In a recent interview with Wisconsin public radio during which I shared my perspective on science communication, I was asked a question that left me thinking beyond the interview: Should scientists help disseminate their research findings after they have published their results in scientific journals?
This is an excellent question, and one I have struggled with as a scientist who is researching sustainable ways to feed our growing planet. My answer is that while they are under no obligation to make sure their findings are spread, it benefits everyone if they do. For science to have the greatest impact in helping solve today’s global challenges, scientists need to take an extra step and break down the findings in ways that regular citizens can understand.
And just like me, more and more graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and early career scientists are realizing that it is important to just that.
Earlier this month for example, graduate students from the southeastern U.S. gathered at Georgia Tech to learn more about science communication. Their meeting was part of a larger initiative called ComSciCon that organizes science communication workshops for graduate students across the country.
Similarly, scientists at all levels in their careers are benefiting from science communication workshops offered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Through these workshops, they learn the fundamentals of science communication and are equipped with the tools and knowledge they need to effectively and creatively engage with the public and policy makers.
Unfortunately, most undergraduates and graduate students majoring in STEM fields get no formal training in science communication. Universities should change that by including communication course among the core subjects that students are expected to take before they graduate. This will equip future and current scientists with the know-how they need to effectively take their research past the publishing stage. It also would enhance the quality of discourse between scientists and the public—and one study reported that undergraduates who took a science communication course improved their overall communication skills and confidence levels.
It’s promising that institutions including Stony Brook University, University of Washington, the University of Arizona, Duke University and the Australian National University are offering science communication courses. More universities should follow them.
In addition, as summer approaches, I think of the arts festivals and other events that take place in many college towns and suggest that scientists organize similar events that celebrate their fields, sharing their research and exciting discoveries with the public. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign entomology department, for example, has the annual Insect Fear Film Festival, while Princeton University has an annual Art of Science exhibition.
When postdoc researchers, early career scientists and even seasoned scientists are equipped with the tools they need to effectively disseminate their work, the public can fully reap the benefits of science. And the scientists can have the pleasure of seeing non-experts appreciate what they do.