Voices: 8 Young International Scientists Weigh In on the Opportunities and Responsibilities of Scientists to Communicate Their Research at Home and Abroad

Reuel Bennett, Philippines
Ahmed Grieballa, Sudan
Ashutosh Singh, India
Dirk Tischler, Germany
Khosabayar Tulgaa, Mongolia
Laura Acevedo Ugarrizar, Paraguay
Ednner Victoria, Panama
Moses Vurayai, Botswana
Edited by Natalie DeGraaf, ASM Staff

A recent study by the American Institutes of Biological Sciences found that, according to 139 biological societies polled, the greatest challenges facing biology in the coming years will be “the public lack of appreciation for biology, and decision-makers not being informed about issues.” Effective communication of science serves as a challenge in the realm of discerning knowledge and communicating it to the public. When communication is done effectively, there is a great opportunity to contribute to the global good, whether in the form of changing individual human behavior or larger-scale societal shifts. However, conveying this information—both effectively and accurately—from the bench to the public has proved to be a hurdle.

Throughout history, effective dissemination of scientific knowledge has been an obstacle. For example, in the 15th and 16th century, Galileo, who played an influential role in the scientific revolution, was banished from the Catholic Church for his unpopular support of heliocentrism based on his observation of sunspots. During the 19th century, Ignaz Semmelweis, an early pioneer of the germ theory of disease, attempted to introduce the value of hand-washing as a way to reduce the mortality rate in obstetric wards. However, the medical community rejected his hand-washing theory, because it did not fit the scientific opinion of the time.

Today, for scientists like ourselves, communicating to the public in order to affect public discourse continues to be an obstacle. During training at the bench, scientists are taught to focus on advancing their research. They communicate their work to other scientists or science-related professionals through platforms such as journal publications, abstracts, oral or poster presentations, and grant writing. The highly technical degree of information used in such media may be intimidating to the public, and thus causes uncertainty leading to misconceptions.

As a result, bench scientists have little opportunity (or need) to communicate to nonscientists about the details of their work. The frequent inability to communicate the real-world application of scientific research becomes a barrier in public understanding of science, which is often coupled with language barriers in the international space. The largest obstacle to ensuring the public’s understanding of science is caused by the scientist’s inability to communicate complex ideas and concepts in a manner that broad audiences can grasp.

Ultimately, scientists have a responsibility to work toward addressing this problem with other scientists. With the continued advancement of technology, science has become increasingly complex and subsequently more difficult to communicate. It is scientists’ responsibility to thoughtfully utilize accessible scientific language and media to share information with the public. Global issues and misconceptions around issues like climate change, biosecurity, emerging infectious diseases, limited natural resources, and biodiversity conservation all require clear communication from the scientific community. Communication regarding such global issues requires a multidisciplinary approach, which brings together not only scientists but also health care professionals, clinicians, public health experts, economists, politicians, and others.

The Communication Cycle

Communication is dynamic and diverse, and follows the cycle of Input, Process, and Output (IPO). Input involves the sharing of verbal or nonverbal information with recipients. Process involves comprehension of shared information. Output is a response to the receiver. As scientists, we often communicate our research to colleagues and occasionally to the public by using various forms of media that follow the basic principle of input-process-output. However, communication between scientists and people with nonscientific backgrounds is commonly hampered by errors in the input or process stage of the communication cycle.

Often, such errors involve a lack of interest or attention, difference in perception, jargon, cultural and ethological differences, fictitious assumptions, environmental distractions, and distance. One historical example of communication error is the perception of HIV/AIDS during the 1980s when the condition was thought to be associated solely with homosexual activity, thus enhancing stigma, homophobia, and misperceptions about contracting HIV and its victims among the general public. As such, effective communication largely depends on the process component of the public’s understanding of scientific information. Once scientists are able to appropriately tailor their communication to maximize the public’s effective processing of the information, it may be possible to change the perception and misconceptions of science, as in the case of the HIV/AIDS movement.

Photo: courtesy of Jason Rao.
Photo: courtesy of Jason Rao.

Science Communication in the Information Age

Evidence must be the foundation for decisions in society. As a result, scientists have both a social and moral responsibility to communicate their evidence-based knowledge where appropriate. Effective communication to nonscientists requires accurate data that are expressed in a nontechnical manner without compromising the integrity and implications of the knowledge itself. In addition, scientists must communicate both opportunities and limitations of their science without causing undue panic or creating unrealistic expectations. A prime example of inappropriate communication of science that exacerbated the public’s expectations is the Human Genome Project, which the media sensationalized and projected as the key to solving most health issues. This type of media misinformation may buy short-term support for science but will ultimately generate long-term public mistrust of the implications of major scientific projects. Frequently, while social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been instrumental in information sharing around the world, they also create complexities in the spread of misinformation. One instance of this is the ill-conceived notion that there is a link between childhood vaccinations and autism, resulting in widespread vaccine refusal and thus damaging herd immunity and posing deep concern for public health professionals.

A Way Forward: Steps for Effectively Communicating Your Science

In the age of rapidly spreading information, which is often exacerbated by social media, it is vital that scientists know how to share their findings with the public in a simple but accurate manner.  Focusing on the process component of the IPO model will help scientists understand what is essential when sharing scientific discoveries. These four tips can help scientists around the world better communicate their science to their colleagues and the public:

  1. Tell a story: People like stories. Telling a story gives complicated research data and complex scientific concepts a more humanistic feel.
  2. Use relevant data: This helps avoid the spread of misinformation and public distrust of scientific findings. Data can often be represented in photographs, charts, and graphs that help simplify large findings without compromising their integrity, making the information conceptually easier to understand.
  3. Substitute scientific jargon for layman terms: Imagine explaining the science to your grandmother.  Avoid using terminology that you would use with your colleagues. Beware of differences in interpretation of common phrases. For example, to the public, “positive trend” might imply that something is beneficial, but that might not be what you are trying to communicate.
  4. Discuss what the public does not know: Talk about not only the opportunities of your science, but also the limitations. Talk about the questions that have yet to be answered and about how you plan on working toward addressing them. This keeps the public informed and mitigates the risk of the spread of misconceptions about the current science and what is ahead.

Effective communication is essential to informed decision making and thus advancing scientific innovation and technological development. With innovative research collaborations across the world that address many of today’s misconceived grand challenges, effective and accurate science communication to the public is critical. By engaging scientists with nonscientists, public discussion about science allows a discourse that is essential to the realm of decision-making in society.

ASM Young Ambassadors of Science are dynamic young leaders who represent ASM in their home country to facilitate networking, professional development and collaboration that strengthens science globally. ASM Young Ambassadors of Science mobilize the next generation of scientists to develop innovative approaches to meet the grand challenges in science. Learn more about becoming an ASM Young Ambassador.