While English is largely regarded as the global language of science, science communication doesn’t enjoy a unifying language.
Naturejobs journalism competition winner Catherine Carnovale explores this distinction.
As a native English speaker, I’ve selfishly given thanks for use of English as the de facto language of science. Rising to prominence over Latin, German and French after the First World War, it now dominates scientific literature. While figures vary between scientific disciplines, a 2012 assessment of the world’s largest database of peer-reviewed literature — Scopus — highlighted the overwhelming dominance of my native language in science at around 80% of papers. For scientists with a travel bug, this provides some immunity from the linguistic issues that plague other roaming professionals. Taking advantage of this, I set off earlier this year to take up a postdoc position at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova, Italy.
Surrounded by new starters from over 50 countries, I breezed through my English orientation — even pausing to offer my own feeble translations gained from Italian learnt at high school. But slowly, over the next month or so, an unexpected truth emerged. While my life as a scientist in Italy had a great start, my life as a science communicator had hit a speed bump. When publishing papers, the benefits of using a single language are relatively clear (if somewhat biased), but in science communication the same approach is perilous.
For scientists, the dissemination of our work through publications is secondary only to performing the work itself. It’s the only way for the global scientific community to collectively build a knowledge base, and often the only way to progress professionally. On the other hand, science communication aims to bridge the gap between scientists and society, to generate discussion and wider debate, and allow the work we perform to be transparent and approachable. For science communication, deviation from a country’s national language would drive separation between the laboratory and the community, resulting in a society less informed and less capable of engaging in science related discourse.
When the opportunity to enter the Naturejobs career expo journalism competition presented itself, it tugged at my need to be part of science communication again. At the expo, I experienced a sensory overload, surrounded by discussions that I could not only understand, but contribute to. I hung on the words of Sir Philip Campbell, furiously jotted notes while Rob Dawson exposed a field of SciComm I was previously oblivious to (scientific public relations — who knew!) and plotted how I could achieve publication of my future opus in the Nature Masterclass.
I left grateful for the knowledge that there is an international SciComm scene that I can contribute to. However, I know that I’ll likely never have the skills required to work professionally in SciComm in Italy. So for the moment my local SciComm career has been put on pause — I’m leaving it for the people who can find the right words; and I’m looking forward to reading them when my Italian improves further.
Catherine Carnovale is an Australian postdoctoral researcher, working at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, Italy. She is currently examining the way that nanoparticles behave in different environments to determine what impact this might have on our health. Outside the lab, she enjoys cooking and exploring her new Italian surroundings.