Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To tie in with June’s event which will discuss how scientists can reach out of the ivory tower, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science. We will hear from a range of contributors: scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers and teachers, each sharing details about how they reach out to engage with the public.
First up, scientist Kate Pratt, opens the discussion by explaining how science is often miscommunicated in the press and how this can sometimes lead to public misunderstandings. She raises the question of how scientists can reach everyone, making some suggestions for how to use successful PR strategies.
Kaite Pratt is a graduate student in molecular biology at Brown University who will be defending her thesis at the end of June. She is leaving the bench to pursue a career in science communications and PR. She blogs regularly at http://www.katiephd.com, www.benchfly.com, and is co-founder of http://www.lookslikescience.tumblr.com.
When science takes on the public, it often loses. And it feels as if this is a problem that is getting worse rather than better: despite a vast literature detailing the evidence for evolution, several school districts in America advocate the teaching of creationism in science lessons; that global climate change has been driven by human activity is still questioned by many, including those in positions of political power; and controllable (and deadly) childhood diseases are on the rise due to a lack of faith in the safety of vaccinations.
How is it that in the face of cold, hard, data the public often chooses to ignore, or flat out refute, scientific evidence? After all, shouldn’t the facts speak for themselves?
It seems that these questions don’t bother scientists enough. They often shrug off the latest miscommunication in the press as the fault of some lazy journalist who didn’t read the press release correctly. They do not consider that they are perhaps to blame, and, instead of trying to improve their communication skills with the lay-public, they withdraw quietly into the protective shell that is academia.
I realize that this is a generalization. There are scientists who DO speak out. The most peculiar thing happens, though, when these individuals make an effort to reach out: other scientists deride them for being attention-seekers, especially if they do so using platforms such as blogs or social media websites.
These behaviours have to change. If they don’t, science will continue to be seen as a closed off and elitist realm, and the public will continue to feel shut out, disenfranchised, and suspicious. Science has too long ignored public relations, marketing, and personal branding, and it’s time for that to change. This is not something to be shrugged off, or poo-pooed because it is being raised in a blog post by a graduate student who tweets (for a more in depth, statistics-filled, piece, do read Christie Wilcox’s guest editorial on The Biological Bulletin).
The key to any successful PR strategy is to figure out who is your target audience. Now, for us scientists, that is pretty much everybody on the planet. We can exclude scientists (and probably babies, because they’re really more concerned with learning the basics of eating and sleeping), but other than that, we need to target children, adults, bankers, teachers, lawyers…the list goes on. How can we reach everyone?
I think we need a two-pronged approach. While educational outreach activities (prong one, see “Ongoing Efforts” below) work well for children, adults have jobs and responsibilities and, as a result, have very little time to go to a science museum or take a class (for a more in depth look at this issue, take a look at Matt Shipman’s series of posts here at Soapbox Science). What a lot of adults do, however, is use the Internet. Social media marketing has become a force to be reckoned with, and agencies specializing in using Twitter, Facebook and blogs to grow and promote brands are springing up all over the place. It is this second, Internet-based prong that I believe we should make a concerted effort to work on NOW.
Which brings me back to the derision often directed towards scientists who engage with the public using social media. They are the innovators, not the outsiders! By using the same applications and language as everyone else, these sociable scientists are making a difference to the image of the academy. They are using Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and, perhaps most importantly, blogging, to explain science in a way that anyone can understand. If more scientists would engage and communicate with the public on a regular basis, we might be able to at least punch a hole in the walls of the Ivory Tower.
“It is our responsibility to communicate to our stakeholders what their money is being used for.”
We also need to realize that members of the public are not only our target audience, but also represent stakeholders in our business. Much of the research conducted in universities and research institutes is funded by taxpayer dollars as grants from government funding agencies. It is our responsibility to communicate to our stakeholders what their money is being used for. This does not mean sensationalizing our research (as this inevitably has a negative long-term effect on science’s image; see #arseniclife), this means improving our system of dissemination of information. That journal access is becoming prohibitively expensive for places like Harvard University is a pretty stark warning that science is being conducted behind a paywall.
This issue would itself make for a lengthy blog post (and has, most recently here and here) and there are several movements towards a more open model of scientific publication. While it is an extremely complex problem to untangle, and will probably take years to resolve, there are several steps that scientists and journals could take together to improve the situation in the interim. For example, supplying abstracts written for a lay-audience to accompany each manuscript would make it crystal clear why certain research is being conducted, what the importance of the published data is, and who this information impacts.
Again, the use of social media could, and should, play an important role in these interim measures. Indeed, science blogging networks at Nature, Scientific American, and The Guardian, to name a few, are making cutting edge science accessible and understandable to the lay public. The next step is to get this information into the mass media. Science communicators such as Carl Zimmer and Maryn McKenna are pioneers in this way, and have contributed pieces to publications such as Time, Glamor, and Playboy (seriously, you should read it for the articles).
Science and Spin
One of the biggest PR nightmares that we have to solve is the bad press that science has received over the years, thanks to sensationalized reporting and spin. We (and by we I mean YOU) have to make sure that all the information leaving our institutions in the form of a press release is correct. This means that press officers need to be willing to work with investigators, and equally investigators need to appreciate the expertise of the press officer. If the facts contained within the press release are incorrect, the scientist should be given the chance to check the release, but they should resist the urge to complicate or change the language of the document. A fantastic account of how this should be done was posted on Deep Sea News by Miriam Goldstein, who handled the press reports surrounding her recently published (and much-hyped) paper on Pacific pollution.
“If we want to be trusted as fellow human beings we have to act like human beings in the public eye.”
Then, when a journalist gets their hands on the press release, we need to be helpful and accessible when they call to check their facts or get some first hand quotes about the research. And we shouldn’t be afraid to make our stories personal. No one wants to read: “the researchers did this and hypothesized this, and this lead them to do this…” they want drama and accidents and real life! I realize that this statement likely raised a few eyebrows, but I’m deadly serious. If we want to be trusted as fellow human beings we have to act like human beings in the public eye.
That being said, PR is a specialized job and requires a specialized skill set. While individual scientists can improve their own image or online presence, who can we rely on to synergize these efforts into a concerted effort to change the image of science?
While I have highlighted areas in which Science needs to improve its image, I should also note that there have been rumblings in the community for a little while now. Ideas like This is What a Scientist Looks Like, a Tumblr blog collating pictures of scientists at work and at play in attempt to challenge the stereotypical view of scientists as old white men in lab coats, and #IAmScience, a Twitter-based movement intended to emphasize the variety of career paths scientists take, both sprang up in the wake of Science Online 2012. This un-conference, the brainchild of Bora Zivkovic, Anton Zuiker, and Karyn Traphagan, has grown rapidly in the five years of its tenure. Communicating science is clearly the major topic of conversation at these meetings, but this year, thanks to keynote speaker, ex-NFL cheerleader, and National Geographic explorer Mireya Mayor, the conversation quickly became focused on the issue of image, and how the image of Science is critical to public engagement. (There were many great blog posts written in the wake of Scio12, the most visceral perhaps was this one by Zuska.)
These efforts (and many others) are really using the social media and online engagement ideas I mentioned above, and they are fantastic and they are helping. But they rely, a lot of the time, upon active volunteers. We need to pay more heed to these ideas, fund them, and move them from the world of science communication and into the world of general public appeal. Of course there is a long road ahead, but it is time to acknowledge that this is the road we have to take. Science has a PR problem, and we need to fix it.
While I have suggested some solutions to the science PR problem I would love to hear your ideas in the comments section.