Introducing Samuel Brod, one of the winners of the London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition
Samuel Brod is a keen researcher and often overly enthusiastic science communicator. He’s worked across academia and industry writing prolifically along the way. His current research investigates the links between emotion and the immune system.
“How will I die today?” sighs an exasperated postdoc, picking up the morning newspaper on his desk. “Cancer or terrorism?”
It’s an exciting time to be scientist. As the flow and freedom of information increases at a seemingly exponential rate, we see ever more innovative and ambitious research carried out across the globe (and off it). Accompanying this outflow has been a pleasing growth of public interest in the field. However there has also been a radical change in the way such information is valued. Greater media focus is now given to its speed of dissemination to the public and ease of digestion, often to the harm of more traditional information values such as quality and reliability of source.
This can be seen in the newspaper’s regular listings of a “new miracle cure” or “frightful risk” to our health. It’s become a running joke amongst those in my lab who are quick to point out flaws in the data quoted and the failings of the journalist presenting it. Often they are simply exasperated (and perhaps envious) that such preliminary findings could find their way into a national newspaper.
Uncertainty is implicit in science. Researchers know experiments rarely provide more than a narrow snapshot of reality and all results are subject to interpretation through probability and prior assumption. However, those unaware of the uncertain nature of our work can react to these articles with misplaced hope, or unnecessary alarm. Others glance over such stories with indifference, no longer trusting the contradictory, unhelpful claims that scientists so often seem to make. Researchers sneer at the newspapers while the rest of its readers sneer at us. Somewhere down the line our field is experiencing a serious breakdown in communication.
This situation, combined with a media partiality to seek and inflate any controversy that can be found within a news story opens up the authority accompanying scientific research to misuse and exploitation. A threat well demonstrated by the ongoing argument around vaccination and its links to autism, a state of affairs that has led much of society to feel mistrust towards science as an institution and had lasting repercussions to public health.
Science communication can remedy this problem by providing a stronger understanding of current research, its trials, tribulations and, most importantly, its wider relevance to society. Relevance builds support and at a practical level such support leads to better funding. Knowingly or not, everyone in the country has a vested interest in the direction research moves in. Good science communication will make people aware of this.
Excellent science communication can capture the imagination: sparking meaningful debate and discussion that grants science a stronger presence in our society. We see this already with the rise of the celebrity scientist and the growing success of science festivals. While some of the more venerable academics I know cringe at the term ‘popular science’ it has brought our research into the public sphere in a way unseen since the moon landings. The uncomfortable realisation that I cannot look at a starry sky without seeing a Brian Cox shaped constellation has helped to convince me of this.
At its most aspirational, science communication has the potential to kick start a stronger fusion of public and scientific values, locking our field into the public conscious in a manner similar to the omnipresent tech giants Google and Apple. This will certainly lead to better scientists, research, funding and hopefully better science articles in the newspapers. Change such as this cannot happen overnight. It would require a radical shift in attitudes towards science communication. Researchers would need the capability and the willingness to explain their work to others and there must be a push to make science consistently open and accessible to the public. Then, at the very least, science and society could regain the respect they’re currently lacking for each other.