Barriers to Science Communication and How to Overcome Them

I embarked on an effort to help colleagues and students use video as a communication tool on May 21, 2012, just over five years ago. During that time, I’ve learned a lot, especially about what can deter science professionals from trying a new means of communicating their science.

One of the most frequent comments I have gotten from colleagues is that they don’t really see the need for them to spend time 1) learning non-traditional ways to communicate (social media, blogs, videos) or 2) engaging the public. While such comments did not surprise me (I had once thought the same thing), I recognized the potential consequences of this attitude. Among other things, I understood that scientists needed to be familiar to and trusted by the general public, but that our traditional behaviors were sometimes interpreted to be arrogant, uncaring, or self-serving.

In my early talks on science communication, I often included a prophetic quote from a British report on science communication: “In modern democratic conditions, science, like any other player in the public arena ignores public attitudes and values at its peril” (Anon. Science and Society Report, House of Lords, 2000). As we’ve all seen in recent months, the scientific community in the U.S. has received a rude wake-up call to the fact that the science enterprise is under attack and that one reason is the failure on the part of science practitioners to effectively communicate why science is important to society. As a consequence, some science professionals are rethinking their past practice of staying sequestered in their ivory towers and avoiding contact with the people who fund their research (i.e., taxpayers). The most dramatic manifestation of this shift was the March for Science, held in Washington, D.C. April 22, 2017 and in various other locations around the world.

Granted, there are lots of pitfalls in putting yourself and your science on public display, especially without the training to do it properly. But I think we’re seeing that staying disengaged from the public is perhaps even more dangerous. We are in a critical transition period—from a time when only a select few scientists communicated with the public to a situation in which anyone with a cell phone and an Internet connection can reach millions of viewers with their science message. At the same time, antiscience groups are on the rise and taking advantage of advances in communication technology. My impression is that those who are attacking science and “facts” are far more skilled at crafting and delivering their messages than those of us in science. And they appear to be far better organized and dedicated to communicating their message than we are. This dichotomy should be disturbing to all science professionals.

Those of us in science are still learning how (and whether) to make use of new means of communication; not surprisingly, there can be mistakes and failures during this learning phase. However, with proper training and preparation, the next generation of science professionals will be better positioned to navigate this new communication landscape. Better training, combined with a new impetus for scientists to engage in non-traditional means of communicating their science, will help to overcome the barriers described above.

When I started this blog, there was some help for scientists interested in learning new communication approaches, but not a lot focused on teaching science professionals how to use video to share their work. In this blog and on my YouTube channel, I’ve aimed my tips and tutorials at the working science professional who doesn’t have the resources to hire a media specialist or the technical skills and training to make their own videos (as opposed to professional science communicators who have formal training in crafting science messages and in the use of audiovisual media to convey those messages). My goal has been to help others avoid mistakes and waste time in preparing science videos.

In celebration of my blog’s anniversary (and reward for reading to the end of this post), I’ve made my book, The Scientist Videographer (text version) available for free at InstaFreebie. It’s part of a 20-author giveaway–check it out!

Basic Steps to Making a Science Video with a Smartphone

One of the biggest barriers for scientists to use video as a communication tool is the perception that video making is time consuming, expensive, and technically challenging. I know that this idea is out there not only because of comments from colleagues, but because this was my impression before I got involved in making videos. What I eventually learned was that advances in communication technology have made it possible for anyone to make a video—with inexpensive equipment and a minimum of time and effort. We now have (1) devices and software that make it ridiculously easy to create an effective and powerful video message and (2) the Internet where we can instantly share our knowledge globally.

To address this particular barrier, I’ve created a new tutorial that is designed to show the science professional just how easy it is now to create a video to share science. My goal with this brief tutorial was to demystify the video-making process for colleagues and students unfamiliar with it and to show how easy it is to plan, film, and edit a video with a smartphone (iPhone). I’ve emphasized the use of smartphones in this particular tutorial because: (1) most people already have one and know how to use it, (2) they have excellent cameras that can produce high definition video, (3) there are excellent movie-editing apps for mobile devices, (4) both the camera and editing software can be readily mastered with minimal training and effort, (5) their Internet accessibility facilitates sharing the video with others, and (6) filming, editing, and sharing a video is accomplished with a single device. Although other types of recording devices and more sophisticated editing software are available, they require somewhat more time and effort to master.

Here’s that tutorial (click here for a direct link):

Bow Shock

Photo by Christian Nielsen at unsplash.com

The film opens with a time-lapse of an astronomical observatory framed against a backdrop of stars rotating slowly overhead in the night sky. We hear foreboding music that suggests the inevitable passage of time. Then we see astronomers at work inside the observatory gathering data from various sensors and arrays aimed at nearby asteroids, distant stars, and far-away galaxies. Throughout the night, the scientists and staff deal with routine problems such as a faulty temperature sensor. Meanwhile, the telescope camera is methodically snapping images of celestial objects.

 The next morning, a young researcher notices an unusual visual pattern in the night’s data—a curved distortion in space that resembles a bow wave generated by a ship moving through the ocean. Such interstellar phenomena are called bow shocks. But this one seems to be different. She takes her discovery to the director of the astronomical institute, who is taping a public service video about their new telescope and state-of-the-art camera, which captures the telescope’s entire field of view and creates a tridimensional cartographic image of the sky. After she finishes recording the voice-over for the video, the director tells the young scientist to put her images from last night’s work on screen. They watch as the computer stitches the images into a time-lapse view of the bow wave moving diagonally across the starscape. The young researcher estimates that it is traveling at about one third the speed of light. More calculations reveal that the bow wave is passing through the Oort Cloud in the outer reaches of our solar system. Whatever it is, it’s right on our doorstep.

Then, the director points out something really astonishing…the bow wave appears to be slowing down.

Although the scenes depicted above are fiction, they were filmed at a very real observatory, newly built for the purpose of wide-field optical surveys of the universe—the Observatorio de Astrofísico de Javalambre located at Sierra de Javalambre in Teruel, Spain. The film, entitled “Bow Shock” is a collaboration between filmmaker Javier Diez and scientists from the Javalambre Physics of the Accelerating Universe Astrophysical Survey (J-PAS). It was screened at the 2016 Imagine Science film festival and later archived at Labocine—a platform for new-wave science films. Watch it here: Bow Shock.

We are all familiar with science fiction films, which often take us to the edges of human imagination: The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner. Alien. But Bow Shock belongs to a new genre called “scientific fiction”, which is a cross-fertilization of science fact and cinema. Emphasis is on getting the technical details right (something Hollywood often fails at) while telling a compelling story (something Hollywood excels at). In this particular film, the observatory and its research goals are real, but the story being told (about the bow wave discovery) is fictional. The idea is to provide an accurate account of the science while telling an intriguing story of how scientists of the future might use this new observatory to spot evidence of extraterrestrial life or other celestial phenomena. It’s an interesting approach that, in my opinion, has a lot of promise.

Bow Shock is a good example of scientific fiction—in this instance with actors playing the parts of scientists and observatory staff. The film is technically sound, well made with eye-popping visuals of astronomical techniques, and tells an intriguing story. Information about the observatory’s unique telescope and camera system is cleverly conveyed in the fictional story by having one of the characters record a public service video summarizing key features of the system. This approach is much more palatable than having a scientist give a dry, awkward speech on camera to introduce the observatory and its equipment. The fictional story about the bow wave does more than capture and hold the viewer’s attention while the more technical aspects are presented. It illustrates how astronomers look for unusual patterns in data collected with telescopes. By featuring the bow wave phenomenon, the film not only shows how astronomical research is conducted, but also how the observatory might make important discoveries in the future.

Of course, the biggest discovery would be to find signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The film hints at this possibility, and the scientist actors speculate about how First Contact might occur and what response we might expect. This focus on First Contact takes advantage of people’s fascination with the question of whether life exists outside the Earth. There’s also a bit of historical irony in the film when the Spain-based astronomers recall what happened when Spanish conquistadors encountered the people of the New World. The analogy between early (Spanish) explorers sailing the oceans in search of new trade routes and spacefaring aliens sailing across the galaxy suggests to the viewer some potential outcomes based on known historical encounters. In other words, the film gives the viewer a lot to think about, but without resorting to exaggeration of the science.

Using scientific fiction to convey information about science is an interesting idea. Scientists often struggle to talk about their research in a way that is both understandable and appealing to the average person. Scientific fiction might be helpful in this regard, especially to show how a line of research might lead to breakthroughs in the future. By taking this approach, science filmmakers can spark people’s imagination about what discoveries a line of research may reveal. Humans are hard-wired to get their information in the form of a story. And, making such a film could be a lot of fun. Bow Shock was made by professional filmmakers and actors, but such a film could be made by a group of scientists or science students collaborating with film school faculty and students, for example. The scientists would ensure that the technical details were conveyed accurately, and the filmmakers would provide the cinematic expertise and acting talent. Coming up with a fictional story that is scientifically accurate would be challenging, but could be enlightening for the scientists involved. For more examples of scientific fiction films, check out the Labocine series.

Of course, you don’t have to make up a story to create a compelling film about science or scientists. In my next post, I’ll talk about taking a documentary approach to making films about science that resonate with viewers who otherwise have little interest in science.

Teaching Better Communication Skills in Science Courses

In the wake of the recent U.S. presidential election, scientists are redoubling efforts to communicate the importance of science to society. Part of such an effort must be to train the next generation of scientists to be more effective communicators than my generation was. For some years now, there has been a growing movement to improve communication of science. Courses and programs focused on teaching scientists and science students to be better communicators have been implemented at a few institutions of higher learning (for example, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stoney Brook University). Some science societies (AGU is a great example) also are sponsoring keynote talks at conferences on science communication as well as workshops and webinars that teach members about new communication tools and practices.

Progress has been slow, however, and many science students still receive little, if any, training in science communication. At best, undergraduate and graduate students may be given class assignments that provide training in traditional modes of scientific communication—writing a scientific report or giving a conference talk, for example. Although such skills are necessary for someone to succeed in a scientific career, new skills involving modern communication technologies are increasingly required of science professionals. Furthermore, some experts say that scientists wishing to inform the public about the importance of their work must go where the consumers of science information hang out: social media (Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat) and media-sharing platforms (YouTube, Instagram, Vine). To do so will require 21st century communication tools and knowledge of how to use them. Those who acquire such skills early will be at an advantage later in their careers—an ability to communicate with a diverse audience may even make a difference in getting a job. More broadly, a large cohort of trained scientist communicators can help counter anti-science and pseudo-science movements, which threaten the way science and scientists are perceived by policy makers, the media, and the general public.

Of course, not every science professional can or should become a highly visible communicator on the order of Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. That level of participation and visibility is not what I am talking about. Instead, I’m suggesting that we raise the overall communication skill level of students just enough so that when they must interact with policy makers or the general public as scientists, they can do so more effectively and confidently. One way to encourage and train students to communicate science is to make learning communication skills part of science courses. In addition to the typical course material, students may be given assignments that help them become better communicators. They might create a talk for the general public; an infographic about an important scientific issue; or a video about a species, habitat, or process covered in the class material. The idea would be to introduce students to 21st century communication methods as well as to begin their training in how to effectively engage audiences outside the scientific community.

So, how might this work in a science class?

Recently, I was asked by a colleague, Dr. Tracy Quirk, at Louisiana State University to speak to her class about how to make videos to share science. The course is called “Plants in Coastal Environments”, which covers the distribution and ecology of plants growing in coastal wetlands and adjacent habitats. The course is taught in conjunction with a university-wide program, Communication Across the Curriculum, which endeavors to enhance students’ communication skills in four areas (speaking, writing, visual, and technological). The course must focus on two of these four communication skills and create class assignments that address the requirements for those selected modes. For example, to demonstrate visual skill to communicate discipline-specific information, students might create a video or some other sophisticated visual product. In a communication-intensive course, a portion of the final grade must reflect communication-based work.

One of the class assignments for this particular class was to select a plant species studied in the course and make a video about it. There were about twenty students, who worked in pairs to design and produce a video about coastal plants such as Avicenna germinans (black mangrove), Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass), or Taxodium distichum (bald cypress). Early in the semester, I gave an hour lecture in which I covered some basic information about planning, filming, and editing a video—enough to help the students avoid common filmmaking mistakes and to give them a few ideas for designing their video projects. The students then worked on their video assignments through the following weeks, many filming parts of their video during class field trips to the coast of Louisiana or, for graduate students, during field trips to their research sites.

I again visited the class near the end of the semester when the students presented their completed videos. I was really impressed by the results. The videos were interesting and told intriguing stories, for example, about how a species adapts to the wetland habitat or the relationship of the species to a broader environmental issue such as the BP oil spill. Each video was required to include some data from the literature relevant to the species, and all the student videographers were able to weave that information into their stories. Overall, I could see that they had paid attention to the suggestions I made in my lecture. Most avoided the novice mistakes I often see in first-time videos. Every video was rated by each student, which provided peer feedback on which aspects were good and which could have been done better. What stood out to me was how much more appealing a video was when a student appeared on camera and told a more personal story or impression to introduce their topic. This approach was engaging and quickly grabbed the viewer’s attention. The other thing I saw was that the students came away from the experience with a better appreciation of what it takes to be an effective science communicator. And that, folks, is an important insight for someone who plans to be a science professional.

Below are two of the videos created by students in this class (direct links to videos here and here):

In summary, by emphasizing the use of communication tools such as video in science class assignments, educators can help raise the overall communication skill level of students and better prepare them to compete in the 21st century. As I said above, the goal is not to create an army of Carl Sagan clones, but simply to help future scientists be a bit more engaging and informative in their interactions with the lay public. A little bit of training in communication can go a long way toward improving the overall level of performance when a scientist is called upon to be interviewed by the news media, to testify before Congress, or to give a public lecture about science.

If you are a science educator and are interested in learning more about how to teach better communication skills or if you are a student wanting to acquire those skills, there are many tools and resources available (for example, see the AAAS site or the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science).

Use Animation to Tell a Story about Science

Telling stories about science can be fun and rewarding, but not always easy to accomplish with video. Animation software can help us tell our stories in a way that is appealing both visually and emotionally. Animation can be an especially good option when live action is difficult or impossible to film. You can let your imagination go wild in an animated film. The laws of physics can be suspended. Time can be compressed or expanded. The action can take place on Earth, on a distant planet in the Andromeda galaxy, or in an imaginary world populated by talking tomatoes. The hero can be a human or, just as easily, an animal or a machine. Characters in a story can have ordinary traits or be imbued with magical powers. The possibilities are endless.

Animation can come in handy telling stories about science or scientists. With an animation, a science filmmaker has much greater freedom to present a concept or to share a particular viewpoint. For example, you might want to show how an atoll develops over millennia from an underwater volcano (see video below), but there are some aspects that cannot be filmed easily. Using an animation to illustrate the different stages in atoll development, for example, lets the filmmaker depict geological processes that are too slow to film—and simultaneously makes the entire process easier to visualize. Basic animations like the ones in Birth of an Atoll can be created in PowerPoint.

Don’t want to have a human narrator or protagonist in your science video? With an animated film, a filmmaker can build a story around a non-human character with very human thoughts and feelings—one that appeals to a broad audience. A great example is the Disney-Pixar animated film, WALL-E (see movie trailer below), which features a lonely cleaning robot on a garbage-filled and lifeless Earth who falls in love with EVE, a more advanced robot sent to scan the planet for signs of life. The film quickly draws you in and makes you root for the little robot. Many things happen in the film that are far-fetched, but are readily accepted by the viewer. And the film gets across a message about what might happen to the Earth (and to the human race) if we aren’t careful. Telling the story from the viewpoint of a sentient machine helps the audience see, through other eyes, where rampant consumerism, corporatism, and human reliance on technology might lead. This approach works because the viewer becomes emotionally invested in the story and its characters and is thus more receptive to the underlying message.

Of course, the production of WALL-E required a vast team of scriptwriters, designers, animators, sound specialists, and more. However, you don’t need an army of professional animators to create a short film to illustrate a scientific concept or to tell a story. As I mentioned above, simple animations can be produced in PowerPoint. And for more sophisticated animation, there are a number of animation software packages that are available for both professionals and non-professionals. However, the learning curve for these applications is usually steep. And to create comic-type animations, you need some serious drawing and design skills.

What’s needed is something a bit more user-friendly. A few years ago, I discovered  MotionArtist, a Comic Animation software by SmithMicro and tried the beta version of the software to create a graphic story (Brown Marsh Apocalypse). It’s been upgraded since then, with several improvements and bug fixes. This software basically lets the user create story panels (like the ones in a cartoon), import media and then add motion to individual on-screen objects as well as to sequence everything in a timeline to tell a story. MotionArtist was designed primarily for comic artists to import their illustrations and then to animate the artwork, converting it to digital format for posting online. However, use is not limited to this narrow purpose. The import function also lets the user bring in images, video clips, and audio tracks—and these can be sequenced to tell a story—in much the same way movie editing software works to sequence video clips. Layered Photoshop files can also be imported—as a composite or as individual layers, which can then be individually animated. The screenshot below shows the MotionArtist workspace in “Director view” (click on the image to see full view).

screenshot_ma1

In the timeline (at the bottom of screen), the user creates scenes to build a storyline. Each scene contains one or more panels. A “camera view” lets the user pan across panels or zoom in or out of a panel. The scene pictured above contains three panels, the size and shape of which can be customized with shape-drawing tools. The top-left panel contains an imported video clip. The top-right panel contains a photo and a word balloon. Word balloons are easily created and animated, allowing the user to produce conversations by the characters in the story. The bottom panel contains a background photo and several individual objects (images of plant stems and snails) that were imported separately and that can be separately animated. For example, I can have a sequence in which the snails are moving up or down the plant stems. Each imported object or panel is represented in a track, stacked in the timeline. Stop points (like keyframes) are used to set the timing for each track. I wanted to add some background sound and so imported an audio file of waves lapping on the shore (this audio track is the top-most track in the timeline). The user can play the working files back in real time, which helps in editing. Once the animation is completed, the user can preview the HTML5 file online in a browser window or export as an interactive HTML5 file or as a video file.

To relearn how to use the software and examine the various features that might work with my media, I used MotionArtist to 1) illustrate a biological process and 2) tell a graphic story. I first tried to animate a leaf falling from a tree canopy to the forest floor where it fragments and decays (see video below). I used only four photographs to create this animation. You can see this brief animation below. In a future tutorial, I will show how I used MotionArtist to animate the leaves.

I also wanted to create a longer animation that told a story….one that would require me to use more of the tools and features of MotionArtist. I decided to do a sequel to the Brown Marsh Apocalypse and tell a new story about how climate change may affect coastal ecosystems in the Mississippi River Delta. Warmer temperatures during the past few decades have allowed the spread of tropical trees (called mangroves), which are replacing salt marsh grasses. How will such changes affect the coast? The tale of this environmental change is again told from the viewpoint of a marsh snail who was the hero of the previous video. This story follows Perry on a quest to find out how climate change may change the snails’ home and way of life. As you’ll see in the video below, I was able to tell the story with mostly photographs and text balloons.

In conclusion, I had a lot of fun playing around again with the MotionArtist application. I found this latest version of MotionArtist relatively easy to use, although some tasks took a bit of trial and error to figure out. As the examples I’ve shared here illustrate, animation software can be used effectively to demonstrate a scientific process or to tell a story about science…and it need not require artistic skills that the scientist videographer lacks. All it takes is imagination and the ability to visualize the story you wish to tell or the process you wish to convey.