wholeheartedly latched onto the belief that doctors and scientists are misrepresenting the dangers of vaccines. These so-called “anti-vaxxers” opt out of the standard vaccines for their children and, unfortunately, these misguided actions have led to a recent increase in measles and mumps outbreaks.


An inherent difficulty with science is that the studies that the media favor are often those that are eye-catching or controversial (drinking coffee gives you cancer, drinking coffee prevents cancer, vaccines cause autism, etc.). This brings up two major issues: First, many of these studies are not considered sound or ideally executed research by the scientific community—a caveat that is rarely explained by the media. Second, to maximize the impact of the headline, the media often oversimplify or exaggerate the results of legitimate scientific studies to the point that the findings are incorrectly reported or exaggerated. An additional issue, as Gawande points out, is that scientific thinking is counter-intuitive to the non-scientist. As researchers we are taught to be critical—to disprove rather than prove. In relaying our research we should avoid over-stating our findings, yet we must also acknowledge that, to non-scientists, the propensity to avoid making definitive statements about our research may come across as wishy-washy.


The underlying theme inherent to the conundrums set forth by both Oliver and Gawande is communication, yet we live in a time where communicating to the masses is seemingly unavoidable. This is the social media era, where everyone has a voice (via Twitter, TED Talks, podcasts) and information is constantly broadcasted throughout the ether. As researchers we have the opportunity to disseminate our research to a far broader audience than ever before. But without effective communication, reaching these audiences is futile and potentially even counterproductive.


One fundamental problem is the language barrier that exists between scientists and non-scientists. Scientists love jargon. We use words like “bio-orthogonal” or “translational” as if they should mean something to non-scientists. They don’t. The excessive use of scientific language in research articles makes people feel as though scientists are trying to hide something, strengthening the perception of the impenetrable “ivory tower” in which scientists are often thought to reside.


Changing our communication style, however, is not necessarily easy. Communicating scientific research is something that scientists often do for other scientists, but rarely for the public. Anyone who has tried to explain their research to a non-scientist knows that it’s actually pretty hard to focus on the big picture, eliminate all jargon, explain the rationale and significance, or “need” for this research and, most importantly, avoid seeming like a condescending jerk.


Of course, beyond explaining to non-scientist friends/parents why grad school takes so long, not every scientist feels the urge to broadcast their research to the general public. But even within the scientific realm broad communication skills are essential. With increasing specialization within scientific fields, communication across fields is becoming more challenging. Frequently I find myself at seminars, within my department, centering on a topic about which I have almost zero background knowledge. Sometimes I leave these seminars feeling excited about an area of research previously foreign to me; often I walk out feeling confused and vaguely irritated. From a funding standpoint (something no researcher can ignore), communicating the importance of our research is key. Often funding opportunities are reviewed by scientists with expertise slightly outside the research proposed within a grant. A successful application needs to be able to convince basically anyone that the proposed research is relevant, exciting, and worth monetary investment.


So where exactly can we pick up a diverse set of science communication skills? During my last five years in graduate school I have never once given a research presentation to a general audience, and I do not think I am an outlier. While presentations to thesis committee members and other graduate students, manuscript writing, and even grant writing are common practices when you work in a lab, developing the skills required to communicate your research to a non-scientist seem significantly less common.


Recently I became a part of a resource for graduate students and undergraduates called The Communication Lab (MIT) and The Broad Research Comm Lab (The Broad Institute – website coming soon). These groups aim to provide students, postdocs, technicians, and faculty members at their institutions with the tools to effectively communicate their research to both scientists and non-scientists. What makes these communication labs unique is their emphasis on one-on-one interactions. Because a coach will meet directly with a single client, the session is tailored specifically for each client’s needs, which can range from abstract writing, to fellowship proposals, to oral presentations for a general audience. These personal interactions aim to establish a rapport between the coach and client that can be much more effective than just attending a large workshop. In fact, many people who use this resource end up returning to the same coach with new assignments.


While I am mostly aware of these types of resources at Harvard and MIT, other organizations, such as the AAAS Communicating Science or The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, conduct workshops and courses aimed at helping scientists communicate their research to broader audiences. Additionally, programs not specifically for scientists, such as Toastmasters, also strive to help professionals from all fields hone their speaking and leadership skills.


These programs, however, are not part of most standard graduate school curricula, and, at least in my experience, are not widely emphasized in most research settings. I am curious whether other graduate students have felt their needs fulfilled when it comes to learning how to write or present their work—either to scientists or non-scientists. While I find it (highly) unlikely that I would ever give a TED Talk, or start a science podcast, I think I would have benefitted immensely had the development of communication skills been integrated into the early years of graduate school.


Over the last several years we have clearly witnessed the effects of poor communication in science. The aforementioned confusion regarding the (non-existent) link between vaccines and autism, as well as the longstanding denial of climate change, illustrate how many members of the public question the validity of scientists’ claims. Unfortunately, the propagation of incorrect information can have damaging consequences, such as disease outbreaks. With an improved understanding of how to communicate our science to each other and to the non-science world, perhaps we can seize the opportunity to start chiseling away at the skepticism and distrust with which the general populace views scientific research.

About the Author:

Alexandra Cantley is a 5th year graduate student in Chemical Biology at Harvard University. She is currently in the lab of Jon Clardy, where she studies chemical communication between bacteria and eukaryotes. Alexandra is the co-founder of and frequent contributor to Chemical Intuition, a blog about chemical ecology. She is also an affiliate of The Broad Research Communication Lab, a resource aimed at helping scientists hone their communication skills.
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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