Science is big now. We are living in a period where technology reigns supreme, and this is poised to intensify with the emergence and hype of artificial intelligence and informatics. Already, educators and policy makers are promoting STEM education, and ‘coding’ has become a much sought-after skill in the marketplace. In biomedical research, we life scientists are also exposed to many exciting topics that hold promises of transforming healthcare and research, such as immunotherapy, CRISPR-Cas9, the microbiome etc.
Science is cool and trendy now. For young people who view social media as some sort of a second home (ok, third – because the lab should come as second), the frequent sharing of the newest scientific discoveries, or ‘fun facts’ (the more outrageous the better) is becoming an integral component of our daily information diet. This is well reflected, for example on Facebook, with 25, 118, 602 people following the group ‘I f—— love science’, whereas 3 million subscribe to ‘SciShow’ on Youtube.
Yet despite its increasing popularity, public understanding and perception of science is often murky. As scientists, we may not notice this as we spend most of our time within the academic confines and interact with colleagues (maybe even after work, especially if your partner and friends are researchers too); but once outside the scientific community, the penetration of scientific discussions diminishes greatly. When was the last time you talked about your research topic to your parents, or to a new acquaintance met in a bar, as compared to politics or pop culture? At the same time, your status as a researcher might have caused you to receive some awkwardly flattering compliments from the non-scientist listener:
‘Wow! Molecular biology… those DNA and gene stuff? God that’s really hard isn’t it? You must be very smart’
‘You do cancer research? So how’s the cure for cancer coming?’
Such compliments do not do justice, or reflect accurately what researchers experience in their daily work. Every researcher can attest to the many moments of helplessness, or feeling out-of-depth intellectually in conferences and seminars. We also know that cancer is so complex that there probably never will be a cure for it, or that basic research findings are notoriously difficult to translate into actual medicinal applications.
Much of what scientists and science do are either too specific, or shrouded in secrecy to allow the public a helpful appreciation of what actually happens behind the lab. In the past, this might not be of great concern: scientists could be perceived as boffins and asocial nerds, but the scientific enterprise nonetheless earned public trust as an authoritative, objective and credible source of the ‘truth’. But the changing environment of our current world is presenting new challenges to this view of science. People are constantly bombarded by all sorts of information such that it can be hard at times to differentiate true scientific facts or pseudoscientific claims masquerading to be so. Social media is exacerbating this problem. Thanks to advancing internet algorithms that are able to selectively filter reading materials based on the user’s reading habits, it not only act as a echo chamber and enhances confirmation bias of one’s belief, but also has the effect of oversimplifying scientific findings as the ‘final truth’, when the actual paper findings might be less conclusive. At the same time, the increasing transparency and fast transmission of news has brought to light many scandals and misconducts (recent high profile case include the STAP paper fraud and the Macchiarini row) that could damage the reputation and perception of the scientific community itself. Finally, major scientific breakthroughs have also raised public anxiety, especially when they collide with long-established ethical and religious values. When researchers reported genome editing experiments carried out in dead human embryos, this raised worries about CRISPR-Cas9’s ability to make long-lasting modifications on the human race (particularly when editing was done in the germline), warnings about a possible dystopian society and the perils of hubris over such a technological advancement.
Within the research community, we might be aware and used to such news, and skeptically treat media headlines as sensational. However, for outsiders with far less scientific experience and expertise, such reports could confuse, or erode trust of the scientific community. This could play out as prejudiced bias towards technologies without considering their potential benefits (e.g. opposition to GMOs, new reproductive technologies and so on), or at worst manifest into rejection of scientific evidence, which could have far-reaching negative implications to society (e.g. climate change denial, creationism and beliefs in the vaccine-autism link).
As scientists, I think we all intrinsically appreciate and respect the scientific method/thinking, and are concerned about mistrust and misgivings of science. At the same time, we also hope outsiders would know our work, our roles and share similar appreciation of the wonders of nature. Only science communication (scicomms) could fulfil these interests, and help increase public scientific awareness and understanding. Furthermore, it also presents a valuable avenue for taxpayers to know how important and meaningful research funding has been utilised. Within an environment as high-pressured and perfectionist as academia, scicomms could also be a highly useful outlet to voice perceived concerns of the research community and propose improvements. Given the universal nature and experience of researchers, chances are your words would receive similar support by others.
Of course, this hasn’t been a new field – museums, popular science books and media reports have always taken up this responsibility in the past. Yet social media nowadays provides a powerful medium for each of us to make ourselves heard, and should be actively used to our advantage. This blog, for example, has been set up to provide such a platform for DKFZ researchers – so don’t be shy to start joining and testing the waters of scicomms here!
I hope this article (long-winded it may be) could inspire those of you, who have never considered, or are apprehensive, of scicomms to get involved. Of course, there are far more excellent efforts done by others on the internet… below are some links to check out and be convinced!
- Atul Gawande has given an excellent piece about the dangers of scientific mistrust nowadays, and calls for scientists to uphold and promote science.
- For a humourous take on the perils of poor scientific communication (by the public media), watch John Oliver.
In the next article, I will share some ideas on getting involved, and opportunities near your home of Heidelberg. Stay tuned!
Are you affiliated to DKFZ and motivated to blog about science, DKFZ, research life (or all of these)? To be a blogger, send us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org!