The necessity of science communication

I read two articles this week, which I just have to share here on this blog. The two articles are both inputs to the discussion on the role of science communication in general society today.

Self-censorship among vaccine researchersnewyorktimes

The first article “Anti-Vaccine Activists Have Taken Vaccine Science Hostage” by Melinda Wenner Moyer is published in The New York Times and discusses how the anti-vaccine movement have contributed to what looks like self-censorship in parts of the vaccine science communicty and how it seems to be  eroding the integrity of vaccine science.

“Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects.”

 

Science Journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, The New York Times

The article gives example from the vaccine science community where researchers feels pressure from their peers not to publish negative results, but also describes the importance of continuesly studying and transparently discussing also the research that touches upon the negative sides of vaccines. The article closes with an encouragement that researchers, who do good science must share their research – even when there is a risk of its meaning being twisted – and not apply self-censorship.  As the writer points out in the conclusion:

“One thing vaccine scientists and vaccine-wary parents have in common is a desire for the safest and most effective vaccines possible — but vaccines can’t be refined if researchers ignore inconvenient data. Moreover, vaccine scientists will earn a lot more public trust, and overcome a lot more unfounded fear, if they choose transparency over censorship.”

 

Science Journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, The New York Times

scientific americanA cry for help

The other article “The Truth Sometimes Hurts” by Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and published in Scientific American responds to Melinda Wenner Moyer’s request that scientists continue to share their knowledge, finding and results also when they hurt.

Kate Marvel however points out that even though science thrives on the oxygen of transparency, reality is that doing it is hard! And that scientists (especially in hot topics like vaccine and climate change) often times are up against beliefs, which are not based on science and therefore cannot be refuted by science:

“But outside the confines of the lab, scientists have to operate in an environment polluted with lies and bad faith. Vaccines do not cause autism, but many people believe they do. And because this belief is not based on evidence, it cannot be refuted by science. But charlatans can still use what appears to be the language of science, weaving inconclusive studies and minor effects into a persuasive web of lies and fear.”

 

Climate scientist Kate Marvel, Scientific American

The reality is that communicating science is hard and especially hard for scientists who are by definition trained primarily to be scientists and not communicators. As Kate Marvel points out, very few scientists receive training in communicating science or are taught how to handle it when their words and conclusions are twister or delibrately misinterpreted and misrepresented.

Kate Marvel shares examples from her own area of work, climate change, where the fear that climate change deniers will misuse scientific findings or transparency about uncertainty in climate change projections to push forward their own agenda. She also points out that there are no institutional rewards for communicating science and thus little institutional incentive to allocate time and energy on communicating their work.

She closes her input to the debate with a heart-felt request:

“So I want to approach this with something the stereotypical scientist is not known for: humility. Please don’t just tell us to be honest, help us to understand how to be transparent in an opaque world.  Truth is messy, and lies can be simple and appealing. I may not know what I’m doing, but I’m willing to listen and learn.”

 

Climate scientist Kate Marvel, Scientific American

Make science communication mandatory

I can only agree with Kate Marvel about the need to offer more insight and training to researchers, scientists and scholars on how to communicate science. I enjoy teaching science communication to Ph.d students at the Faculty of Health at University of Copenhagen, but also experience how little they know and how distant the idea of communicating science outside the scientific world seems to many (luckily it’s definitely not all) of them. Having taught a masters course on Public Health Science Communciation to public health students also at University of Copenhagen was inspirering and I wish it could be mandatory for all students to have some training and insight into how to communicate science . Even if it limited in time, it could at least give them insight into what they may encounter and perhaps give them some appetite to dig a bit deeper into science communciation later on and dare to challenge their own fear of communication what they do.

Thank you to both Melinda Wenner Moyer and Kate Marvel for inspiring inputs into the discussions around the role of science communication in today’s society and for highlighting both the importance of science communication, the risks if we don’t and the need for more training and help .


A perfect place to pick-up arguments for why scientists should be on social media

An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists‘. I have wanted to mention this article published in PLOS Biology ever since it came out in April 2013, but somehow never got around to it. But as I reread it earlier this week, I was reminded how this article must be mentioned on a blog like mine.

An Introduction to Social Media for Scientists is written by Holly M. Bik and Miriam C. Goldstein from University of California Davis and University of California San Diego and is an excellent place to start for researchers considering trying out social media or for enthusiasts of social media for science communication who are in search of good arguments they can use to persuade others of why they must set up a Twitter account, start blogging or establish some other form of online presence.

Research Benefits and flowcharts

Supported by lots of examples (with links provided to many of them!) the authors list a number of ways in which social media can benefit both the scientist and the scientific work. In short form these are:

  • How online tools can help improve research efficiency;
  • How being visible on social media helps track and improve scientific metrics;
  • How social media enhances professional networking; and
  • How online interactions have the potential to enhance ‘‘broader impacts’’ by improving communication between scientists and the general public.

flowchart

They go on to address different kinds of social media and how they can be used, and provide advice to new users on how to get started. A useful (and fun) feature of the article is a flowchart that can help newcomers find out which media might be most relevant for them to try out and solution to common online communication fears.

Acknowledging the stigma

Throughout the article the authors mention the stigma which is often attached to online activities. They acknowledge how many researchers are skeptical towards the media and regards it as a waste of time and a distraction from true scientific work. In a response to this the authors have set out to address some of the many misconceptions and misinterpretations of what social media can contribute with. And in my opinion it works. One could argue that they don’t spend much energy on the risks or disadvantages of social media for science communication (of which there are of course several), but they are plenty to be found elsewhere.

Need for formal training

Social media among scientists is quickly growing and will eventually become more and more natural for scientists to use (if not sooner than as the younger generation whom have grown up with social media enter the research arena). But until then there is a need to train on researchers and scholars on the potential of social media in academic work. Both to address the many misconception and skepticism but also to avoid researchers use it inefficiently or inappropriately. I could therefore not agree more with the authors:

“Social media and internet-based resources are increasingly ubiquitous. Thus, there is a pressing need for scientific institutions to offer formalized training opportunities for graduate students and tenured faculty alike to learn how to effectively use this new technology”.


Trends in making a career in German science communication

Internships, coincidences, childbearing and passion for communicating seems to be key themes in making a career in science communication in Germany. At least those are some of the conclusions I made when attending Science Communication Career Day at Heidelberg University last week.

scicomcareerdayThe Career Day was all in all a good experience. Logistically well organised and with an interesting bunch of speakers. There was even ‘fancy new media’ involved. A hashtag (#scicomcareerday) had been assigned and it was enthusiastically noted when 20 tweets had been reached and later on 50 tweets! Being beginners in using this it worked remarkably well.

The day was organised with a first session focused on Press and Corporate Communication. The presenters were in general at the level of Head of Communication etc. They all came from a scientific background (predominately in biology and with a ph.d.) but had moved into communication. 5 of 6 speakers were women, and in presenting their road from science to communication they all mentioned “and then I had children…” as one of the reasons for leaving their academic field and getting into science communication, which granted more flexibility. Although many did say that they found communicating to be fun and through internships had found a passion for exactly communicating, I was surprised to find that none of the speakers of the session seemed to have a passion for their scientific area, and that it wasn’t a desire to communicate their knowledge which was of interest to them. My impression was, putting it a bit roughly, that their science background had basically just proved to be an advantage in getting jobs in communication… Perhaps one of the reason I got this impression was that the presenters where at Head of Communication level, and thus had gone on to much more than science communication and also (or primarily) worked crisis communication, corporate communication etc.

The second session made up for the tendency of working with communication in general and not specifically science communication. Especially inspiring were three communication officers from EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory) who with enthusiasm talked about the joy of communicating science. Again, it was clear that internships seems to be the thing in Germany if you want to get into science communication. When asked by the participants (who were primarily ph.d. students at University of Heidelberg) if they should go for getting an internship or take an extra degree in communication or journalism the response was either that it didn’t matter or that they should definitely go for the internships! Not being so well acquainted with how things work in Germany, to me it seemed at bit surprising that this was their main recommendation. I guess however it could be translated into: get practical experience! and that internships is one way of getting this.

All in all, it was a good day and it was fun to get into some German Science Communication. The round table lunch idea, where you could have lunch with a speaker was a good idea and worked okay. Being a career day the objective was of course to inspire to and show how you can also take your science career into a communication direction. This meant that at least the round table I participated in became very focused on the internship discussion and concrete questions about how these internships work.

For me personally, corporate communication took up a little bit too much of the day and I wonder if the participants, being mainly ph.d. students, wouldn’t have found it interesting also to hear about how getting into science communication doesn’t have to mean saying goodbye to your scientific career and how science communication can help your scientific career – but perhaps that could be a whole theme for another career day…

In asking around for science communication networks in Germany it was my impression that there is not formal network and few of the presenters had knowledge about formal science communication training programmes at university (see below), but were much more practice based. As in many other places the science communication community seemed much more to be a personal network thing. Many of the presenters had either worked or done internships with DKFZ (German Cancer Research Center), who was also one of the main organisers of the day, and knew each other from there.

Three study programmes in Science Communication in Germany were mentioned. The all seem to be in German, but none the less I thought I’d share them here on this blog:

Science Communication M.A. (Wissenschaftskommunikation) at Hochschule Bremen – University of Applied Sciences

Science Journalism B.A and M.A. (Wissenschaftjournalismus) at the Technical University of Dortmund

Science Journalism B.A. (Wissenschaftjournalismus) at Darmstadt University


Scientific journal publisher encourages the use of social media to reach your audience

So, your article has been accepted and is now published in a peer-reviewed journal. Great! Now the world gets to know of all your findings and hard work. Or will it? What if no one reads it? You can of course let your colleagues know that your article is out, have the communication department do a press release and things like that. But why not go wider than that? Why not share it with online social networks?

That sharing articles on social media can boost the number of downloads, Melissa Terras, whom I blogged about earlier, is a good example of. But also the publishers are becoming aware that social media can help boost the number of downloads, citations etc.

SAGE, the world’s 5th largest journals publisher, actually offers guidance on how to increase usage and citation of your article by using social media. This includes getting on Twitter (they even have guidelines for how to use Twitter), contributing to Wikipedia, joining academic networks and making use of Facebook and LinkedIn.

The offer of guidance to the world of social media comes out of an acknowledgement that as readers’ expectations change, it is important that articles are visible where the users start their search. Promotion of your articles through new channels will, as SAGE puts it “offer a direct way to reach your readership.”

And I guess that is the hope of every researcher whom has something published: that it will reach the relevant readers.