The appetite for science communication is on the rise. In a span of just a few months, for example, several workshops for students, postdocs, early career and seasoned scientists have taken place at institutions including the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Penn State and Mississippi State.
Scientists want to step out of the ivory tower to share what they know with the public. In turn, universities, research institutions and professional societies are stepping up their efforts to train and equip scientists with the tools, resources and skills they need to effectively disseminate scientific discoveries with the public.
The efforts universities are putting behind science communication are commendable. The change is admirable. The progress is encouraging. This should continue.
But just as with any other new field, there are many foundation-building steps that still need to be taken to encouraged this rising interest in science communication. Here are some of them:
CREATE MORE TEACHING RESOURCES
As an instructor for a graduate class called Science Communication in Applied Entomology, it has been hard for me to get enough science communication teaching resources. The few textbooks available include Escape from Ivory Tower, The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science and Science Communication: A Practical Guide for Scientists—all of them valuable tools. But we need more, along with other teaching materials.
It is understandable for now that there are so few textbooks, because science communication remains a relatively new field to many science majors including entomology. While the overall principles remain the same across disciplines, different areas of study still need to tailor their approaches and syllabi to cater for their own specific needs and to allow majors to reach their unique stakeholders, as well as the public.
Understanding the need to tailor science communication to cater the needs of different science majors, various organizations are stepping up to generate science communication resources and tailor science communication workshops so that they cater to and meet the needs of the different science majors. This has occurred at professional societies including the Entomological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union; social ventures like the OpEd Project; and university-supported centers like the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and ComSciCon. Such efforts should continue.
COLLABORATE FOR GREATER IMPACT
As the number of science communication workshops, community events, and classes increase with their popularity, so does the need to collaborate for impact. Doing so is a win-win for all, since it results in more reach. Operating on a fragmented landscape does not advance that fundamental purpose all science communicators are trying to achieve: disseminating scientific discoveries to the public.
REWARD SCIENTISTS, INCLUDING GRAD STUDENTS, FOR OUTREACH
Graduate students, postdocs, early career and seasoned scientists alike—all who decide to actively engage in science communication need to be rewarded. Rewards can range from communication course certificates for students to tenure-track promotion decisions that recognize faculty who actively incorporate science communication into their busy research and teaching schedules. Such incentives will increase the motivation and number of people who want to pursue science communication.
The good news is that this is beginning to happen. The University of Arizona, for example, offers a Science Communication Graduate Certificate to grad students and postdoctoral fellows who take three elective classes on science communication. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduate students can earn a Science Communication Certificate as well, offered jointly by the 21st Century Scientists Working Group and the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning upon taking a number of workshops and fulfilling other requirements.
As for rewarding faculty, Neil deGrasse Tyson has argued that if 20 percent of a tenure evaluation were based on how well scientists communicated with the public, scientists would quickly become invested. It would be a game changer.
Given the importance of communication to help the public understand and value science and the scientific method, universities and other stakeholders should continue to lay strong foundations and build teaching resources and toolkits that can be easily accessed by scientists who want to become better at disseminating their science.