Why Researchers Should Interact With The Public

Scientists usually have a strong opinion about directly sharing their work with the public. Some think it is not only a good idea but essential for scientists to explain their research in everyday language to a broad audience. Others think such efforts are a waste of time—time they could be spending on their research. I’m in the former camp, but once thought that I did not have time for outreach and that it had little or no benefit for me. I knew there were science communicators whose job it was to translate my science for public consumption; so why should I waste my valuable time?

I changed my mind when a “communication specialist” attempted to write about one of my research projects. As the expert, I was asked to review and revise the piece before it was published. Well, I was horrified to see that the article was terrible and would have conveyed an inaccurate picture of my research and, by extension, of me. I spent a lot of time trying to “fix” the article. I kept going back and forth with the author trying to explain why what she said was confusing and not totally accurate. Finally, I threw up my hands and said (to myself), “It would have been easier if I had written this myself.”  That piece was never published, but I went on to write a non-technical fact sheet on the topic, which was published. That was the beginning. I went on to write several more fact sheets and non-technical articles and, eventually, to make videos about my research. I discovered that I enjoyed creating these information products and that they were very popular, especially with students.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of great science communicators out there who do a wonderful job describing scientific discoveries and the underlying research. If you are lucky enough to work with one of them, you should. My point in describing my experience is to show what it took to change my mind about interacting with the public and to also suggest that as scientific researchers, we have a unique perspective on the topic that the public wants to hear.

I was reminded of my experience when I came across a brief video on the National Science Foundation’s website by Lawrence Krauss, well-known physicist and recipient of the 2012 Public Service Award. In it, he makes the case for scientists to share their work with the general public. Take a look, and then I’ll have a few more words to say about the topic and my experiences along these lines. In case you can’t see the player window, here is the direct link: http://bcove.me/lt4ojvh7

Why Is Interacting with the Public Important?

I’ve discussed the various reasons why scientists should explain their work to the public in previous blog posts. Dr. Krauss mentions a few. One reason is that our research is paid for by public funds (in one way or another), which means the average person on the street has a right to know what we are doing. Not all researchers would agree with this. However, long gone are the days when a scientist could stay sequestered in their ivory tower. We may be called upon to explain our work on camera or to comment on a disaster. I and my colleagues are often contacted by journalists, by scientific journals (for a comment on a recent publication), and by local TV stations; a few colleagues have even been asked to testify before Congress. Having good communication skills are increasingly essential for researchers. Being a good communicator, however, like anything else, takes practice. And talking to the public or to the media is not the same as interacting with your colleagues. By being proactive and interacting with the public (e.g., giving a public lecture or inviting a school group to your lab), we gain valuable experience that may come in handy in the future.

There is a more important reason than the public’s right to know, however. It is in our own best interests to keep the public informed and interested in scientific research. Science funding is influenced by public opinion, and we should be concerned about what the public thinks of science and scientists. There are a number of anti-science and pseudoscience groups that are well-funded and technologically savvy. Their rhetoric may misinform the public and sway opinions unless scientists step up and provide credible and accurate information to counter outlandish claims. This, for me, is a strong motivation….much more so than simply wanting to explain my work because it’s important or interesting.

I liked the point made in the video that the ideas and discoveries in science are part of our culture like art or music or literature and should be more broadly shared. Although it is satisfying to contribute to scientific knowledge, it is doubly rewarding to know that you’ve also made a contribution to the cultural landscape by broadly sharing your insights about the Earth or the universe. By communicating our research directly, we can share our scholarly pursuits with people who otherwise may never have the experience. What motivated us to study viruses or how we managed to collect our samples from an active volcano is information that reveals us to be human and is what people can relate to.

I think many researchers are hesitant to share their work with the public because of the perception that the public doesn’t care about science. However, the public is most definitely interested in science, in new ideas, and in exciting discoveries. One only need look at the millions of viewers attracted by TED videos to be convinced of this. As Dr. Lawrence suggests, give it a try…you might be pleasantly surprised at the reaction. Yes, there are concerns about attracting negative attention by going public, especially if you work in a “controversial” field such as climate science. However, for most researchers, this is not a major concern.

Unexpected Bonus of Public Interaction

Dr. Krauss made an excellent point right at the beginning: a good way to understand things is to explain them. For early-career researchers, experience explaining your work to broader audiences will build confidence and may also have a feedback effect on your research. A deeper understanding (and appreciation) of my subject has been for me an unexpected and useful outcome of developing information products for a general audience. For one thing, the process has helped me see things through my audience’s eyes—which has improved my technical presentations and writing.

Explaining complex science topics so that the general public can understand also makes you really think about the broader aspects of your research. Why is my work important to society? What would the average person find interesting about it? How will it advance knowledge in my field? What are the broader implications of my work? What new questions does my research raise? A number of funding agencies (e.g., the U.S. National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health) expect researchers to be able to articulate the “broader impacts” of their proposed project in grant proposals. An ability to explain your work to a broader audience will put you at an advantage over those colleagues who lack those skills or who choose to remain in their ivory tower.

Encourage, Don’t Discourage Researchers to Interact with the Public

Not every scientist should interact with the public. As Dr. Krauss points out, there are some researchers who should be kept in the ivory tower—you can probably think of a few colleagues who belong in this category. It would be a mistake for an administrator, for example, to force all researchers in their organization to interact with the public. Instead, we should encourage those scientists who have good teaching (or other interpersonal) skills to explain their work more widely. In any scientific discipline there are thousands of members; if only a small percentage give public lectures, start science blogs, or make science videos, there will be a significant impact.

We also should be encouraging and training the next generation of scientists to be better communicators—something that a few schools are implementing in their science curricula. I find that many more students these days express an interest in science communication, and this may have a snowball effect as they become teachers and mentors to future generations of scientists.

In summary, there are many ways for scientists to interact with the public and a number of benefits for the individual scientist as well as for the science community as a whole. Also, there are various ways for a scientist to interact with the public. Since this is a blog about science videography, I have to say that video is a very effective and efficient way to share your research with the public. When I think back to the time when I thought public engagement was a waste of time, I cringe. But I do understand the mindset of those researchers who avoid interacting with the public. As Dr. Krauss suggests, if you feel really uncomfortable, then perhaps you shouldn’t. However, it’s worth trying at least once. Who knows? Like me, you may discover a whole new way of communicating.