Sscientists can be brilliant communicators. We are trained to work with large and small collaborations, present our work in journal articles and conferences with clarity and purpose, and generally enjoy chatting with each other. Communication is a fundamental part of scientific life. Yet when scientists try to engage the public, they face barriers to getting their message across and can often find their messages manipulated.
As a scientist heavily involved in science communication, I find that my colleagues fall into the same traps, over and over again—assuming they even bother 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 gain, or completely ignored. As a result, I believe the public is slowly losing confidence in science because it does not view scientists as trustworthy the people.
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of US adults who trust scientists “somewhat” or “a lot” has dropped from 87 to 77 percent in the past two years alone. And since most science relies on public funding, if the public disagrees with the science, then I fear our future as an institution is at risk.
Research shows that simply providing more information to the public is not the best way to fix this. It is critical that scientists find ways to communicate more effectively and directly with the public so that the public has access to the minds and hearts of scientists. In other words, they must see scientists as people they can empathize with and learn to trust. To enable this, academic institutions must support these endeavors through media training and institutional incentives that are currently lacking in academia.
At most top-tier research institutions, a scientist’s primary responsibility is to win more grants. Anything that supports this, for example writing proposals and publishing well-accepted papers, is rewarded by the institution through promotion and tenure. On the other hand, anything that does not support this – including engaging in public communication – is often treated as a distraction.
I have seen this discouraging atmosphere in both my own career and that of my colleagues. And this personal experience is backed up by evidence. A 2012 survey examining academic attitudes toward outreach found a bleak outlook, with 74 percent of survey respondents listing one or more barriers to engaging in public outreach, including receiving little support or encouragement from their institutions. Meanwhile, less than half were able to offer potential solutions. These findings are echoed by another study published earlier this year, which suggests that 10 years later, many barriers remain. Using focus group discussions, scholars “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 discourage graduate students and junior faculty from engaging with the public.
Science fails to effectively communicate its own process and values to the public.
The little scholarly communication that comes out of academia seems to be more the product of a passionate hobby than an aspect of a professional career—and that suggests that scientists even have time for it amid the pressures of publish or perish and other obligations. From that same 2012 study, one of the most damning comments came from a physics student who wanted to eventually pursue a career in scope. When asked how they navigated graduate school, they said, “The best way to do it is to keep your mouth shut and keep going until you graduate.”
Yes, science is hard. But scientists are used to doing difficult things. If they were rewarded for public communication—by making science communication training part of their professional development and making public engagement part of the portfolio that leads to tenure and promotion—I feel confident that they would find and develop the tools , needed to do it effectively.
For scientists looking to communicate their work to the public, the media landscape can be difficult to navigate. While there are many journalists who are careful to use science properly in their work, there are others in the media whose interests do not always coincide with those of scientists. Thus we see good science twisted into bad messages. For example, the pseudo-science documentary What Bleep Do We Know? interviews real scientists but edits their interviews to appear to support outrageous claims. And there are countless headlines that exaggerate or even directly contradict the science described in the article.
When working with the media, scholars should check the publication history of the journalist and publication they are working with and, where possible, request a review of the citations used in the material. It’s worth noting, however, that many outlets, including Undark, do not allow quotes to be viewed verbatim in the interest of journalistic integrity. If this is the case, scholars should request that a fact-checker or editor contact them and provide a summary of the citations provided.
Perhaps it is not surprising when scientists succumb to the mismanagement of their own expertise because “Media Management 101” is not part of any kind higher education program I encountered. Although some universities have begun offering certificates and workshops in media studies, participation in such programs is often a voluntary endeavor rather than a requirement for graduate study.
Scientists may be quick to blame the media for poor science communication, but ultimately these stories would not exist without the scientists who participate in the process: generating the research, assisting their university’s press release process, and making themselves available for interviews. And many of these scientists have absolutely no training or guidance in media relations. Academia’s demotivation of science communication not only silences scientists, but leaves scientists who want to be heard unprepared to deal with the media.
Unfortunately, scientists themselves sometimes participate in this distortion, using their position and level of public trust to advance personal agendas and their own quest for fame. For example, Andrew Wakefield spent years promoting the false idea that vaccines cause autism, an idea based on fraudulent research. In my field, a group of astronomers recently announced that they had found evidence of life in the cloud tops of Venus, a story that caused a media frenzy. These claims were immediately disputed by other astronomers with much less fanfare. The bottom line is that poor science communication is a contributing factor to the public’s declining trust in scientists.
Unfortunately, there will probably always be a small number of bad scientists. But that’s why it’s doubly important that good scientists 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 believe people will have better tools to separate the good from the bad.
Perhaps it is not surprising when academics succumb to the mismanagement of their own expertise, because “Media Management 101” is not a part of any higher education curriculum I have encountered.
Social media offers an unfiltered method of communication where scientists can engage more directly with the public. Although it requires scientists to devote time and energy to building a following, it should be used more as an important tool to reach people on an individual basis. While the majority of scientists use social media, many use these platforms to connect with each other rather than with the public. Scientists must use this newfound voice to speak directly to the public, removing all the barriers and distortions put in place by the 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 need to make science communication a literal job requirement to be a scientist.
Yes, science is messy and often comes up with conflicting answers before settling on a solution. Yes, the science is nuanced, with every result bracketed with caveats and assumptions. Yes, science is a human, imperfect tool for studying the world.
But people don’t connect with science, they connect with people. To restore trust in science, we must expose the humanity—and people—of science as much as possible.
Paul M. Sutter is a research professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Computing at Stony Brook University and a visiting researcher at the Flatiron Institute in New York. He is also an author, presenter and speaker.