The distinction is not trivial. I have been thinking about this alot over the last couple years while reflecting on my goals and how I can best communicate the exciting research that I and my colleagues are doing. There are different roles for each category and both persons have important, exclusive responsibilities. Science communication is a personally rewarding endeavor. Miriam, Dr. M, and I gladly (and without pay!) blog on topics we find interesting. Currently we are all scientists who attempt to be communicators as well. I think I can say that neither of us have this in our job description, yet we feel compelled to set an example as young scientists who believe that their research means nothing if it is not appreciated, or at least known, to the public whom we owe our continued support to in many cases.
I view the role of a science communicator as a purveyor of the discoveries, implications, predictions and controversies that scientists, and the scientific process, yields. They are typically concerned with the craft of writing and the art of storytelling. Science communicators have access to major media outlets, make a great attempt to reach the broadest audience possible and, with notable exception, reach a much larger number of interested and potentially interested readers. It is often their sole job to communicate science.
On the other hand, scientist communicators often aspire to communicate on par with science communicators but have limited resources (namely time) to devote to such activities except in the rare circumstances where it is part of a scientist’s job description. The desire to communicate the discovery, excitement, and implications of research effectively is matched by a plethora of responsibilities such as teaching, securing more funding for research and students, committee duties, mentorship, lab or field work. Oftentimes, communication is done on one’s own time with some amount of recourse from supervisory staff (i.e. the old guard who live in an outdated career model).
A scientist communicator offers a unique point of view and personal history that a science communicator cannot offer an audience. The in depth knowledge of their system and details of field observations, experiments, conversations with colleagues and an extraordinary breadth of literature gives the scientist a pool of knowledge to draw from that often is unmatched by most science communicators. This also has a drawback. Scientist’s often know so much it is very difficult to winnow information and discoveries into a form that is recognizable by your typical “Joe the Plumber”.
Sometimes though, people want to hear about science from the horse’s mouth. This is why scientists are asked to interviews by the media, specifically radio and TV. Some scientists are very good at discussing science with an interviewer. They are elegant in their information translation, responsive to the interviewer, well-composed and able to think quickly on their feet. Many are not and appear annoyed or uncomfortable, stumble over their words, interject rehearsed soundbites in lieu of preparedness to be interviewed and fail to personalize research and the field of science as a whole.
So why not substitute the science communicator in place of the scientist during these moments? This is essentially what happens in newspapers, magazines, websites and press offices. The science communicator is often thought of as the translator, someone with a well-practiced grasp of language and grammar, and who is smart enough to not only understand the concepts and write about them for a lay audience, but also to ask the right questions to be able to get the most information out of the scientist. It would seem reasonable that interviewers should talk with science communicators instead scientists. As I discussed above though, people like to hear the information from the originator instead of a middleman. They want their discoveries full proof, straight-laced without any preservatives or additives.
But, there is another, possibly more important role for the scientist communicator that a science communicator cannot provide. It is a calling beyond the role of communicating their life’s work to the public. It is as a role to provide a career model for other up-and-coming scientists. To say it is OK to talk about this stuff. Go ahead and blog on some neat paper. Engage the public in scientific discourse, view it as a learning experience for the both of you. Give public lectures about your research. IT IS ACCEPTABLE TO BE EXCITED BY SCIENCE AND TALK ABOUT IT OPENLY. Many students and staff do not have this role model. The traditional, outdated model of a career in science stifles enthusiasm. That very enthusiasm that made you interested in science to begin with!
The public feeds off of enthusiasm. If you are studying a neat system and tell everyone you know what cool things you study, important questions you are answering or strange creatures that you found then YOU ARE DOING OUTREACH. And its OK. I’ve done some of my best science outreach at the local pubs or airport bars during layovers just talking to the people around me. But scientists that are excited about their work sometimes suffer from over-enthusiasm too. IT IS NOT ALL ABOUT US! Do not lose sight of what a discussion is: a two- (or more) way conversation. Scientists need to be better listeners. Our traditional mode of communication is the lecture. We stand on our soap box and command the world’s attention. Well “Joe the Plumber” has something to say too and it is just as important as what we have to say.
In fact, what “Joe the Plumber” has to say is more important than our research or enthusiasm. The words coming out of his mouth during a conversation can be more informative than our many years of working on one of the most important problems in basic science. “Joe the Plumber” has the ability to let us know how well we are communicating and how well we can cross ideological boundaries. Not only us as scientists but the entire field of science. All you have to do is listen. Stand down off your soap box, grab a beer, look him in the eyes and listen to what he has to say. Show Joe that you are real person, with compassion and an interest in the very person who indirectly funds your research with his working-wage sweaty, grimy job pulling hairballs out of your shower drain. Ask him questions about his work and life too. SHOW AN INTEREST IN PEOPLE. One of the best ways to be a scientist communicator may indeed be by not being “such a scientist” as Randy Olson would pontificate (review of his book forthcoming).
Most other professions realized this long ago, but a member of a group is a representative of that group, whether they want to be or not. We as scientists are all communicators whether we want to be or not. It isn’t even a question of merely abstaining from communication. You are still a role model to your colleagues or students. If you don’t like it, sorry, do your best to stay away from the camera and journalists because now, more than ever, we need people to talk about science and make discussing it openly in the barroom or with the average “Joe the Plumber” the norm. The science communicator has a very important role in this by popularizing science, but only the scientist communicator can be a role model to other scientists and show the public that we are human and care about what they have to say.