Emily Coren is a science illustrator in California. She has a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from UC-Santa Cruz that led to a position making transgenic butterflies at SUNY Buffalo. She graduated from the UC Santa Cruz Program in Science Illustration and drew bugs, plants and dinosaur bones at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History and developed educational content for Walden Media in Los Angeles. Her goal as a science illustrator has always been to use popular media to make science accessible to people with non-science backgrounds. Current project for connecting is WalkaboutEm.com and can be found at on Twitter as @emilycoren.
I want to express my appreciation to all of the scientists and science communicators who have spoken up before me. There have been some wonderful issues raised in June’s Soapbox Science #reachingoutsci series, and I hope my ideas continue the discussion.
I think we agree that:
Research is publicly funded so it’s necessary to put it in a format the public can access. The UK Parliament session ‘Voice of the Future 2012’ hosted by the Science and Technology Committee on March 14, 2012, is a great demonstration of how policy and government reflect both the input from public opinion and values as well as information from science advisers. Politicians have an incentive to meet the requests of their constituency if they want re-election. The session clearly demonstrates why it’s so important to put science communication into a format that improves science literacy.
Science literacy would be improved by teams of people working with scientists creating content which is accessible to the public. I agree with Shaaron Leverment when she said, “Reaching out to people where they are is a very important part of what we do” and with Jeanne Garbarino when she said, “I hope that we can figure out a way to expand science communication efforts from research institutions by having a dedicated team of people who work side by side with scientists.” We need to integrate science into popular media.
I don’t expect scientists to be able to or have the time to do this, so hire science communicators! Many of us come from science backgrounds and really want to help you get your work understood by the public so that you continue to have public support and funding. As Kalliopi Monoyios so perfectly put it, “Dun-duh-nuh-NUH!!!!!! ENTER: The science communicators! (“We are here! We are here!”)”
Using mass media for science communication is more important now than ever because we have so much new information coming out each year. Thanks to new technologies, the rate of data accumulation has increased dramatically, even in the last 50 years. If we expect the public to keep up with that then we need to come-up with new strategies for science communication.
My solution to science communication is:
Use mass media to communicate science to the public. We have science research generating vast amounts of new information about our world, and an entertainment industry producing huge volumes of content that is consumed by the public collectively creating our culture. Why not start pairing them to work together?
Put science content into formats already being used by people who are uninterested in science. Let’s meet the public where they are at. As I’m writing this, IMDB informs me that three of the most popular television shows at the moment are Game of Thrones, True Blood and Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad at least has some chemistry in it…
Did you know there’s historical precedent for this kind of content? My dad is an Archivist at the National Archives, and as a kid visiting him for “Take Your Daughter To Work Day,” he showed me The Winged Scourge, a malaria vector control propaganda piece produced in 1943 in collaboration between Disney and Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. There are many more great examples of science integration into pop culture, such as Animaniacs – Yakko’s Universe (1993), and Animaniacs – Be Careful What You Eat (1993). I have to include both because they are so much fun. A recent addition includes (A Biologist’s) St. Patrick’s Day Song by Adam Cole at NPR. This a great start! I’d say it’s likely though that the target audience for this is biologists who like to drink. What about creating a cross between this and content with a target audience more like the viral Narwhals video my husband’s friends are passing around at work.
There is an issue of scope to what I’m proposing. Sending graduate students to talk to an elementary school class does not have the same reach required to educate a whole population. As a community, let’s start thinking bigger.
I’m looking to achieve cultural integration of science. For example, let’s do science placement in TV and movies the same way that you would do product placement. We can write TV shows about scientists the way we do with doctors and lawyers, like Scrubs but with a set of incoming graduate students, instead of medical interns. Most importantly, integrating content for long periods in narrative programming allows for maintaining audience interest long enough to communicate complex ideas.
And words aren’t enough. You have to use images and music. Ever seen a Coke ad without the artwork?
I had a professor in college, Andrew Szasz, who taught an entire class on why disposable plastic water bottles are an environmental catastrophe. This is what’s selling those plastic water bottles. Where’s our ad/tv placement equating bottled water as “dirty” and showing sexy young, clean people enjoying drinking tap water? Why does our anti-plastic campaign look like this?
Want the public to know that evolution is a fact, not a belief? I agree with David Wescott, “The smarter approach is the long term one – win 30 of the smaller battles, and the larger one will be easier to win.” Don’t like the trend of teaching creationism in schools? Let’s create 30 smaller campaigns showing how we know what we know about evolution but never use the words evolution and creationism (they are polarizing, and distracting from the evidence). Then, after the public accepts some of the smaller pieces we can start tying them together. This, for me, is about creating a cultural shift. First we have to meet them where they are at.
Let’s put the Arts back into the Arts and Sciences. Even if that means more dancing narwhals.
My question to the science communication community is, How are we going to find funding to accomplish this?