Direct from the bench and the trench: a DSN core value

A month ago, I spoke of DSN’s new pathway for dialogue about the oceans and ocean science.  We have committed to demystifying and humanizing science in an open conversation that instills passion, awe, and responsibility for the oceans. Part of this vision for DSN was establish a set of core values that transcended just this website but defined important principles for science outreach. 

Holly spoke eloquently on how it is vital that we change the culture of not only ocean science but science itself.  Why? As Holly states “My sister’s high school friends don’t have aspirations to become a stuffy, boring intellectuals.” We have created our own catastrophe when we fail to inspire youth into our ranks.  Moreover, the catastrophe progresses because we fail to excite the public, the very body who funds our work.  At what point have we created a barrier where we go from inquisitive youth to the extinction of whole fields of science? At what point has science become decoupled from society in the public mind? Ironically this has occurred at a point when our society has never been more dependent on science.

We need a revolution.

The vehicle for this revolution is for scientists to form a direct line of communication with the public.   A DSN core value is “Direct from the bench and the trench: We believe in directly communicating science to the public without barriers and intermediaries.”  Or as stated in the excellent Worlds Apart by Hartz and Chapell, “the initial link in the communications chain connecting new knowledge to the public must be forged by scientists and engineers themselves.”  I realized this is in direct opposition to my colleagues and others who state something similar to “it’s disgraceful that scientists should have the need to also become spokespersons for their science at all — that they should have to practice messaging and wage a PR war in the first place. Sound science should speak for itself.”

I don’t agree with this.  It’s disgraceful when scientists are not the spokespersons for science.  Because…

  1. Taxpayers deserve to hear from us directly.  Every time we accept National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health funding we become public servants.  When we are paid salaries by public universities we become public servants.  As public servants, our supervisors are those public who fund us.  We are required to report to them.  Yet we as scientists have not and then ponder why the funding of science is low.
  2. Mainstream media too often does not get science and science communication right.  And unfortunately scientists, not the media, are held accountable for their failure.  The results of a survey, published in the report Worlds Apart showed that neither scientists nor journalists think the media do a good job of explaining science to the public.  “Only 11 percent of the scientists surveyed expressed a great deal of confidence in the press, while 22 percent said they have hardly any. Two-thirds said ‘only some’.” With this level of confidence in the media why would scientists ever entrust them to communicate science to the public?
  3. The mainstream media rarely pays attention to us.  As Holly noted, scientists do not occur in Glamour or GQ.  We are not seen as the movers and shakers of the society.  When the media pays attention to us we are delegated to scientific outlets, e.g. Scientific American, Wired, science section of the New York Times, where we are preaching to the choir.  Again from Worlds Apart commenting on the media’s neglect of Nobel Prize winners questioning the science-funding crisis, “Most media organizations evidently thought that even the newest American Nobel Prize winners were not worth listening to. None of the major networks carried the scientists’ remarks. But then, no major network had carried the announcement a week earlier that the men had won Nobel Prizes.”  It is nothing less than appalling that the announcement of Nobel Prize winners is ignored yet in the last twenty-four hours approximately 3,000 new pieces on Lindsay Lohan have been published.
  4. Mainstream media filters science, determining what is important and what is not. Interestingly, when surveyed at least 40 percent of the journalists agreed that “the news media underestimate the public by assuming it prefers stories about scandals to stories about major challenges confronting science and technology.” 454 sequencing of nematodes is never going to hit mainstream media, but I dare you read Holly’s post and not get excited about it.  Again, the public funds science and they deserve to hear about all of it.  Without us as scientist communicators, who would speak on these topics?  Search for the #evolution hashtag on Twitter and you will be amazed at how little of the Tweets deal with evolutionary biology. Of course, perhaps I’m bitter because I study deep-sea snails and not HIV, sex, or chocolate and press on my work is rare. The media are only convinced that you can talk about my snail research by mentioning sharks. But I reject the idea that there are certain topics the public is not interested in.  Speak about anything with passion and people will listen.  Emphasize a narrative and you have an attentive audience.  Give me 5 minutes and I can get you excited about any scientific topic.  It is not bragging just simply I am excited about science and dare you not to be while in my presence.
  5. Media often just does not know about science.  “When asked the sources [journalists] depend on for “scientific” information, more than two-thirds of the journalists (70 percent) said they “often” or “sometimes” look to the New England Journal of Medicine for stories. Just under two-thirds (62 percent) cited the Journal of the American Medical Association. Other journals used “often” or “sometimes” included: National Geographic (43 percent), Discovery (35 percent), Nature (32 percent), Scientific American (33 percent), Lancet (29 percent) and Popular Science (22 percent).”  Ninety-five percent of the journals that I read and my research depends on do not occur on this list.  Of those “journals” listed most are not actually scientific journals but rather magazines about science.  Meaning that eventually the science is occurring through not just one but two filters before the public.
  6. Let’s admit it…often mainstream media gets science factually wrong.  It happens so often to even mention it here is cliché or trite.  Whether this stems from a lack of scientific education or laziness or some other reason, is not the point here.  But rather the science given to the public is incorrect.  A journalist reporting consistent factual errors to the public about a political figure, Hollywood actress, or sports figure would soon find himself or herself out of work.  Yet to point scientific errors is considered to be “too detailed oriented” as long as “the main message is alright.” When mainstream media provides myths, fabrications, falsehoods, lies, or any number of other sins, it is a scientist’s duty to call it out.  Take all of the factual errors surrounding the recent Weta story –  and rightly so a Ph.d. student in genetics calls them out.  The sad part is that the true story is much more interesting.
  7. A lot of discussion has also occurred that journalism is the watch guards of science (read comments of this DSN post).  The flip side of this is that scientists are unquestionably the watch guards of scientific communication.  Journalists would have you believe that they are innately less biased in presenting the true story than scientists.  I believe that both parties are biased.  Scientists have committed their lives to scientific research and want it portrayed in the best way and subsequently, but rarely, may benefit if this directly impacts their funding.  On the other hand journalists report to editors who report to boards whose primary thoughts are on readers and profits.  Most mainstream media is for profit and consequently science will be framed so that revenue is increased.
  8. Traditional media removes the excitement of new findings, passion for discovery, and the fulfillment from scientific process that scientists experience dailyAs Holly states, “Us researchers know that science is dynamic and interactive – full of passion and drive. Our colleagues have PERSONALITIES – we work with unique, intelligent people that are always a far cry from the dry, boring (old white guy) stereotype.” No scientist thinks they do boring science…because they don’t.  Nobody would dedicate as many hours for so little money if the science was not interesting or important.  Only scientists can convey this.  Because we are immersed in the process we can report it from the “bench and the trench”. Indeed, it is because of the process of science that most of us signed on for this life. Yet, media often doesn’t focus on process, “a substantial majority (62 percent) acknowledged that ‘the biggest problem with science reporting is that it only tells a small part of the whole story.’”
  9. It forces scientists to speak about why the public funding of science is essential. As anthropologist Margaret Mead explained, “I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.”  When I asked on Twitter and Facebook why we should fund basic science I received little to no response (you can expect a post on this soon) from my scientific colleagues.  Engaging in a dialogue with the public means, as we should have been doing from day one, we have to present why our science is important and relevant.
  10. It removes stereotypes of what scientists are and are not.  Holly’s excellent post again addresses this issue.  Opening up this direct dialogue only helps with this issue. Last year, a student at a school in Nebraska told me, “Your are more normal than I thought you would be.”  Problem is no one ever told me, or any of the scientists I know, scientists all supposed to act a certain way.  At a recent cocktail party, someone was surprised to hear I was scientist, that I would attend a cocktail party, or that that I would be dressed well.  In actuality, I am “normal” person immersed in popular culture and very excited that MTV brought back Beavis and Butthead.  Everyone keeps talking about an ivory tower.  Hell if I know where that is.  Scientists are the public.  We are your next-door neighbors. Your friends.  In fact one may be right behind you now.
  11. We actually speak to the public well.  From Worlds Apart,  “the one complaint heard most from journalists was that scientists are ‘so intellectual and immersed in their own jargon that they can’t communicate with journalists or the public.’” The first time I ever published an article in a mainstream media outlet, I had to have journalist jargon explained to me.  My dad, who worked in a factory making barbwire, had a jargon… galvanization, star post, down draw.  Every field, every job, and every area, scientific or not, has a jargon.  You know this… we call it shop talk.  We all have problems turning it off.  When scientists write for science we use a specific language.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk to the public.  Gould, Sagan, Earle, Wilson, Carson are just a few examples.  The internet is resplendent with old and young scientists alike in daily dialogue with the public.
  12. Scientists are more engaging, entertaining, and humorous than the mainstream media.  Because of this we are more likely to get the public engaged.  Even when confined to the dry and emotionless forum of a scientific paper, we strive for comedy. “No data were taken at station D during the period 0830 to 1630 due to the presence of a red racer snake (Coluber constrictor) draped across the high-tension wires (33,000 V) serving the station. However, even though this snake, or rather a three-foot section of its remains, was caught in the act of causing an arc between the transmission lines, we do not consider it responsible for the loss of data. Rather we blame the incompetence of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo borealis) who had apparently built a defective nest that fell off the top of the nearby transmission tower, casting her nestlings to the ground, along with their entire food reserve consisting of a pack rat, a kangaroo rat, and several snakes, with the exception of the abovementioned snake who had a somewhat higher destiny. No comparable loss of data occurred at the other antenna site.”  Or if you need more fodder of scientists having fun

And we must not forget the most important one, we have a plethora of venues to engage the public about science.  Grocery stores, cocktail parties, gym, blogs, Twitter, Glamour magazine (with some work), Facebook, mechanic’s garage, flight, at our favorite restaurant.  Unlike science journalists, we are not limited to mainstream media.  We can strike the conversation anywhere and relay our first person experience.

Dr. M (1628 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, created to facilitate research to address fundamental questions in evolutionary science. He has conducted deep-sea research for 11 years and published over 40 papers in the area. He has participated in dozens of expeditions taking him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses mainly on marine systems and particularly the biology of body size, biodiversity, and energy flow. He focuses often on deep-sea systems as a natural test of the consequences of energy limitation on biological systems. He is the author and chief editor of Deep-Sea News, a popular deep-sea themed blog, rated the number one ocean blog on the web and winner of numerous awards. Craig’s popular writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.





8 comments on “Direct from the bench and the trench: a DSN core value
  1. The one thing I’d note with this, and particularly #11 and #12 is that, in order to do this effectively, we need some training. Some training in how to break the shop-talk cycle. Some training in how to give a public lecture to a broad audience (i.e., some public speaking training!) Some training in how to effectively communicate to a non-science community by the written word (the style is different!) And some training in messaging – how to say what you want to say in the most effective way possible. It’s why I’m thankful for groups like COMPASS and why I want to continue teaching my theater-tools-for-scientists workshops.

    Right now, this is too often seen as something for someone who just happens to have a media-ready project, or for postdocs/profs. I think it needs to come in earlier and be an actual part of training one to be a scientist. It’s part of the job, so why not treat it as such.

    The nice thing about this is that these skills not only make one better at directly communicating their science to a broad audience, but, I’d argue they make one a better communicator WITHIN the Academy, and hence a better scientist overall.

    • I understand your point. But we weren’t always scientists. We knew how to talk to the public before we were scientists. Moreover, I encounter everyday scientist who can speak about their science with passion and clarity. I wonder if we are contributing to the problem more when we say that scientists need training to do this, i.e. if scientists think they cannot do this without training. Most everyone I know who does this well did not receive formal training. Rather I think they stop gap maybe the culture of diminishing the importance of this public conversation.

      • But communication skills are something that some people happen to do well. We all know scientists and non-scientists alike who are not great communicators. If communication is considered an important part of what scientists are expected to do, then I think that giving them some training in that area is very important. I think that this is very much analogous to the assumption that having a PhD makes one capable of teaching. Yes, some of them may be naturally gifted as teachers, but the assumption that just because they attended classes makes them effective educators (or because they have been communicated to makes them effective communicators) doesn’t work. These are skills, and as such, they can (and should) be taught to those who don’t possess them naturally.

      • We knew how to talk to the public before we were scientists.

        I would disagree with this. Strongly. I think anyone who wants to go and communicate their passion to a general audience effectively needs some kind of training. Many of us were fortunate to get it in some form in high school – e.g., theater nerds like me or performers like Kevin. Some are just naturally good communicators due to something inherent in their background. But plenty more (the vast majority) don’t have anything and are terrified of speaking – even to an audience that knows what they’re talking about. You can see this at work by just going to any scientific meeting. And that’s a ‘safe’ audience! Or, ask people in other professions if they’d feel comfortable getting up in front of an audience or being put in front of a camera to talk about their work. Most of the time, the answer is no.

        Acawood hits it right on the head – the ability to be a good communicator is a skill. We learn it in a myriad of ways. Passion helps. But a good 75% of PEOPLE (not just scientists) (yes, I’m totally making that number up, but it feels about right) need some form of training to become good communicators and have most likely not gotten it by the time they hit grad-school age.

        Perhaps I can add to your comments to make it more accurate – we contribute to the problem when we say that scientists, and only scientists, are different than everyone else and hence need training to be good communicators. By culturing a disciplinary fear that we are different and need training while the rest of the world is naturally good at public communication, we are setting ourselves apart in a way that is ultimately detrimental to bringing our hot science to a wider audience. The abilities to be an effective communicator are learned, not innate. We all start out pretty bad at it. But practice practice practice and learning the techniques of communication can make a world of difference.

        (and, heck, a lot of training is just giving someone a venue to practice with low fear of failure!)

  2. Fantastic! My thoughts exactly. Too many scientists sit in ivory towers, ignoring the people they’re doing science for. Bravo!

  3. I really like this series of posts from DSN regarding science’s image problems. I have a BS in Biology, but chose to go into informal education after college. I still like to keep up on research, but you really do have to seek it out. Meanwhile, anyone hears what Lindsay Lohan is up to whether they want to or not! Anyways, I look a bit more like Holly (although without that fab skirt!) than the stuffy scientist image, so I hope I’m doing my part to let people know that science is cool and extremely relevant.

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