How to Be a Better Scientific Communicator
Scientific communication is all about the message, that is, one that resonates with people and explains the impact that research will have on their lives. For Dan Ogden, it’s all about framing the appropriate message for the given audience. For Simon Pimblott, it’s all about explaining science to the Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF) foremost stakeholder — the public. For Jeff Benson, it’s all about the cool factor.
These varying concepts of what scientific communication is all about represent the gamut of approaches that researchers often consider. But they also come from a common source: they all touch on the reality that unless research is well-communicated to people outside the field, researchers are missing a wide audience. Only when scientific research and revelatory findings are disseminated throughout society do they have the potential to impact change. To be effective, the NSUF Program Office staff recognize that scientists and communications specialists must adapt to the constantly transforming landscape of social media.
Where it’s at
To Ogden, Pimblott, and Benson, scientific communication is improving, there is still room for improvement.
To Ogden, NSUF deputy director, the bottom line is demonstrating science’s value to society. “Otherwise, we’re just paying people to have fun with science,” he said.
To Pimblott, NSUF’s chief post-irradiation scientist, scientific communication ought to highlight the relevance of what scientists do. Scientists must exhibit the high caliber work they perform, not simply what is published, he said. They must show the work has impact, and they must publicize it at the community level. After all, most science is, in some way, funded by the public. “Communicating impact is hard work,” Pimblott said. “We can always do better.”
To Benson, scientific communication is at a crossroad. It must conform to the new social media landscape that is the internet. But there isn’t a clear path, he said. Still, though, he thinks there is one valuable lesson to be learned — explain the impact. Benson recognizes the evolving social media realm puts a burden on scientists and communication specialists. One day it’s Facebook. Then Instagram. Then Twitter. What’s next? “Things have changed so fast,” Benson said. This is precisely why he believes it’s important to have a holistic attitude toward outreach. “That’s why I think INL is so good at social media. It has a multifaceted approach,” Benson said.
Where it should be
Ogden believes scientific communication should be tailored toward those who haven’t made up their minds yet, specifically pertaining to nuclear energy and its benefits for society. Improving communication on scientific research, he said, could even lead to researchers being awarded more projects. “You might be a brilliant scientist, but you’ve got to find a good way to communicate that to the world,” Ogden said. Harkening back to his time working with K-12 schools for INL on math days and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) nights, he said it’s vital to boil down the science to understandable pieces of information. Events like that, he said, teach scientists how to communicate to the right audience. To do that, he said, scientists must break out of their routine cycles of communicating in an insular manner — mostly to other scientists — and share work with people beyond their circles. “We start teaching Boy and Girl Scouts that communication is important early on, but we don’t start teaching scientists that,” Ogden said, referring to the communication merit badge. Still, he realizes there’s no precise metric to gauge effectiveness. That’s why, he said, it’s crucial to be connected to the surrounding communities to be able to assess outreach efforts.
For Benson, there’s something missing from the equation. “We always talk about the outcome of research,” he said. “But I think it’s the cool factor or wow factor of the research we’re doing that we should be highlighting.” For instance, finding something interesting with a microscopy can be a groundbreaking finding. But, to him, it’s all about how it’s communicated. Perhaps communicating by showcasing the interesting facts of how a finding was discovered would be beneficial to frame the breakthrough, Benson said. Instead of saying it was found through use of an electron microscope at nanometer resolution, Benson thinks it might be more worthwhile to explain how small it is by comparing it to someone in space being able to see something on earth. That, he thinks, would likely better explain the “cool” factor. “You can state the outcome,” he said. “Just answer the question: ‘Why is that cool?’”
Others recognize it’s easy to identify shortcomings, but difficult to change them. For Pimblott, however, the most direct approach that scientists could take to improve communication about their research to the public is by better explaining how it makes a difference in people’s everyday lives. The best way to do that, he believes, is to spread the same enthusiasm scientists share among themselves to government and university entities. Granted, they must tailor it for the right stakeholder and learn how to compellingly spread that message through social media engagement. “Scientific communication is about enthusiasm and showing that enthusiasm to other people,” Pimblott said.