Lately, I have been hearing a lot about "sci-comm" - the art of effective communication of science to the public. Conferences on "sci-comm" here, workshops there, it's seems to be the soup de jour. I think most scientists can see the value of greater public engagement in the comprehension of research findings. Regardless, Some say we have a science communication problem, citing that the average citizen has little knowledge of where most scientific fields stand and/or where they are going. Still, others contend we have a lack of interest in science, in that the average citizen is too bogged-down in everyday life to be bothered with the news of the latest discovery. I don't have the answer to the question of how to get the public more engaged with science. But, I do think that the journalism industry holds the key.
Take the recent Science article (4 January 2019 issue) "Synthetic glycolate metabolism pathways stimulate crop growth and productivity in the field", by Paul South, Amanda Cavanagh, Helen Liu, and Donald Ort , which published an undoubtedly-monumental finding with huge potential impact. South et al. showed that by bio-engineering the C3-photosynthetic photo-respiratory recycling pathway (using genes from E. coli, Arabidopsis and other organisms), a 30% increase in C3 crop biomass can be achieved. Given the prevalence of C3 crop plants throughout the world, especially in the developing tropics, the finding has potential to increase human food security as the global population continues to grow. Pretty awesome stuff! Hooray for Science!
The web-page for Science, shows that article was shared 3.15k times on Facebook. A google news search for "photosynthesis" returned several hits (see photo below). Altmetric has the article's score at a whopping 1918, being mentioned in 118 news outlets, blogged by 17 (now 18, I reckon), tweeted by thousands, the list goes on. For reference, the highest Altmertic of any scientific publication I've been involved with is 19, an order of magnitude lower.
My point is that I personally don't know for sure that science communication is the problem. Perhaps it's a personal science-digestion problem, which even the most-experienced scientists work hard to alleviate. As a scientist, I tip to my hat to those journalists that take the time to write about science in lieu of writing about whatever other news may be out there (politics, economics, etc.), although all of the non-scientific news is definitely important (and I do my fare share of consuming that too).
I recently had a chance to interact with a scientific journalist, Ms. Amber Dance, writer from The Scientist, who wrote a nice piece on "How Trees Fare in Big Hurricanes." Our interactions included one friendly conservation over Skype and a few emails back and forth. I initially took for grated Amber's seemingly well-rounded knowledge of the effects of hurricanes on forests, as it was clear that she had dug into the scientific literature. Her questions were on point, and she explained to me that she was writing a piece that intended to document just how trees and forests recover over time after damaging hurricanes. She knew the names of several prominent researchers in the field, and at no point did I feel that I was talking to someone that was not a scientist. I did not think too much of it, honestly.
But now as I think back to it, I am taken-aback by her knowledge and expertise. The fact is that Amanda is not a forest ecologist (although she could have fooled anyone), and definitely invested a great deal of time in reading the scientific papers needed to write her piece. Scientific journalists are tasked with distilling primary research articles down to the publicly-relevant details. They skim through dense prose littered with scientific jargon and citations - random names interject haphazardly into sentences - , statistical minutiae, purely academic justifications and unnecessary details in search of that nugget of information that actually matters to the general public. Then the good ones, take the time to talk to with the experts to confirm that they are, in fact, representing things correctly. In a way there is a bit of overlap in the work of scientists and journalists that feature their work in more popular venues, however, I contend, that it is primarily the work of the latter that disseminate the work for the former. Therefore, as a scientist, I tip my hat to journalists, like Ms. Amber Dance for their work in bridging the gap between the findings and the public. It was a pleasure.
Go check out the article
I'll leave you with an awesome, Luquillo-inspired info-graphic that Amber and her colleagues (copyright Julia Moore) produced:
in summary, leave the science to the scientists and the communication to the communicators (i.e. journalists). They know what they are doing and do a far better job of it that any scientist ever could.
Thank you for reading my blog. Comments welcome! ♠
James "Aaron" Hogan is a tropical plant ecologist interested in tropical plant biodiversity and global climate change.