Communicating Science to the Public: Perspectives from the ASCB 2015 Annual Meeting

Jane Lubchenco gave the first keynote at the 2015 ASCB Annual Meeting encouraging scientists to communicate to the public. ASCB Photo.

Jane Lubchenco gave the first keynote at the 2015 ASCB Annual Meeting encouraging scientists to communicate to the public. ASCB Photo.

Of the many themes running through this year’s annual ASCB conference, one that stood out was how vitally important it is for practicing scientists to utilize their technical and scientific literacy to reach out to the general public.


This theme began during the keynote on the first evening of the meeting. Jane Lubchenco, the first keynote speaker, earned her doctorate as a marine ecologist and was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the late 90s, later served as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the first term of the Obama administration and became an important figure during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In her address she recounted an interaction that transpired during the oil spill crisis, which highlighted the communication barrier scientists face when dealing with the public. Lubchenco was tasked with briefing Vice President Biden on the ocean wildlife recovery efforts: explaining how oil differentially affects various marine species, describing the process by which fisheries were temporarily closed, and assessing the presence of hydrocarbons to determine when fisheries could be re-opened. During one such interaction, she recalled, the Vice President was notably surprised by her explanations: “I thought you were a scientist…But I just understood everything you told me!” She noted that, while scientists had briefed Biden countless times, the perception nevertheless persisted in his mind that scientists were by-and-large incomprehensible individuals. While not stated outright, her anecdote suggests that many scientists have had an opportunity to communicate with the Vice President, a highly influential political figure, but failed to get their message across effectively.


The stereotype—“I can’t understand you; you are a scientist”—appears to have some truth to it. If so, it is clearly a major barrier for science, as ultimately the non-scientific public and elected policymakers are the ones who fund the lion’s share of scientific research. It is thus absolutely essential for the public to have a clear and accurate vision of the scientific community, and to understand how our activities and discoveries serve the needs of society. Given this reality, it is not enough for scientists to merely excel in their research endeavors. Each of us must also act as advocates for our own research and for the broader scientific community. As scientists, then, what can we do to breach this communication gap with the public? Fortunately, many answers were peppered throughout the activities and discussions of the annual meeting, which help to shed light on this question.


Use Your Artistic Side to Convey Science. This year, a number of contests spearheaded by ASCB and COMPASS highlighted how scientists can incorporate diverse forms of communication in the effort to help the public understand what it is that we as scientists are accomplishing. The 2015 Celldance videos demonstrated how, with a little seed money (and some exceptional talent), complicated scientific research projects can be explained in an understandable, fun, and engaging manner. But communicating science can be done even without a budget, as was demonstrated by the winners of the 2015 comic contest, writing contest, and the share your science video contest. Each of these efforts show how, collectively, scientists have the talent to communicate to non-scientific audiences, though it is a talent that must be fostered and used much more often than is done now.


Edit a Wikipedia Page. Perhaps as a scientist you do not have an overtly artistic side, but would still like to contribute your expertise to the public good? Consider editing a Wikipedia article, as many did at this year’s first-ever ASCB Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon. The results were very positive, with dozens of contributors editing nearly fifty articles and adding three new ones; in all, over 85,000 characters of new knowledge were added to the pages of Wikipedia. The contributing authors were enthusiastic about the experience overall, and many commented on how surprisingly fun and personally empowering it was to edit the online postings. Still, while there was much success this year in improving Wikipedia posts, there are many cell and molecular biology articles that do not meet the quality standards set by Wikipedia. With Wikipedia serving as a major repository of information for web searches by young scientists and non-scientists alike, this is a great starting point if you want to help spread scientific knowledge to wider audiences.


Advocate Directly for Science. If you would like to take an even more proactive approach, not just communicating to the public but speaking directly to the holders of the public purse-strings, one viable option is to spearhead the creation of a grassroots science advocacy group at your university. Two ‘Advocacy Toolbox’ sessions were held at this year’s meeting, the first of which centered on developing an effective ‘elevator pitch’ to explain your research to general audiences. The second included a panel of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty who have had success in creating and sustaining local science policy groups. While much of this forum focused on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of starting a group—applying for a charter, gaining faculty advisors, getting funding, and creating an organizational structure that can be sustained over the long term – many ideas were generated for those who may ask: How can I use an advocacy group to communicate to the public? Some of these ideas include:


  • Organize a Capitol Hill day to allow graduate students and postdocs to meet with their congressional and senatorial representatives or their staffers
  • Start a letter-writing campaign (in 2014, Emory University’s policy group sent over 600 letters to the Georgia congressional delegation, advocating increased federal funding for the basic sciences)
  • Invite local congressional delegates to tour your university’s laboratories
  • Bring in speakers who can talk about science advocacy, educate graduate students and postdocs about the federal appropriations process, or provide tips on becoming more effective personal advocates for science funding
  • Create a local science advocacy presence on social media


Thomas Pollard shared his experience in science policy at the 'Advocacy Toolbox' session. ASCB Photo.

Thomas Pollard shared his experience in science policy at the ‘Advocacy Toolbox’ session. ASCB Photo.

For those who may harbor cynicism about the U.S. political process, a particularly powerful take-away from the forum was the notion that when scientists directly speak to public policymakers, a noticeable difference can actually be achieved. Thomas Pollard, a faculty member at Yale who has had a long-standing role in the public policy efforts of ASCB, talked about the profound effectiveness of scientists engaging Capitol Hill. Members of Congress are particularly unaccustomed to meeting with students: “If a bunch of young students and postdocs show up at their door, it’s a fairly shocking turn of events…. It has much more impact than a group of older people because [young scientists] have their future ahead of them, and have dreams and aspirations that will be influenced by things that politicians will make decisions about,” Pollard said. Anthony Koleske, also a faculty member at Yale, noted that while support for biomedical research is generally uncontroversial, it must compete for attention with the political hot-button issues of the day. In fact, congressional staffers will often use the number of received emails on a particular topic as a metric to apportion the amount of time their office will spend on that topic. So, if communicating to policymakers appeals to you, consider starting your own policy group. The ASCB now provides a Science Advocacy Toolbox to help get the process started (for more on becoming an advocate for science, see Dr. Pollard’s excellent articles in MBoC and Cell, and his video from iBiology). Beyond the vital part you can play in explaining science to public officials, it is also an excellent leadership and career development opportunity for scientists interested in a career in advocacy and communication.


Start Your Journey on a Communication Career Path. As graduate students and postdocs, our ultimate goal is to find that ideal career that best aligns to our interests and passions. This year, COMPASS hosted a number of career development panels at the annual meeting, touching on such diverse career trajectories as science policy, consulting, sales, and academic administration. For those who enjoy communicating science to the public and may be predisposed to communication as a long-term career goal, there was an array of offerings for consideration. One career panel discussed teaching at primarily undergraduate institutions, a vital (albeit relatively traditional) direction for science communicators. In addition, there were panelists from more exotic areas of science communication, working in jobs that many graduate students and postdocs may never have considered as possible career options. Margaret Harmon, program director of Science Media, and Sarah Goodwin, director of iBiology, both operate in companies tasked with creating innovative and stimulating visual media for scientists, students, and the general public. For example, iBiology recently developed a video series – Conversations in Science with Dan Rather—in which pre-eminent scientists discuss a wide range of topics in a conversational style that is highly accessible to public audiences. Connie M. Lee, who is currently an Assistant Dean at the University of Chicago (and Chair of the ASCB Public Policy Committee), talked about her work as an editor at several respected scientific journals. Her advice to budding writers: If you enjoy the process of assembling manuscripts and seeing the final product come together, scientific editing may be a great career option to consider. It was clear from the panel discussions that a talent for communicating science to the public can be readily leveraged into a long-term, satisfying career. (As an aside, a common thread woven through all the career development panels was that scientists follows their own unique career path, and that the route from graduate school to that dream job is more often than not a circuitous one. So if you aren’t there yet, don’t despair!)


Returning to the keynote, Lubchenco emphasized the urgent need to train scientists in public communication, and to make science more accessible and transparent to the public. She framed this challenge as a “golden opportunity” for the scientific community to serve society more effectively than it is doing now. In many respects, ASCB 2015 rose to the challenge and provided many relevant perspectives on how to achieve these aims. As researchers, we already possess the intellectual skills needed to understand complex science. An important message from this year’s meeting is that there are numerous opportunities out there for scientists to utilize those skills, in order to spread awareness and understanding of science to the broader public. It is up to all of us to take advantage of those opportunities.

About the Author:

Travis is a former postdoctoral researcher in the Cell Biology Department at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY, where he studied the role of linker histone H1 in the regulation of chromatin structure in Drosophila melanogaster. He remains affiliated with the Einstein division of the national IRACDA program, where he is developing interventions to improve STEM student learning outcomes, and is an adjunct assistant professor at Iona College. Travis recently left his full-time academic position to pursue a career in medical writing. He has been a COMPASS associate member since March 2015 and is serving on the communication subcommittee. Email: Comments and suggestions are always welcome! Email: Comments and suggestions are always welcome!

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