Society’s perception of science and scientists is quite complex. While the prestige of scientists is second only to firefighters, there are stark differences in opinion between many scientists and the general population regarding issues such as vaccination, genetically modified foods, and climate change. More clearly: society appreciates our work, but some people don’t agree with our data. The main reason for this strange situation is that we, scientists, don’t normally reach out to society to tell people what we do, and how we do our work. The consequence is that the federal government —the main funding agency for biomedical science —does not perceive sufficient support farom the public for scientific research to increase the budget. In other words, there are not enough science advocates fighting for science funding. How can scientists engage society to advocate in our favor and consequently bring more investment into research and development (R&D)? There is no doubt: we need to get away from our safe climate-controlled benches and talk with people about what we do. If people know what we do, and learn about its value, they may be convinced to ask for more funding on our behalf.
Outreach events are a way to engage the public in science. When scientists meet with people they can sometimes break some common misconceptions about science being only for individuals of “special intelligence.” Most scientists I know are hard-working people, without any special “brain superpower.” Telling society we are just like everyone else helps us to connect with the public, and when we are closer, the dialog between scientists and society is more productive.
Scientists should develop and important skill: the ability to tell a non-scientist what they do in a simple but informative way, also known as an “elevator pitch.” Sometimes scientists need to be trained in such outreach skills, and some institutions are doing their part. For instance, multiple universities now have offices of science outreach, and, for example, the University of Missouri has introduced a very successful course called “Science Outreach: Public Understanding of Science,” which aims to train graduate students to communicate with the public about scientific achievements.
Another way to successfully develop your outreach skills is by participating in/volunteering for science events. COMPASS offers grants for ASCB members willing to organize outreach events. Please check our page for more information. Offering to give talks in schools, joining science museum activities, and volunteering in science fairs can be very effective ways to hone your outreach skills while helping science education.
There is no way to talk about outreach without mentioning the state of children’s science education. Only 28% of U.S. high school students are prepared for college-level biology courses, and the U.S. is the 27th in science education world rankings. Scientists can help on two fronts: encouraging and updating teachers about new discoveries in science, and showing students how practical science is very different from a static, linear textbook presentation. For instance, students should know that a law or a theory is based upon experimentation, which takes time (and often many different attempts) to work. The best schools in the UK use more investigative and practical approaches to teach STEM to students. Another way to help is to take students to visit laboratories and show them how different, practical science is, compared with their textbooks. The best students in science are usually involved in science activities out of school, such as lab visits and museum volunteer work. A two-day visit to a lab can sometimes be as valuable as months of classes at school.
When scientists know how to reach the public, scientists can improve the public perception of research. This is a very important point for efforts to increase government funding. Cell biologists especially can excite people about the progress of science. Stem cell research, and research into diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s have a profound base in cell biology. We need to use this in our favor. Social media is a very important tool to reach the public. Unfortunately, places like Facebook and Twitter are not the favorite channels of science communication to public. A University of Michigan study showed that 40% of the scientists interviewed would never use Twitter for professional and academic purposes. Seventy-three percent of scientists have never used Twitter at all. A great example of the power of social media in generating money for science is the “ice bucket challenge,” which led to a 3500% increase in donations for ALS research. This simple example is telling us in capital letters: SOCIAL MEDIA SCIENCE OUTREACH IS VALUALBE. A very good quick guide to start on social media has been published recently.
Talking to/contacting politicians is important for outreach. Congress represents the people of the nation and their interests; therefore they should understand the importance of science and the relevance of government funding. Scientific societies such as the ASCB visit Congress regularly in “Capitol Hill Days” where they take ASCB members to Congress to meet their delegates, talk with them about what they do, and discuss how relevant basic science is for the development of cures and treatments for diseases.
In the end, it is all about showing the public the importance of the work you do and how beneficial it is to society. There is a way to do it, and we need to be trained and prepare ourselves for these activities. It is time for action; it is time for outreach.
About the Author:
Bruno Da Rocha-Azevedo is a Senior Staff Scientist in the Department of Biophysics at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Bruno studies the spatiotemporal dynamics of endothelial cell receptors using single-molecule imaging. He was one of the founding members of COMPASS, and co-chair during 2015-2016. Bruno was the founder and co-chair of the LGBTQ+ taskforce (now Committee) and currently is a member. He is a member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Taskforce. He volunteered on the ASCB 5-year strategic plan, helping on creating the guidelines for further democratizing the society by ensuring leadership and decision making reflect the broad range of the membership and their interests and priorities E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @brunodra