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 looks at how scientists reach out of the ivory tower, communicating science to the public, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on the nature.com blogs. We will hear from a range of contributors: scientists, writers, enthusiasts, communicators, events organizers, policy makers and teachers, each sharing details about how they engage and reach out to the public.
Tammy Slenn is a 5th year PhD student at Harvard University and current co-director of Science in the News, a graduate student organization focused on communication of science to the general public. Science in the News provides programming in the greater Boston area about current science for those who have completed their formal science education. Programming includes two lecture series, a science café series, an e-newsletter, education outreach, and participation in stand-alone events. For more information about Science in the News, visit sitn.hms.harvard.edu, “like” Science in the News at Harvard University on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @sitnharvard, or email email@example.com.
During my undergraduate years at The University of Richmond, everyone conducting research in any discipline—from philosophy to physics—presented their work at a research symposium, where communicating findings to humanities students was just as important as being able to answer questions from colleagues in the hard sciences. My science professors were all skilled communicators who based our curriculum largely on writing and presenting. These faculty role models and frequent events like the university-wide research symposium inspired me to pursue a PhD in molecular biology.
Perhaps my initial experiences with research were a bit deluding. When I entered my PhD program at Harvard University, I was not prepared for the culture of science at a research institution. Communication outside the “ivory tower” no longer mattered, and I felt pressure from multiple directions to focus on research only. I was stunned by the attitude of my new colleagues; it had never crossed my mind that scientists wouldn’t care about discussing research with our peers in other disciplines. I felt stifled in a culture of people who separated themselves from the rest of an intricately linked society.
Science in the News (SITN) at Harvard University saved my desire to be a scientist. SITN is a graduate student organization that focuses on communication of science to the general public. By organizing events for scientists and non-scientists to interact directly, we provide the general public access to current, accurate science information and improve scientists’ ability to communicate to the general public. Through SITN, I am inspired once again as I’ve met other scientists like myself and non-scientists who make me remember why I chose to excel in science in the first place.
For 13 years, SITN has provided free, public lectures on current science topics through a fall seminar series at Harvard Medical School. Teams of three graduate students present our interactive lectures; about half of each seminar addresses questions from the audience. We avoid field-specific jargon that often impedes communication between the scientific community and the general public. Audience member surveys allow us to judge our lecture style and topic choice, and we have expanded programming to Harvard’s Cambridge campus in response to positive feedback.
In an effort to entice a crowd who is not only uninformed about science but also not interested enough to attend a lecture, we started a different flavor of programming in 2010 with Science by the Pint, our version of a science café. At Science by the Pint, we bring a group of scientists to a local bar–there is no podium, no powerpoint, no lecturing. The bulk of the event consists of scientists mingling from table to table, engaging non-scientists in conversation about their research and answering any questions that arise. Importantly, we do not host Science by the Pint in a private room; people at the bar for other purposes hear our introduction and often come join the mingling. In this way, we’re able to reach a new audience. To me, this is true success.
To supplement our events, SITN releases a biweekly e-newsletter, The SITN Flash, featuring articles on current science topics, again geared toward non-scientists. Written and edited by graduate students, The Flash connects with an audience of several thousand readers throughout Boston. Finally, we realize that we can reach out to more than just adults—we have been engaging a younger audience for a few years now through our education outreach programs at local high schools and middle schools and our ‘Model Organism Zoo’ at the Cambridge Science Festival.
More than anything else, our programming provides an avenue for scientists to communicate with the general public. A team of less than 20 officers and program coordinators, all graduate students, provides hundreds of scientists—graduate students, faculty, and post-docs—a venue to communicate their science. The organization handles communication training, advertising, and scheduling, so scientists who might not otherwise interact with the general public as part of their profession can write articles, give lectures, spend time in a classroom, or chat over a drink with non-scientists.
Together, we have not only provided programming in Boston, but we’ve also spurred a SITN-like organization at Yale University, and some programming may be in the works in Manhattan. Our organization is tirelessly applying for grants from several sources within Harvard—we are fortunate that we have found support from the student government, and from university administrators. Most of our operational costs go toward advertising for our programming, which takes the form of advertisements on mass transit trains and buses, as well as polished flyers that we distribute by hand to local coffee shops and community centers.
Without proper funding, expansion throughout the United States will be difficult. Possibilities include formalizing a chapter-based structure in which SITN at Harvard provides a franchise-like model for those interested in mimicking our approach in other geographic environments. Additionally, we could expand our reach through the more active use of social media and web-based events.
My work with SITN is considered a hobby by some, and a distraction from my lab work by many. However, I believe that communicating our work is critical to maintaining the support of the general public. Only if the public understands and values science will they promote policies permissive to discovery and continue to finance it through taxpayer funded agencies or nonprofit organizations. In an era where most journalists are not trained to interpret scientific results, it is the scientific community’s responsibility to bridge the communication gap between scientists and non-scientists, and groups like SITN can provide a platform for scientists to communicate.
Like so many scientists interested in communication, several other questions face me now. How do we create programming like SITN at other universities and research institutions? How do we reach communities across the country and across the world that have less exposure to science than big cities like Boston? How do we change the culture of science to be supportive of these missions? And, perhaps most importantly, who values the mission enough to pay for it?