Speaking for your science

Here’s a question many scientists might ask themselves regarding the issue of science communication:

I  am a research scientist, so I disseminate my findings primarily in peer-reviewed research journals. Why would I bother trying to communicate my work to a lay audience?

As scientific leaders and experts in their fields, research scientists are uniquely qualified to convey the importance and implications of their work to a broader audience so that sound science can be taken into account when making decisions.

If you don’t speak for your science, who will?

a) Nobody.  Important science-based implications and considerations will be omitted from decision-making.

b) Someone else.  Someone with less familiarity and understanding of your work,  possibly a stakeholder with their own agenda to advance, will speak for your science, likely leading to misunderstandings and misrepresentations.

— Adapted from ideas in Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter, by Nancy Baron.
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Science and Society: The Great Divide

As scientists we are trained to think and communicate in very specific ways. The methods of scientific discourse become so deeply ingrained that most of us soon forget that there could be any other approach to talking about the science we love so much! But communication challenges become readily apparent when we’re describing our research to friends, family, the media, and other broad audiences. I know I certainly flounder when trying to chat about my work with anyone not immersed in my field, struggling to convey the importance and coolness of my research in a way that is succinct, compelling and easily understood.

These challenges become more critical when considering the important role that science can and should play in developing policies and informing the public about relevant issues they need to be aware of as voters and taxpayers. The “Great Divide” between scientists and society goes far beyond the extensive terminology and specific scientific concepts associated with each field. Below is a summary I’ve compiled so far, inspired in part by Nancy Baron’s amazing book Escape from the Ivory Tower. Please add to the list in the comments if you think of others!

Scientist’s View of Science General Audience’s View of Science
To know science is to love it. What makes this interesting and important to me?
The trees (methods, assumptions, details) are equally as important as the forest (overall conclusions). Difficult to see the forest if much time is spent talking about the trees.
Completeness, accuracy and precision are paramount. Less is more. What is the least I need to know to get the message?
Process-oriented. Results-oriented.
What do we still not know about this? What do we know about this and what should we do about it?
Abstract generalities. Specific, illustrative examples.
Science as a process of inquiry and discovery. Science as a body of established facts.
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