Interacting with journalists can help scientists communicate their research
The scientific community should commit to communication as an integral part of a researcher's professional role.
What responsibility does a scientist have to society?
Until recently, replies to this question generally fell into two categories. Those in the 'traditional' camp argued that a scientist served society best by simply carrying out high-quality research, leaving others to judge how it should be used.
Set against this, a more activist camp argued that a scientist has a moral responsibility to publicly discuss the social implications of his or her research, not only promoting its benefits but also — more importantly — warning of its potential dangers.
Because those in the second camp tend to be more critical of the scientific establishment, the split can appear politically motivated, and has hindered efforts by the scientific community, in developed and developing countries alike, to adopt a consensus position on what role scientists should play.
But over the past ten years, judging from public comments made by prominent members of the scientific profession, agreement has grown that all scientists have a responsibility to ensure that the results of their research are effectively communicated to society at large. This promises to bridge the gap between the two camps.
A new consensus
This commitment is reflected in a potentially influential draft set of guidelines drawn up by the Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the conduct of Science, of the International Council for Science (ICSU).
The guidelines were compiled with input from participants in a meeting held last month in Bogota, Colombia, which was cosponsored by the Colombian Academy of Sciences and the National University of Colombia.
An "advisory note" from the committee is being circulated for comment among ICSU member organisations. It describes both the opportunities and threats to effectively communicating contemporary science using electronic media, and underlines the challenge of how to convey the complexities and uncertainties.
It emphasises the need for better public understanding of how science is carried out, including the importance of the peer review process. And it calls for training in communications to be made a key component of science education.
Draft guidelines on how good communication can be achieved suggest that scientists need to be realistic when estimating the importance, implications and impact of scientific research, and should avoid both alarmism and complacency when commenting on public emergencies.
Finally, the committee stresses that communication is a two-way process: scientists should not only present their findings, but also be prepared to take into consideration the public's needs and views.
Embracing the responsibility to communicate scientific research does not mean that every scientist is required to become a skilled media commentator. Communication techniques come more easily to some than to others, and that difference should be recognised.
But it does need both personal and institutional commitments to ensure that communication works in the interests of both sides. As the ICSU statement puts it, "the science community has an obligation to assist the media, whilst recognising the independence of both parties".
For scientists, this can involve overcoming negative feelings about interacting with journalists — even where these are legitimately based on bad experiences. It also means taking the necessary steps to make this interaction work, such as learning to use jargon-free language.
Just as importantly, scientific institutions must make the financial and policy commitments required to enable effective communication. These can range from employing professional communications staff to facilitate the relationship between researchers and the media, to providing career incentives to encourage scientists to communicate.
The way ahead
None of this will be new to regular followers of this website. Our principal mission is to stimulate better communication between the scientific community, decisionmakers and the broader society to ensure wider and more informed uptake of scientific findings.
We seek to do this partly by exhortation and partly by setting a good example. A recent survey of scientifically qualified users of the website suggests that we are on the right track. A majority of respondents consider our coverage of the role of science and technology in development to be more insightful, accessible and balanced than other media sources that they consult regularly.
What is new in the broader context, however, is the apparent willingness of the scientific community to acknowledge that stimulating good science communication is not a voluntary add-on to, but an integral part of, the responsibilities of scientists.
Newly qualified doctors agree to abide by the Hippocratic Oath, committing to act in the best interests of their patients. It would be going too far to ask newly qualified scientists to make a similar commitment to acting in the best interests of society — this is a notoriously difficult criterion to predict, or even define. And the freedom of science, as well as the freedom of expression of scientists, needs to be respected.
But some form of commitment to communication by all researchers — such as agreement to work within guidelines based on those drafted by the ICSU committee, backed by an appropriate level of institutional support — would be an important step forward.
It would ensure that both policymakers and the wider community remain fully supportive of, and engaged with, the scientific enterprise. 2011 would be a good time to do so.
Mikbak ( France )
4 January 2011
Would a commitment to communication by all researchers, even in the best interests of society result in all the researchers having the ability to communicate? From my experience few of those with whom I graduated have communicated. Some because they seemed unable so to do, some because they were more interested in research and less than 10% who continued to communicate after graduation with or without a doctorate. Would communication with the public be a worthwhile part of a scientists education?........ and if so should it be voluntary?
A. A. Khan ( Pakistan )
5 January 2011
Yes...this is very important point. When somebody studies business at a university or college, he/she is required to take a subject "Business Communication".
Why this is not so for science?
Why this is not a requirement for obtaining a degree in science?
This should be mandatory for all science students whether they are doing PhD or just MSc that they would get the final degree by passing a mandatory subject of "Science Communication".
I think we need to propagate this. I know many scientists in my country who cannot draft a press release and cannot speak to media and when I have to contact them for some comments....they avoid talking to a journalist...not because the issue in focus involves secrecy...but they fear unexpected questions.
I can can quote many real time examples I have,myself, come across or seen personally.
Just to quote one, I know a center that has conducted real research for which millions of money were spent over the last few years, its work is excellent and its findings are really scientific contributions...BUT.....the top scientists of that research center have not published their research and they never issued any press release to media whenever they completed some research project.
Recently, their research projects have been published in book form....BUT....public does not know it...and the publications have been locked into cupboards....few copies to be taken out for presenting to visiting dignitaries. I dont know whether those dignitaries bother to have a look into those books.
This trend of not of not talking to public through media...can be be ended by making "Science Communication" a compulsory subject for those aspiring to get any science degree.
Ameen Amjad Khan
Arthur Makara ( Uganda )
5 January 2011
The advent of modern scientific advencements such as biotechnology and nano technology have opened opportunities for making a stronger case for science communication to be included into general science curricula. I support this endeavor. And at Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development, we similarly believe that scientists have a primary responsibility to communicating to the public about what they are doing and why. They only now need to be facilitated, and their capacity built to do so.
Arthur Makara, Scifode, Kampala, Uganda
Roberto Belisario ( Brazil )
6 January 2011
About the draft set of guidelines drawn up by the Committee on Freedom and Responsibility, mentioned in the text:
Item 4 says:
"Despite pressures to the contrary, public communication of new scientific findings should normally follow acceptance by peer review."
This position sounds totally logic, but things may be more complicated than that. We are in the era of arXiv.org and other pre-print websites. Physicists use these sites widely to make their works public before the peer review processes are completed. The aim is to allow discussion among scientists, but the press uses them as a source for news. So, in practice, publication in arXiv is also a communication to the press (and without peer review).
Patrice Mawa, Entebbe, Uganda ( Uganda )
7 January 2011
A very good piece about science communication! We have tried it on a smaller scale in Entebbe and Kampala, Uganda, in the form of science cafes in the local languages and mainly targeting health issues and it's bearing fruits already.The testimonies from the community members are amazing. As Arthur has rightly mentioned there is need for facilitation and capacity building for scientists.
Carol Schadelbauer ( Burness Communications | United States of America )
10 January 2011
Kudos to Mr. Dickson for recognizing that not only do scientists need to be better trained in communication skills, but their academic institutions and grantmakers need to recognize and fund such training. If the public and other stakeholders are to better understand science and its value to society, this skill is essential. Who better to speak about science than scientists!
Terry ( Red Plough International | Thailand )
25 January 2011
Rather than trying to make ALL scientists brilliant communicators, why not recognize that a few are really good at it, most would be OK with the right support, and few just ain't gonna get it ever and don't want to. Stop the hand-wringing angst and focus on providing the necessary support.
Terry ( Red Plough International | Thailand )
1 February 2011
We keep telling ourselves that "scientists can't communicate" so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Plesse Pleaase, please read "Of Course Scientists Can Communicate" by Tim Raddford in Nature http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110126/full/469445a.html
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