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.

The Stories We Tell

Scientists are often reluctant, if not downright obstinate, about using storytelling in science communication. I think we feel this way because we somehow believe that science information should not need any ‘dressing up’ to make it palatable to an audience. I felt this way at one time but changed my mind when I saw the power of storytelling. As I explained in the last post, a story can overcome extreme distaste about a particular topic and even change the viewer’s overall perception of the subject.

But there is more that stories can do for those of us in science.

We can use stories to not only make our science more palatable to others, we can change stereotypes about science and scientists by telling our unique stories—especially through video. I’ve been pondering stereotypes in science for some time now, especially as it relates to women in science. Despite much effort by many organizations, negative stereotypes persist in the public’s mind, which can dissuade students from going into science. The old-fashioned image of an old, white male with frizzy white hair in a wrinkled lab coat is what the average person thinks of, even though there are exceptions on TV and the Internet (Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox). Women in particular suffer from negative stereotyping, which has prompted numerous reports about why so few women choose science as a career (there are many reports, but here’s one and here is a series of articles in Nature); recognition of the problem has led to various efforts to attract more girls to science fields (here’s an example).

I think the efforts to attract girls and minorities to science are laudable but that they will not be effective unless we can overturn those negative stereotypes that dissuade students from considering a career in science in the first place. Those of us in science, particularly women and other minorities, can help overturn stereotypes by telling our stories and showing those outside (and inside) science fields that scientists are a diverse group, that science is an exciting and rewarding career, and that anyone can do science.

I connected the two topics, stereotypes in science and storytelling, when I watched a video: The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She describes how we develop inaccurate and narrow views about other people or countries when we hear only a single story about them. Essentially, she’s describing how stereotypes arise and persist. Take a look and then we’ll discuss these ideas in relation to stereotypes in science:

Ms. Adichie describes how her perceptions of the world were molded by the literature she read—literature that she found fascinating and memorable. She describes how as a budding writer, she began writing stories that were about the characters she had read about—white, living in temperate climates, and preferring ginger beer—even though she was Nigerian and had quite different experiences. Even after she realized how that narrow view had delayed discovery of her authentic cultural voice, she found herself succumbing to other stereotypes.

I thought about the examples Ms. Adichie used in her TED talk, which reminded me of the mad scientist stereotype that persists probably because of a single memorable story—told over and over again—which can be traced back to Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein (1818). One could argue that there were precursors to the ‘mad scientist’ in Shelley’s novel; however, the average person on the street likely only knows the story of Frankenstein, which has been repeated in multiple movies since the original 1931 version. Moreover, the ‘mad scientist’ stereotype crops up repeatedly in popular film—from Dr. Strangelove to Dr. Curt Connors (The Lizard) in The Amazing Spiderman. Stories about mad scientists apparently resonate with people and have created an indelible image in the public’s mind. The average person, who has never met a scientist, has only such stereotypes to guide their perceptions about what type of people become scientists or what it is like to be a scientist. Even students who are interested in science may be unclear about what life in a scientific field is like.

A few educators are recognizing the need for storytelling—that is, telling stories that fire up students’ imaginations—to attract more students to STEM fields, especially girls. We scientists can also help by showing what it’s like to do science. And using video is a very effective means for showing what scientists look like and how they go about doing science (however, see this post for how not to do it). Used correctly, video can be an effective recruitment tool by showing real scientists at work:

This video is ostensibly about an expedition to study the Agulhas Current, but it really is about how women can be successful in a field like oceanography. The video makes it clear that women are not only capable of being oceanographers, they find it exciting and fulfilling. This message is driven home by not only showing a female in the chief scientist role leading the research cruise but by featuring numerous other women working in various positions such as graduate students, data analysts, oceanographic technologists, and ship’s mates and technicians. The interview with the captain reiterated the key role that female scientists and crew play in the success of the cruise and that their presence is now commonplace on such research cruises. The video also makes an important point about female role models who are needed to show younger women that it is possible to make it in a field that may be dominated by men or that involves intimidating work. The video’s message is summed up by the chief scientist who says, “Why should men have all the fun?”

I can’t imagine a girl watching this video and not being impressed with the idea of a career in oceanography. In fact, a video very much like this one that I saw in high school motivated me to want to study marine science. Even though I was discouraged from going into science by almost everyone (this was the 1950-60s), the vision I got of a life in science from that film kept me going. Any scientist, especially if you are a female or other minority, can make a difference by creating videos that show what real scientists look like and how someone can have an amazing career in science.

Perhaps if enough of us tell our stories, the public’s image of the mad (white, male) scientist will fade and be replaced with a more accurate one.

More on Fair Use and YouTube

Continuing with the topic of fair use, I would like to point you to a video by Margaret Stewart, YouTube’s head of “user experience” who spoke to a TED audience.  She provides a (very general) look behind the curtain of how YouTube identifies matches between original material and videos that duplicate (or contain portions of) copyrighted originals.  What happens next depends on what restrictions the content owner has set for their work.

What’s impressive is the massive amount of information that YouTube handles daily.  It’s not just a few videos of people’s weddings or pets being uploaded, it’s the equivalent of 100 years of video being added each day….and being compared to millions of reference files.  It’s understandably an automated process, which leads to some mismatches and user complaints (you’ll get a feel for this by reading the comments to this video).

YouTube clearly strives to protect content owners, but also recognizes the value of content creators allowing the use of their work by others…in mashups, etc.  Stewart provides an example of how a content owner allowed the reuse of their work by a fan and later by a couple in their wedding video.  The wedding video went viral, getting over 40 million hits, which prompted renewed downloads of the original work from iTunes.  The lesson being that by allowing others to use their work, the original content owners benefited from the added exposure.

Anyway, here’s the TED talk:

Science Video Review: Keep it Moving

In the previous post, I talked about how brevity is a virtue in making a science video.  In this post, I will consider two more features of successful videos (from the list of 10 characterizing a video I analyzed previously):

#3:  The video keeps adding information at a steady, relatively rapid pace

#4: There is constant motion going on throughout the video.

The constant addition of new information (and new visual stimuli) keeps the viewer watching.  This point is an important one.  If you let a segment of your video drag on too long, the viewer will get bored and look for something else more fast-paced and that seems to be feeding them more and more information.  As I explained in a previous post, humans are hard-wired to be fascinated by motion. A lot of science videos feature talking heads. Not much going on….just someone droning on and on and on.  If you have talking heads in your video, interspersed with images or footage of something else (an animation, a landscape scene, people working), then you make the segment more interesting because you give the eye something to look at other than the talking head.  If you only have a talking head (e.g., TED talks), then your talking head must be describing something (an idea or concept or emotion) that sparks the viewer’s imagination or causes an emotional reaction.

Here’s a video that meets the two criteria (constant addition of new information, constant motion) listed above and also is shorter than 3 minutes:

This is an example of informational graphics (infographics), which is a hot trend in motion graphics.  It’s clearly an effective way to get science information across in an entertaining way.

What Jurassic Park Can Teach Us About Making Science Videos

You may remember this scene from Jurassic Park.  Scrub to minute 2:32 and watch from that point on (go on, I’ll wait for you):

OK, now the point I want to make is that humans and other predators like T. rex have evolved to notice movement.  Imagine early humans on the ancient plains of Africa scanning the horizon for any motion that might warn them of danger or the opportunity for food.  Anything hopping behind a tree or flitting through the grass caught our ancestors’ eyes.  Their very survival depended on distinguishing motion that indicated something of interest or something that could be ignored such as rocks or leaves blowing in the wind.

We are hard-wired to be fascinated with moving pictures. Furthermore, we are experts at analyzing movements, whether we realize it or not.

If you watched the TED talk by Chris Anderson in the previous post (if you didn’t, please do), you heard some startling statistics: “Humanity watches 80 million hours of YouTube every day. Cisco actually estimates that, within four years, more than 90 percent of the web’s data will be video….Video is high band-width for a reason. It packs a huge amount of data, and our brains are wired to decode it.”  Read that again: “more than 90 percent of the web’s data will be video”.  These data have been updated.  Google sites, driven mainly by YouTube viewings, had 146 million unique viewers in just the U.S. who watched 16 billion videos in March 2012 alone (comScore Video Metrics).  People are definitely watching a lot of online videos.

Why?  As Anderson explains in his video, even though it may be faster to read the information we seek, we seem to prefer to view it. It’s in our genes to seek information about our surroundings by watching for movement.

The TED talks demonstrate another important point.  People are fascinated with TED talks.  They are riveting. Even the ones in which the speaker is not showing any slides.  One of the most popular is by Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher, who studied her own stroke as it happened (here’s the link).  She shows a few slides, but that’s not what draws people in.  It’s seeing her body language and hearing her voice describing her experience that makes the video so fascinating.  The other reason is that she’s describing some amazing ideas and insights that spark the audience’s imagination.  It’s a powerful combination.

Scientists wishing to get their message out (about their latest research finding, an environmental issue, an important method to be shared) should take note of these points:

1. Humans are hard-wired to gather information from audio-visual sources (moving pictures, if you like).

2. A huge number of people are searching for information on the internet in the form of video.

3. Linking audio-visual information with ideas that stimulate the imagination is a powerful combination.

Scientists, as a group, are pretty smart people.  We should be able to figure out how to use these insights to create effective and powerful videos that will reach a wide audience.  The question I have is, why have scientists been so slow to catch onto this?

I hope to explore these ideas more in coming posts.  Stay tuned….