Soapbox Science

Tear Down These Walls


Buddhini Samarasinghe is a molecular biologist with experience in cancer research. She completed her PhD at the University of Glasgow, UK and then recently completed a postdoctoral position at the University of Hawaii. Her science writing can be found at Jargonwall. She is also a passionate science communicator, engaging the public with current research in the life sciences. Where possible, she uses original research papers and describes the science minus the jargon! She is also involved in science outreach through broadcasts on YouTube and other social media sites.

On a cold weeknight in late November, 1660, a dozen men gathered in the rooms at Gresham College in London to found the Royal Society. Not all of them had a scientific background; some of them were lawyers, politicians, merchants and philosophers. The one thing they all had in common was a thirst for knowledge. The formation of the Royal Society was the coming together of a group of curious gentlemen determined to promote the accumulation and dissemination of useful knowledge. It represented a paradigm shift in the practice of science. The Royal Society invented scientific publishing and peer review, two major developments that redefined science from an amateur hobby to the rigorous beast that it is today.

Two remarkable characteristics distinguished the Royal Society from the other nascent scientific societies of its time. It was genuinely international, and being of noble birth was not a requirement for membership. It aspired to the ideal of meritocracy. External factors such as nationality, race, gender and wealth did not matter. This basic premise of science, that it is and must be open to everybody, began with its founding and should continue today. While the ability to practise science now requires a formal education in scientific theory and practice, access to science should not depend on nationality, wealth, geographical location or scientific training.

Two things stand in the way of public access to science. The first is obviously the paywall: the second is something that I describe as the ‘jargon-wall’. The language of science is precise and meticulous; it has to be. Somewhere along the way, it has also become esoteric, foreign and inaccessible to the public by existing only within the confines of the ivory tower of academia. This has contributed to the chasm of scientific ignorance we see today, and it has created a deep divide that could impede human progress.


Science shouldn’t be kept behind walls

So how do we bridge that divide? Open access publications can address the paywall, by allowing anyone with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world, to access scientific discoveries. Open access is not just about giving scientists free access to the science; it is also about giving the public access to the science. However, the jargon-wall is still present, and it prevents ordinary people from understanding the research. Ask yourself, how many non-scientists would understand the average paper published in a peer-reviewed open access journal?

Open access is meaningless without a scientist to interpret the findings. Social media can be a powerful tool for science outreach because it allows a general member of the public to contact and query scientists directly. And when scientists respond, the ivory tower is torn down. This engagement is key to breaking through the jargon-wall. The open access debate is a separate issue, but I want to make the point that open access by itself is not enough to make science accessible to the public.

As scientists, when we engage with the public, the benefits reach far and wide. The primary benefit is of course that the public gets to share and be a part of the adventure that is science. The secondary but equally important benefit is the windfall profits of educating the public. The anti-science movement, including (but sadly not limited to) anti-vaccinationists, climate change deniers, evolution deniers and pseudoscience believers, feeds on ignorance. By providing access to the science, by breaking through both the paywall and the jargon-wall, we reduce that pool of ignorance that the anti-science movement relies on. By getting the public involved in the scientific adventure, we defang the anti-science movement. As a tertiary benefit, it gives us, the scientists, a much needed dose of perspective. All too often we despair over a rejected manuscript, an unsuccessful grant application, or a botched Western blot. I know I do. We forget what we love about science. By engaging with the public, they can be introduced to the wonder, while we, the scientists, are reminded of it.

As an example, I recently came across a fascinating piece of research, published in PLOS Biology, about how a dying nematode worm displays a burst of intense blue fluorescence, generated within the intestinal cells as part of the necrotic cell death pathway. The paper was titled “Anthranilate Fluorescence Marks a Calcium-Propagated Necrotic Wave That Promotes Organismal Death in C. elegans”, which is entirely appropriate for a scientific audience. However, the title alone would discourage many non-scientists from reading this fascinating paper, despite it being open access. I explained the findings, translating the jargon through a post on the social network Google+. The post generated a fascinating discussion, and I linked to the PLOS Biology paper using a URL shortener which allowed me to see how many people clicked the link to read the full open access paper. I was delighted to see over two hundred and fifty page views. How often would a peer reviewed publication, open access or not, receive that many page views from the general public?

Science is an awe inspiring, wonderful, exhilarating adventure. At last, if we have both open access, and scientists willing and able to talk to the public, to engage and to educate the public, we can level the playing field. Everyone can be a part of the adventure. Just as minds of the general population were ignited when the Royal Society began, all those years ago.


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    Richard Smith said:

    Wonderful piece Buddhini. Agree with everything you say, and in fact it was seeing how you and a few others enthuse so vivaciously on G+ and other platforms that made me realise how much fun it can be to engage the public about science. Thanks for getting me hooked!

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    Buddhini Samarasinghe said:

    Thanks Richard! You’re a big part of our science outreach efforts on Google+ too! It’s very important that there are plant scientists such as yourself willing and able explain the science behind GMOs to the public; unfortunately this is a topic that is controversial, so having someone break through the walls I mention in the article and engage the public is very important! Thanks for doing what you do!

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    CA Palma said:

    What Dr. Samarasinghe eloquently describes is not only the current course of a paradigm shift wave, but a natural step in the accomplishment of education democratization. Open science and citizen science have always been there, waiting in the side lines. Waiting until society is mature enough to embrace the pulsating need of every individual to learn, discover and most importantly create. While awaiting the next generation of policy makers to undertow along open and citizen science, us young scientists can anticipate the next goal: Making sure that schools do not teach kids to hate science, but rather ergonomically apprehend it. That, and encouraging replacement of our institutions’ PhD programs with second year undergrads. This way the old-fashioned PhD programs might easily serve the current paradigm shift and new objectives can be assigned to such: We use soon-to-be-obsolete PhD programs for people to engage scientifically & socially, teach in MOOCs and create start-ups.

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    Eric Mills said:

    Great piece on an important issue. Here’s a question: why don’t journals like PLoS use hyperlinks to send readers to introductory explanations of jargon? For the most part the information is out there; people just need to know where to look.

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    Laura Wheeler said:

    On behalf of Scott Wagers:

    Buddhini, I really like your characterization of the ‘jargon wall’ and how it also needs to be broken down. I think it goes both ways. When I was at the University of Vermont I had the privilege of starting up a community medical school. One of the most interesting experiences was how excited non-scientist, non-technical attendees were by lectures that despite some effort to break it down were still full of jargon and technical. Not everyone in audience understood all that was said. They were nonetheless thrilled by the science.

    I recently interviewed Mary Baker, who is the president of the Brain Council and very involved in translational biomedical research. She is a sociologist by training, yet her interest and passion has led her to learn enough that there is certainly no ‘jargon wall’ for her. You can see what I mean here:

    What is fascinating about someone like Mary is that she brings a different perspective to the game and that is where the really creative synergies begin to gel. So, breaking down the ‘pay wall’ and the ‘jargon wall’ are not something we just ‘should do’, it is imperative. Imperative that both scientists and non-scientists work together to make science a societal activity.

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    Buddhini Samarasinghe said:

    Thanks! I’m glad you liked the article! I sincerely hope that through this ‘science communication revolution’ that’s been building over the past few years, we can truly democratize science. I don’t think the current funding situation, or the ‘publish or perish’ system helps though. A certain degree of change will have to come from the top, I think.

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    Buddhini Samarasinghe said:

    Thanks Eric! I now try to leave a link to my ‘translation’ posts on PLoS papers under the comments tab in the hope that it would encourage the moderators or even the authors themselves to encourage and publicize such efforts – so far to no avail!

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    Buddhini Samarasinghe said:

    Thanks Scott! Glad you like the term ‘jargon-wall’ 🙂 Very good point, thus far most of the general public are not as apathetic as scientists seem to think they are – sure there are some people who care more about the latest celebrity to twerk someone on camera, but for the most part, if the science is made even a little bit accessible to people, they keep thirsting for more!

    That’s a really interesting interview, thanks for linking it! Absolutely agree with your last sentence too.

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    Steven Earl SALMONY said:

    If human population dynamics is essentially common to the propulation dynamics of other species and, consequently, if food supply is the independent not the dependent variable in the relationship between food and population, then a lot of what has been reported could be distractions that serve to dismiss rather than disclose vital but unwelcome science of what could somehow be real regarding the human population and, more importantly, why our behavior is so utterly destructive of everything we claim to be protecting and preserving. May I make a request? Could we focus now, here, on whether or not human exceptionalism applies to its population dynamics alone or is the dynamics of all species, including human beings, similar? Whatever your response, please make reference to scientific research that supports your point of view.

    It seems to me that if we keep engaging in and hotly pursuing worldwide overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities, distinctly human activities that cannot be sustained much longer on a planet with size, compostion and ecology of Earth, then the human species is a clear and present danger on our watch to future human well being, life as we know it, and environmental health. If we can see ourselves to be ‘the problem’, then it is incumbent upon us to bring forward the best available evidence from science, especially when that evidence happens to relate directly to why we are pursuing a soon to become, patently unsustainable (superhigh)way of life. A tip of the hat is due Rachel Carson for making me aware of the superhighway. Should humankind emerge from ‘the bottleneck’ E.O. Wilson imagines for us in the future and somehow escape the precipitation of our near-term extinction, how are those survivors to organize life sustainably and not repeat the mistakes we are making now… and have been making for a long time? Without knowledge of why we are doing what we are doing, every one of us is forever trapped in an eternal recurrence of unsustainable life cycles, I suppose.

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve Salmony

    PS: Rachel Carson’s quote,

    We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by“—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.
    Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)

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