Both science communicators and researchers carry the onus of answering science’s most important question
By Jessica Eise
I recently had a phone call with a frustrated colleague looking for some advice. She had two key pressure points, both common in the field of science communication.
First, she often couldn’t make sense of what scientists were telling her. They would explain their advanced, varied concepts increasingly quickly and impatiently as she struggled to understand them. Both parties would leave frustrated, having not achieved much. The scientists might wrongly assume she’s stupid to have not understood.
The second issue? She often doesn’t know what to do with the information once she gets it. They have a new tool. They can measure a new metric. There’s this new discovery. Once you get it, it seems pretty cool, but no one wants to pick it up in the media. It’s not news. The public isn’t especially interested.
Both these problems are due in part to a critical oversight of the same question; a question that goes unasked far too often in modern research. It’s this: Why does this matter?
In other words, So what? It’s a question rarely asked nor answered sufficiently. My colleague can’t sell the science to any audience if she can’t explain clearly, directly and immediately why it matters. People don’t care about things that don’t have a wider application or impact or result. Science might matter a lot to scientists, but it’s not de facto essential reading for everyone else. A new piece of scientific knowledge, like everything else, has to earn its place in the collective consciousness.
This is the key reason why my colleague isn’t finding it easy to get her institution’s science into the newspaper. But it’s also the major culprit as to why she can’t understand her scientists. If they can’t tell her why their work matters — not to them, but in the broader, societal sense — she’s always going to end up baffled and wide-eyed. Contextualizing science for the wider world is important.
It takes two to do this properly. The onus is on both the science communicator and the scientist. The science communicator has to push hard until she gets to the core of the So what? question — and then he or she has to present that succinctly and compellingly to their broader audience. But the scientist also has to assume some responsibility. Because if you can’t get your science communicator to understand (this is, after all, the most captive audience you will ever find), then no one is going to understand.
If you can’t get a layperson to understand your science, it’s more likely down to a deficiency in your communication than it is their understanding. Help someone understand why you’re doing what you do, and you’ll go a long way to helping them understand the what.
Jessica Eise is co-editor of How To Feed the World and co-author of The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture. She is a Ross Fellow in the Purdue University Brian Lamb School of Communication doctoral program and blogs frequently on communication, research and life.