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Got a Laboratory—Want Continued Success? Talk to the Public

Don Gibbons

California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, San Francisco, California, USA


Summary

Government agencies around the world that fund research have to justify sustaining their budgets. In order to be effective in this effort, they need broad public support, and that will not develop to the level necessary without greater participation by the research community in public outreach. Today’s communication tool kit provides a broad array of options for researchers to join this effort.


What Public Outreach Can Accomplish

Science policy pundits have long bemoaned the reluctance of scientists to leave the safety of their comfort zone among other scientists and talk to the public, the policy makers elected by the public, or the primary conduit to the public—the media. The need to break this mold has never been greater, and the opportunities to do so have never been so extensive. The battles among competing interests for shrinking discretionary budgets have become more intense in the U.S. and in many other countries. At the same time, avenues to engage the public have been expanded with new conduits in social media and enhancements to old-fashioned channels like the opportunities to talk directly to the public through the hundreds of “science cafés” popping up.

During a visit to the University of Washington in August 2014, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins reiterated the call for scientists to advocate for science [1]. “I think it is a particularly crucial juncture,” Collins said. “If there was a moment to kind of raise consciousness, this is kind of the moment to do that.” He was accompanied on his visit by U.S. Senator Patty Murray, and together they warned that the sequester that took a big bite out of the NIH budget in 2013—and that was partially and temporarily filled in the 2014 budget—could come “roaring back.” Collins went on to admonish scientists, “It seems to me that we all have to spend more of our time, perhaps, as ambassadors for science literacy, trying to explain what we do and why it matters.”

A small subset of scientists has already taken on this challenge, but for those newly convinced of the need to join this vital cadre, it is important to set expectations for accomplishment and to arrive at the task with the appropriate tools. Because the tools for this task are words and images, that means purging your toolkit of jargon. Increasing science literacy is not a realistic goal for an individual scientist. A single article in the media or a single face-to-face presentation generally does not teach facts. It creates an impression and, hopefully, an appreciation of the work being described and what the person doing that work is trying to accomplish.

In an introduction to the 1993 rerelease [2] of C.P. Snow’s 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Stefan Collini stated that Snow’s premise—that people who study the humanities also need to be scientifically literate—was unattainable and, more important, unnecessary. What he suggested would be more realistic was the “intellectual equivalent of bilingualism” to allow those in both cultures to communicate about their work.

I took this premise a step further writing in the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin [3] a few years later. My suggestion was that we strive for a “traveler’s bilingualism, a capacity to understand enough about another culture to enjoy and support its fruits, while respecting its limitations. Know how to pick something delectable off a French menu while having some idea of how the Franc (or Euro) conversion will impact your wallet.”

Keeping this goal in mind should ease anxieties about reaching out to the public, but it does not make it any less imperative. A poll conducted by Research America found that two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single living scientist [4]. The public clearly needs more familiarity with and appreciation of the scientific endeavor. That can come about by telling your stories, by putting a face on science and making it feel real, not like some abstract notion.

Many Tools Available, New and Old

Getting started as an advocate for science is easier today than in the past. One of the main reason is the rise of social media. The fact that social media is so varied means that there is a venue style to match most people’s preferences for interaction. A National Science Foundation report released in 2012 [5] showed that 60% of the U.S. public seeking information about specific scientific issues lists the Internet as their primary source of information.

Nature released a poll in August 2014 [6] that showed that nearly half of scientists frequently use the website ResearchGate, which has all the characteristics of information sharing found on other social media platforms. The problem with this vehicle is that you are still talking among yourselves. Less than 40% of those surveyed regularly visited Facebook, and that is a lost opportunity. Generally accepted behavior on Facebook allows you to break away from family and pet posts to talk about interesting news from your laboratory or others around the world. If you hit the right level of lay-friendly conversation, you will find that you have “outed” yourself as an accessible scientist and may get occasional messages from old classmates, neighbors, and friends asking science questions.

You could also build a following on Twitter by becoming known as someone who posts about interesting science. If you prefer something longer, you can try submitting a blog to Huffington Post or another blog aggregator site. Another option is to go to Reddit, to the SubReddit called AskScience, and answer questions posted by readers of the site. If your work is visual, YouTube offers a great venue, with the added advantage that videos do not need to be professionally produced to be widely downloaded and shared. Even an iPhone movie can become popular if it has clear content explained with a bit of fun. Don’t dismiss your still images either: the fluorescent-activated dyes used in so much stem cell science produce some beautiful images that can also tell some science. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) maintains a Flickr site on which we display images from our grantees, with short explanations of the science behind them. A new commercial company, Ilus Art (http://ilusart.com), offers this service to scientists anywhere, although it will not take all comers. If Ilus Art sells any copies of your science/art, a portion of the sale comes back to your laboratory.

As you think about these newer forms of communication, don’t forget about the old ones. Traditional media are still important, and one way to improve the science coverage in these outlets is to befriend reporters. If you meet a reporter at an event or you just see someone’s byline frequently on stories related to your field, volunteer to be available to let them vet the importance of a new paper or help explain what it really means. Sometimes making these connections can become a stepping stone to being offered the opportunity to explain your own work to the larger audience of their readership or viewership.

One of the best ways to tell your story and express your excitement about your work is still face to face. This has become much easier in the past decade with growth of the science café movement. These brief lectures and discussions in bars, cafés, and restaurants offer the chance to interact with the public in an informal setting. Most university towns have at least one. You can contact them and volunteer to talk or, if you are feeling ambitious, consider ganging up with a couple colleagues and starting a new one in your favorite pub or café. In the U.K. and Europe, you can get advice from cafescientifique.org, and in the U.S., visit sciencecafes.org, which is hosted by the PBS-produced NOVA series. You could also reach out to local civic organizations that regularly host guest speakers.

Don’t forget the policy makers elected by the people. Most research institutions have government relations staffs tasked with keeping the state and national elected officials from the region informed. Contact these offices at your institution and volunteer to go with them on any appropriate meetings with elected officials at which hearing the story directly from a scientist might be beneficial. An indirect way to do this is through voluntary health agencies. Health advocacy groups are some of the most effective lobbyists. Help them become better ambassadors for you. Talk to their memberships or have an intimate conversation with their boards.

When you practice talking about your work as a narrative story in ways that are easy to understand, you will find that it also improves your professional scientific peer presentations. At Harvard University and at CIRM, scores of researchers have been helped to improve their ability to talk to the public. Many have come back and remarked that their talks get a better reception at scientific meetings when they apply some of the same principles. Given this professional value and the need for all scientists to be versed in the skills of public outreach, don’t deny your trainees this opportunity. Let them out of the laboratory long enough to talk to the public.

David Rubenson teaches a course on professional-level presentation techniques at Stanford University and wrote a 2013 column in The Scientist [7] declaring a “communication crisis in research.” He stated that not only do scientists not communicate well with the public, they increasingly do not communicate well with each other. He noted that the sheer size of today’s scientific enterprise combined with the narrow subspecialization common in most fields means that researchers need to learn to talk across what have become “microvocabularies.” Practicing the skills needed to engage the public can help with this crisis.

The research enterprise needs everyone doing something to reach out to the public. Jai Ranganathan, cofounder of SciFund Challenge, wrote a column for Scientific American [8] titled “Scientists: Do Outreach or Your Science Dies.” He wrote that in the battle for a slice of the budget, scientists need to do what everyone else does and try to convince the public that it is worth spending money on their work. “Scientists,” he said, “this isn’t someone else’s job—this is your job, starting immediately.”

Collini was one of the first to sound this drumbeat in his 1993 introduction to The Two Cultures [2]. Attending to public awareness, he said, “is not some kind of off-duty volunteer work, but is an integral and properly rewarded part of the professional achievement in a given field.”

Correspondence: Don Gibbons, B.A., California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, 210 King Street, San Francisco, California 94107, USA. Telephone: 415-396-9117; E-Mail: DGibbons@cirm.ca.gov

Disclosures of Potential Conflicts of Interest

The author indicates no potential conflicts of interest.

Received August 15, 2014; accepted for publication August 19, 2014. ©AlphaMed Press 1066-5099/2014/$20.00/0

References

1 Ostrom C. U.S. health research funding critical, NIH head tells UW meet. Seattle Times. August 13, 2014. http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2024297882_nihuwxml.html.

2 Collini S. Introduction. In: Snow CP. The Two Cultures. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

3 Gibbons D. Border crossing. Harv Med Alumni Bull 1998.

4 Research America: National poll, May 2010. Available at http://www.researchamerica.org/uploads/2010NationalPollMay2010WEB.pdf. Accessed August 14, 2014.

5 National Science Board. Science and engineering indicators 2012. Available at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind12/. Accessed August 14, 2014.

6 Van Noorden R. Online collaboration: Scientists and the social network. Nature 2014;512:126-129.

7 Rubenson D. Opinion: Communication crisis in research. The Scientist. January 30, 2013. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/34196/title/Opinion--Communication-Crisis-in-Research/.

8 Ranganathan J. Scientists: Do outreach or your science dies. Scientific American. June 4, 2013. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/06/04/scientists-do-outreach-or-your-science-dies/.

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Government agencies around the world that fund research have to justify sustaining their budgets. In order to be effective in this effort, they need broad public support, and that will not develop to the level necessary without greater participation by the research community in public outreach. Today’s communication tool kit provides a broad array of options for researchers to join this effort.