Science Outreach or Out-of-reach?

I previously shared advice for researchers on how to build their digital identity online to promote their science and bridge the gap between academic research and the public.

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Two very different societies, where one has open access to science and the other does not. The consequence of university research being too far from the public is that people will pick up their knowledge from other less scientific sources. Illustration: Astronomicca, 2018.

Let us take a closer look at why it is so important that science is communicated to the public and which obstacles researchers face when doing so.

Reasons to Communicate Science

There are many reasons why scientific research should be communicated. And no, I do not consider “giving something back to the tax payers” an exhaustive answer – even though the statement of course is not wrong. Here is the thing: Science is not a trade. It is not a deal that was made where everyone agreed that a certain ‘knowledge-return’ should be given on their tax investments.

Science should be communicated because science shapes our entire world and how it develops. Science is not a room in a house where you can enter or leave as you want. Science is the house. Science is the foundation of society: how we live, how we transport ourselves, what kind of jobs we have, how we communicate, what items we buy, how we are entertained – everything is determined by science. If you do not believe me, try finding an area in society which is not defined be science.

This is why science communication is important: Science defines how we live and therefore we should have free access to information that gives us the power to shape society the way we want.

Obstacles in Science Communication

Sharing scientific research in the public is not risk-free. There are multiple reasons for not doing it and I often hear a broad spectrum of them from researchers who all have one thing in common: they all have a robust knowledge about a very specific field in science that few or no one else have. Let us put words on some of the obstacles.

  • The Sagan Effect is one reason not to go public. The fear of being perceived as less scientific robust than your colleagues because the public are able to actually understand what you do. However, if the public understands your work, it is most likely because you are a good communicator and not because your work is less advanced.
  • Lack of communication skills is actually a very good reason to stay out of the public spotlight. If a scientist with bad communication skills goes public, chances are that a) no one will listen or b) researchers are even more distanced from the public than they were before this person spoke out. Luckily, skills can be improved – even the bad ones!
  • Lack of time and/or resources. These two originate from funding and/or prioritizing. They are also the easiest to use and unfortunately they enhance the actual problem by increasing the distance between scientific understanding and the public.

Get Started Now

If researchers fail to communicate their work we will move towards a society driven by marketing and media instead of science and research. Scientists need to adjust their approach to overcome the obstacles mentioned above. My advice is always to make a plan that is as clear, simple and efficient as possible which is described here in my basic tips on how to get started with science communication.

If scientists are out of reach for the public, there are plenty of other sources people can go to for information. Unfortunately, some of these sources advocate that Earth is flat or that climate changes are not real.

People will always have a curiosity and hunger for knowledge – so we must ensure that science comes from scientists.

You are also welcome contact me if you want to improve your science communication skills.

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