Effective science communication could be key to making science part of the identity of the UK, says Naturejobs journalism competition winner Helen Robertson.
Post-Brexit furor is hard to avoid in the UK media at the moment. Endless speculation surrounds what looks to be a socioeconomic experiment on a national scale, and it goes without saying that the implications will be far-reaching across all UK industries.
For UK science, Brexit is likely to mean a loss of funding and a halt to the free movement of researchers. Leaving the EU has been projected to cost British science one billion rapidly-falling pounds a year, and government funding to match this is unlikely. With the prospect of more science funding coming from the same source as arts, sport, and even infrastructure and public services, promoting science as part of the culture of the country is vital for success.
The benefits of engaging the public with research are well known. Science communication makes science more accessible to society, makes scientists accountable for the work they do, and promotes the reputation of scientists and academic institutions. If the challenge is on for UK-based research to secure UK-based funding, then the need for effective science communication is more important than ever.
So, how can scientists promote discussion and enthusiasm around science to match public interest in music, TV shows, or sport?
Despite campaigns to promote science in society, there are still public misconceptions around science and scientists. This is clear from high-profile ongoing debates on topics like climate change, nuclear power, and vaccinations.
As scientists, we know that research moves quickly, but public perception tends to move a lot slower — particularly when only certain aspects of a scientific story are reported in the press.
Communicating the findings of topical research would go a long way to improve trust in scientists and their work. Promoting exciting new research to the public from an early stage could also help to shape and inform opinion as a story grows. Fundamentally, this would also make sure that taxpayers are engaged with work that they are — ultimately — helping to fund. Of course, accountability and ‘value for money’ in terms of research have always been important themes, but these are likely to become even more relevant when such a big change in the economic landscape of the country comes to fruition.
Another aspect of science and society that effective communication might help to resolve is an elite ‘us and them’ perception of scientists. A criticism of science communication is that it can sometimes focus on the scientific community itself, with scientists aiming to inform each other as a technique for self-validation and scientific recognition.
Social media is a tool that has already helped to remedy this — after all, there’s only so much jargon that you can fit into a 140 character tweet — and the astronaut Tim Peake is a great example of how social media platforms can be used to inspire younger generations. Science engagement shouldn’t have to have a formal structure, and this approach might help to make science something that more young people aspire to be involved in.
As is the case for other industries, the future of UK science over the next few years looks uncertain. Making science a part of the culture and identity of the country might go a long way to soften the blow, and science communication is a tool that could — and should — be used to help achieve this.
Helen Robertson is a PhD student at University College London, focusing on the evolutionary history and genetics of a group of enigmatic marine worms – the Xenacoelomorpha. She tries to fit in science writing around her lab work, and is a keen long-distance runner.