Science and scientific research is important because it provides answers to the most persistent challenges our societies face, including climate change, public health and food security.
Yet, these answers are often only published in peer-reviewed journals. Approximately 2.5 million new scientific papers are published every year. In addition, libraries are full of original research findings in the form of theses and dissertations. The frustrating fact is that many of these findings are meaningful only to the science community, because no one else reads these documents.
I can relate. I am a scientist and have written a thesis, dissertation and many manuscripts on topics like bacterially mediated drought tolerance and the chemical ecology of insect–plant interactions. Overall, my research findings have broader applications to food security and environmental issues. Sadly, most of my findings have ended up being just one of the many peer-reviewed articles that have never been shared with the public.
Most frustrating is the fact that I spent sleepless nights and days and many countless hours reading the literature to form ideas for my questions, drafting the research objectives and experimental design, doing the experiments, and then writing the manuscript. Then there was the cruel peer review process. It is a brain-draining ordeal that scientists go through day in and day out.
Given all that work, it is truly a shame that scientists and the scientific community have yet to find ways to better convey their knowledge to the public. Undoubtedly, one reason this is not prioritized is that the academic “publish or perish” culture values only publications, and rewards scientists who publish frequently without necessarily valuing if any of those publications are widely disseminated to the public or have an impact.
So, what are some of the small, incremental steps that scientists and the scientific community can take to change the culture and begin to share their scientific discoveries to the public?
First and foremost, universities, research institutions, funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, along with professional organizations should support and encourage researchers to share with the public the research they are doing once it’s published. I believe for every manuscript researchers publish in a peer-reviewed journal, universities should require researchers to find a way to disseminate the findings to the public. These avenues might include opinion pieces, columns in the local newspapers or interviews with local public radio and television networks.
The good news is that this is already in place, and the importance of communicating science to the wider public has gained renewed interest:
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) via its Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology provides scientists and scientific institutions with the support and resources they need to effectively communicate their science to the public. The Entomological Society of America offers the Science Policy Fellows Program that effectively trains scientists and offers them the skills to communicate entomological research to the public and their elected politicians. The National Science Foundation offers a resource guide for communication and requires scientists seeking funds to explain how the results would be shared broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding.
Second, journals that publish research findings must also find innovative ways to share those findings with the public. Today many journals require scientists to submit a graphical abstract along with their manuscript. This one-page research summary is a simplified, pictorial roundup of the main findings that serves the goal of capturing readers’ attention. Perhaps journals should take another step, requiring researchers also to submit a graphical abstract that is understandable by the public.
Third, we can support new, innovative ways to communicate science to the public. For example, Sara ElShafie, a graduate student in integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, is adapting storytelling strategies from the film industry for science communication. Over the past year she has held many workshops for incoming students, teaching them how to tell stories about their research in a way that resonates with the public. There are also news organizations that focus entirely on summarizing science findings from peer-reviewed articles for the public in a format that grabs attention. PHYS.ORG, for example, reports on several science disciplines, including nanotechnology, biology, chemistry and plant sciences.
As for myself, I am working hard to share my research with the public since attending a Write to Change the World training offered by the OpEd Project through The Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship program. Ever since I learned the art of writing about my research and other issues I care about just two and a half years ago, I have written more 40 opinion pieces for media outlets like TIME magazine, Scientific American and the Los Angeles Times. I only wish I had been trained on this skill at the beginning of my science career.
So how do newbies even begin?
Start by tapping into the existing resources. AAAS, for example, has a valuable Web site offering tools and resources for beginners. There also are online articles that give tips to newbies. The OpEd Project offers its one-day program in major cities across the country and will partner on Public Voices Fellowships with universities. Further, universities and research institutions often have professionally trained science communicators and media specialists that can help researchers share with the public some of their published cutting-edge scientific discoveries.
Science will continue to contribute answers to many of today’s persistent challenges. More than ever, we, the scientists, need to broadly share the importance of science with the public and ensure that our important discoveries are helping to improve our economy, health, food security and the environment.