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 [bc]http://bcove.me/lt4ojvh7[/bc]

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.

Coming Soon to a Journal Near You: Video Abstracts

[note that this is an updated version of an article I wrote for another blog]

pointatcomputer copyA relatively new trend at some science journals is the publication of video abstracts alongside the written article—in which the authors explain their findings on camera. Video abstracts are typically short (3-5 minutes) and often are freely accessible, either on the journal’s website or on a video-sharing site.

What are the advantages for an author? By using video, authors can explain their work in a way that they are not able to do in print, such as showing footage of their experimental methods, field sites, and/or study organisms. The authors are able to provide a more personal explanation of their findings and put their work into a broader perspective. By posting a video on the internet, an author can raise the visibility of their research because search engines rank video high in comparison with text-only descriptions (especially if it’s the only video out there on the topic). People searching for information on a topic will be more likely to find their video abstract, and the video will lead viewers to the technical paper. The more people who are aware of the work, the more likely they are to cite it. Also, if the video is published on YouTube, the authors are free to embed their video abstract on their own websites, something they often cannot do with their journal publication because of copyright restrictions.

Another important point, often overlooked by authors, is that they can reach a broader audience with a video abstract. For example, a video abstract may reach end-users such as resource managers or health-care workers who might not read the technical paper but would watch a five-minute video. Colleagues in other fields might also find your video interesting even though they would not read your paper. For example, as a scientist, I’m interested in keeping up with major discoveries in other fields. Although I’m not likely to read a technical paper about the Higgs boson, I would watch a video that explains what’s been discovered and what it means. In other words, a video abstract can greatly expand your audience beyond fellow scientists who read your journal articles.

A video abstract that explains your work in everyday language also can be used to show the “broader impacts” of your work, for example, in a grant proposal to a government funding agency such as NSF or NIH. NSF, for example, requires proposers to show both the technical merit as well as the broader impact of the proposed activity on society. Videos that are accessible and understandable by a diverse audience meet the second criterion and serve as documentation of a scientist’s previous contributions in this regard.

What are the advantages for the reader? Video can provide a richer, more interactive experience for a reader. Anyone can access such media without having a subscription or paying a fee—unlike the journal article locked behind a paywall. For non-specialist readers, a video in which the authors explain their work in everyday language would provide greater insight, spark their curiosity about the topic, and possibly encourage them to learn more about it.

What if my journal does not publish video abstracts? Not that many journals support publication of video abstracts. However, this should not stop you from creating and publishing a video abstract on your own. The benefits, as outlined above, should be sufficiently motivating to justify the effort. You can publish your video abstracts on your own website on on a video-sharing site such as YouTube. In fact, because millions of people are searching YouTube for information, your video abstract will be more visible than if hidden on a less frequently visited website.

What will the future hold? Video abstracts are part of an overall trend in multimedia communication of information on the internet, which has been facilitated by the wide availability of digital devices and software for creating and sharing videos. Some science disciplines seem to be getting on the video abstract bandwagon faster than others. Whatever the future of video abstracts, we are clearly in a learning phase. Many of my colleagues have either never heard of video abstracts or expressed little interest in doing one, even if offered the opportunity. Students seem to be more receptive to the idea, possibly because they are more technically-savy and accustomed to watching YouTube videos than their professors.

If video abstracts become standard practice, authors will need to develop some skills at creating such videos (or have someone else do it for them (most likely for a fee)). At a minimum, scientists must understand how to design an effective video abstract. Unfortunately, there are few guidelines for authors who do want to create a video abstract.

To help, I’ve put together a short guide to creating an effective video abstract. It covers eight basic steps involved in planning and creating a video abstract and has links to other resources, including a tutorial showing how to make a video abstract with a smartphone and a simple movie-editing application. Feel free to download the pdf and share with colleagues and students:

Download (PDF, 1.25MB)

Preparing Science Communications for a Diverse Audience: Why Should Scientists Bother?

why science video focus diverse audience communicationScientists are increasingly expected to participate in science communication, beyond what we’ve done in the past, which is essentially to talk to each other via technical articles and papers presented at scientific conferences.  Science students are not taught in school to communicate with the non-technical audience, which sends the message that it’s not important to have the skills necessary to communicate with an audience beyond the scientific community.  In fact, many scientists would argue that it is not their job to communicate their science to broader audiences, and they often balk at any suggestions that they do so.

Unfortunately, such an attitude puts you at a disadvantage in the competitive world of science.

Scientists also have a responsibility to promote the value of science to society, which helps combat anti-science groups and misinformation campaigns.  However, I realize that most people will be motivated only by what will benefit them directly, such as research funding, publications, a good job, tenure, and general professional recognition.  So I will focus on one of these:  funding.

Scientists are increasingly expected (and required) to explain their research to non-scientists.  Funding from government agencies, at least in the US, usually comes with a requirement to make the results available to the public and in an understandable format. Some funding agencies expect proposers to show how their project will make a broader impact.  The National Science Foundation, for example, assesses proposals based on two criteria:

  1. What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
  2. What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

Most scientists have no problem understanding and addressing the first merit criterion, but are stumped by the second one.  Many fail to grasp that NSF expects proposers to fully address both criteria in their proposals.  In fact, here’s what NSF says with regard to this point: “Effective October 1, 2002, NSF will return without review proposals that do not separately address both merit review criteria within the Project Summary. We believe that these changes to NSF proposal preparation and processing guidelines will more clearly articulate the importance of broader impacts to NSF funded projects.

Here are some of the specific questions NSF expects the proposal to answer in addressing the Broader Impacts criterion:

  1. How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?
  2. Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
  3. To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?
  4. What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

NSF is deliberately vague, however, about how to go about this because they do not want to stifle creativity.  They do provide some examples on their website, but it’s mostly up to the individual PI to figure out a specific plan and write a convincing description of how they will meet the Broader Impacts requirement.

Even if your peer reviewers mainly focus on the technical merits of the proposal, the panelists at NSF will be instructed to carefully consider how well the proposal addressed the Broader Impacts criterion.  Here is what NSF says that panelists should consider in assessing a proposal with respect to the Broader Impacts:  “…the personal, professional, and educational experiences, the future plans and prior accomplishments in the integration of research and education, and the potential to reach diverse audiences and benefit society.

I’ve been a co-PI on a number of NSF proposals, and my experience is that the second criterion is not taken seriously by quite a few PIs (and not surprisingly, their proposals fail to get funded).  Not only should NSF proposals fully address the second merit criterion, they should provide examples of how the PI has successfully done this in the past, just as they demonstrate their technical expertise by listing their relevant publications.  Do you have any examples of broader impacts to list in your proposals?  If all you’ve got is “I trained x graduate students and x post-doctoral scientists”, you should be aware that you are competing with others who submit proposals with prior accomplishments such as involving K-12 teachers or students in their research; developing a series of videos, tutorials, and interactive websites to educate the general public about science concepts; or holding a series of workshops to teach graduate students the basics of science communication.

There are many other reasons to participate in science communication to broader audiences, but the desire to be successful in competing for grant funding should be sufficient motivation to get you started.  If you are a student or new Ph.D. and have yet to land your first NSF grant, you should be working to develop an edge…not only in the technical aspects of your research, but in communication skills.  If you are a more established scientist, but have not been very successful, especially with NSF or similar funding agencies, you might want to consider whether your proposals have successfully addressed the Broader Impacts criterion.  If you can communicate with non-technical audiences and can list concrete examples to convince a review panel that you can meet the Broader Impacts criterion, you will be ahead of many people applying for grants.

If you seriously plan to develop outreach products or get involved in activities to reach diverse audiences, you first have to know who they are and how to talk to them.  This series of blog posts is meant to provide some beginning guidelines and suggestions for you, the scientist, in communicating your science to diverse audiences.

The next post considers who the diverse audience is and how to connect with them.