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Guest Editorial: It’s Time To e-Volve: Taking Responsibility for Science Communication in a Digital Age

University of Hawaii at Manoa

Now, more than ever, science is fundamentally intertwined with national and international political issues, yet less than one-third of Americans can pass a science literacy test with questions like “Does the Earth revolve around the sun?” and “Did human beings live alongside dinosaurs?” When only a small percentage of our populace—including our policy-makers—has a firm grasp on the science behind the debates, we are doomed to make grievous errors in our decisions on a wide variety of issues, from climate change and genetically modified foods to stem cell research and public health and vaccinations. The question isn’t whether America has a problem—it’s how to solve it.

It’s easy to place blame. More than half of scientists will say the main problem is with the education system. More than a third will point a finger at the media. Very few will look critically at their own actions and instead suggest that it is our fault—that we, as scientists, are failing at communicating science to the public (The Wellcome Trust. 2001. “The Role of Scientists in Public Debate”). The fact of the matter is, we are.

Science communication has become a public relations nightmare. Scientists and science are under constant attack from political and religious interests. It is a culture where former U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott can call his four years of science and math in high school “a waste of my time and a waste of my teacher’s time” and receive roaring applause.

We aren’t powerless against this bad public image. The onus is on us, though, to be more engaged. Right now, we fade into the background. In 2009, Research!America polled the average American and asked them a very simple question: name a living scientist (ResearchAmerica. 2009. “Your Congress—Your Health”: Poll). About 18% got it wrong, but what is more sobering is that 65% of people didn’t even try to name anyone. The average American doesn’t know who we are.

If we view science communication through the lens of public relations, the advice given by Rick Borchelt and his colleagues in an essay for the American Association for the Advancement of Science becomes even more poignant: “The scientific community needs to understand what ethical practitioners of public relations have long known: trust is not about information; it’s about dialogue and transparency” (Borchelt et al. 2010. Science and The Media, D. Kennedy and G. Overholser, eds. AAAS).

Right now, science is almost entirely a monologue given to a very specific audience. As scientists, we pride ourselves on doing meaningful, cutting-edge research and publishing it in the top-tier journals of our field. The problem is, these publications only communicate science to other scientists. Articles are locked behind paywalls, and even those that are published in open access journals still lie behind jargon walls—the barriers that keep the people we want to become more scientifically literate from understanding what we do because they do not know the terminology.

Putting out a press release isn’t a conversation either. Sure, major media outlets have a much broader audience than scientific journals, and thus handing our research over to a journalist to translate and publicize will ensure that more people learn about it. But this kind of passing the buck is fraught with its own difficulties. Most science journalists have never set foot in a lab or taken a college level course in science. We complain about sensationalist or poor reporting, but the fact of the matter is that journalists often haven’t had the training to understand the science they are assigned to explain. While blaming the reporter is easy, it is first and foremost the scientist’s job to share his or her research with the broader community. That means it is the scientists who are ultimately to blame when their research isn’t communicated well.

Perhaps even more importantly, journalists engage in one-way communication, too, rarely taking feedback from or engaging in a conversation with their audience. Although their reach may be broader, the message is the same: here is the information; end of story. This single-sided approach is struggling to keep up with a fast-paced younger generation that holds the attitude that if something is important enough, it will find them. As Gaston Small said in a column for Nature, “The days of scientists communicating only with each other, in the languages of our individual disciplines, and relying on science journalists to translate for the public, are rapidly coming to an end” (Nature 2011. 479: 141).

How do we achieve dialogue instead? First and foremost, we have to make a concentrated effort to get involved in the public discussion about science. We have to be approachable and available to talk about our research. More than ever, this means we have to be online and actively engaged in new media.

We live in a digital age. More than half of Americans say they talk to people online more than they do in real life. In 2010, for the first time, the Internet overtook newspapers as the nation’s number 2 source for information about national and international issues. More significantly, the Internet is the nation’s primary source for information about scientific issues (University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center. 2010. “General Social Survey”). Scientists need to be engaged in new media platforms because everyone else is already talking about their thoughts and feelings, having discussions about things they care about, and generally—as the name implies—being social.

As scientists, we pride ourselves on being at the forefront of technological and social innovation. But when it comes to new media, we fall behind the average American. More than 70% of Internet-using Americans are on Facebook, yet less than two-thirds of professors and lab managers are (Babson Survey Group, New Marketing Labs & Pearson. 2010. “Social Media in Higher Education: Survey”; Lab Manager Magazine, 2011. 6(3):10). This online presence is especially important if we want to be involved with America’s youth. Almost 90% of our younger generation is on at least one kind of social media (Pew Research Center For the People & The Press, 2011.”Pew Internet: Social Networking (full detail)”). Forty-eight percent of them find out about news through Facebook, and will check it first thing in the morning—some even before they get out of bed (Digital Buzz Blog. 2011. “Facebook Statistics, Stats and Facts for 2011”).

In one minute on the Internet, there are 100,000 new tweets, 80,000 new Facebook wall posts, 1,500 new blog posts, and 700,000 Google searches. The rate of growth of social media is astronomical. Facebook now touts over 800 million members and Google +, which only started last year, now reaches over 62 million people. Even new platforms like Pinterest are showing “hockey stick” growth, ballooning to over 10 million users in a handful of months.

What makes social media so powerful is that it connects people, not just provides information. Many scientists still hold the unflappable belief that increasing science literacy is the answer: that our job is simply to provide the facts, and that people will make better decisions if they are given the correct information—despite the growing body of literature that this “deficit model” simply isn’t true.

Surveys have shown that Americans have a healthy respect for science. Eighty-four percent of Americans believe that science is having a mostly positive effect on society. This isn’t a matter of literacy, as 74% of people who score in the lowest third on science knowledge tests concur. When the public is asked to evaluate various professions, only members of the military and teachers garner more public esteem than scientists (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. 2009. “Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media: a Survey”). This fundamental appreciation gives us great potential power, but only if we learn how to capitalize on it.

The trouble is, while science as a whole is admired and trusted, that trust breaks down when it comes to specific issues. In the case of policy issues like climate change, science literacy is only a small factor in how people form their opinions, while the interplay between values, religious affiliation, and the opinions of others whom they trust is much more influential (Sturgis, P., and N. Allum. 2004. Public Underst. Sci. 13: 55–74). This is what makes dialogue so key. While political parties and religious organizations jump head first into discussions of their beliefs with anyone who will listen, thus playing an active role in the decision-making process, scientists stand back, hand out facts, and expect that information alone is enough to sway attitudes. Instead of appearing as beacons of knowledge, our actions make us appear stuffy, elitist, and disengaged. By connecting scientists with the rest of the world, social media is the most powerful tool available for us to shift this paradigm.

Science-invested companies like Google are leading the charge. In their own words: “In an effort to foster a more open, transparent and accessible scientific dialogue, we’ve started a new effort aimed at inspiring pioneering use of technology, new media and computational thinking in the communication of science to diverse audiences.” (Google.org blog 2/15/2011. “Making Sense of Science”). It is time for scientists to be those pioneers.

More than just changing how we communicate science, social media is already revolutionizing the education system. Both quantitative and qualitative data suggest that, far from the distraction it is often viewed as, social media use in the classroom facilitates achieving educational goals. For example, Twitter has been shown to improve college student grades and class participation in an experimental setting (Junco, R., et al. 2011. J. Comp. Assist. Learning 27: 119-132). Others have found that integrating multiple new media platforms was viewed favorably by students and led to benefits beyond traditional classroom approaches including real-time communication outside of the classroom, connecting with experts, collaborative opportunities, and enhanced creativity (George, D. R., and C. Dellasega. 2011. Medical Teacher 33: e429-e434).

Beyond the potential to broaden communication and enhance education, new media platforms can also transform scientific research. Already, citizen science projects have emerged as innovative ways to amass large data sets that would otherwise take tremendous time and resources. Imagine using geotagged tweets to photograph and record sightings of a species or to track the movement of a weather event. The ways in which new media can influence, improve, or revolutionize research are vast and continue to expand and evolve as quickly as the social media landscape.

Participation in new media can also improve connection and collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Bertalan Mesko of Scienceroll.com feels that “blogging and Twitter don’t just help me in my research but totally changed the way I interact with other researchers and collaborators.” Think of social networks as conference mingling on steroids: instead of rubbing elbows with a handful of colleagues, a social-media-savvy scientist can interact with thousands of people from all walks of life. While this might seem like choosing quantity over quality, these networks aren’t superficial, and even loose acquaintanceships can be beneficial. Social media can increase funding efforts by 40%, for example (Blackbaud, 2011. “The Power of Social Fundraising and Friends Asking Friends”). Furthermore, a percentage of those casual online interactions will evolve into collaborations. Career scientists like John Fossella, who blogs at Genes 2 Brains 2 Mind 2 Me, have found that social networking greatly expands scientific networks. “Instead of getting feedback from the same handful of folks I regularly see in the lab, I’m getting comments and new ideas from folks who I used to work with 5, 10 and even 20 years ago, not to mention new folks who I’ve struck up online interactions with.”

Whether we like it or not, social media is for more than just catching up with old flames or sharing what you ate for breakfast—it is an integral part of conducting and disseminating science in today’s world. Our hesitation as a whole to embrace these new technologies has placed us in a perilous position. Not only must we rectify our reticence, we must destroy the stigma attached to these online communication mediums and encourage their use in scholarly pursuits. If we are putting our time and resources into communicating science but we’re not on social media, we’re like a tree falling in an empty forest—yes, we’re making noise, but no one is listening.