How can scientists communicate to the public if they can’t even explain their work to each other?
I recently attended a multi-disciplinary biomedical sciences conference that was designed to encourage collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas. Scientists from a wide variety of disciplines were represented including cancer research, heart disease, MND (that’s me), mental health and, more.
The day was structured around a plenary, short talks and, a poster session with prizes awarded accordingly. I had not attended this conference before but I read a lot of science outside my area of specialty and therefore I like to think I have a fairly good understanding of other areas of biomedical science.
So I was extremely disappointed to find that I had difficulty in following many of the talks because they were too technical or laden with jargon and lacked a big picture explanation. This is not to say they were of a poor standard, I’m fairly sure they were exceptional, it’s just that I could not have walked from the room and given you a synopsis of what was said, because the message was not clear. And I have a PhD in cell biology and more than six years of research under my belt.
So it got me wondering, with all the pressure on scientists to communicate their work to the public and “come out from behind the bench!”, we have a long way to go if our colleagues don’t know what the hell we are going on about. And it seems someone else was on the same page as me since the best student talk was awarded to a presentation which was clear, concise and succinct.
By contrast, another talk delved into the fine details of the methodology, and whilst I’m certain it was very impressive, the outcomes of the research were completely lost in the detail. The thing is, during a ten minute talk at a generalist conference, I don’t want to know the precise details of the primer design, the exact engineering behind the fluorescent microscope, or how many technical officers it took to change the light globes. If I do require these details, I can ask the researcher afterwards or read the paper if the results are published.
“What’s the point of research if no one reads it? So it’s sensible to do what you can to let people know about it,” Professor Simon Chapman, Uni Sydney School of Public Health.
I’m not suggesting that talks be delivered in layman’s terms or, that the science should be “dumbed down” – I’m suggesting the information should be accessible and that jargon should be kept to a minimum and ideally reserved for specialist conferences.
I’ve been translating complex science into simple language for over eighteen months now in my role as a science communicator, and it is certainly a challenge to do this without misrepresenting the science. Indeed this is the hardest part of the process and why so many of us complain about mainstream journos messing up our work, but it can be done and when it’s done well it’s a win-win for everyone.
With the increasing accessibility of the web, there are now plenty of places where researchers have the opportunity to describe their work for a larger audience. For example blogs (either your own, a guest post on someone else’s or those attached to specialist scientific journals), websites such as Australia’s “The Conversation”, or as an interviewee on one of the many science podcasts, amongst many others.
I agree with Professor Simon Chapman from the University of Sydney School of Public Health who said, “I just can’t see the point of doing research if no one is going to read it”.
He has conducted experiments where he has made several of his publications available to download via Twitter. A book on PSA tests for prostate cancer called “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” had sold 200 hard copies but was downloaded 7000 times.
“So what?” you might say, why wouldn’t people download a free book? But even a dry, non-peer reviewed manuscript entitled “Policies and Practices of Australian Universities on Competing Interests of Academic Staff” was downloaded 242 times when Tweeted. (This method may not be applicable to published papers as it breaches copyright of the journal in most cases).
Further, Paul Knoefler from Nature News Blog says “Savvy scientists must increasingly engage with blogs and social media. Even if you choose not to blog, you can certainly expect that your papers and ideas will increasingly be blogged about. So there it is — blog or be blogged.” I am acutely aware that many of us have neither the time or the inclination to do so. And that’s perfectly fine. Personally, I enjoy the immediacy of talking and blogging about my work as feedback comes quickly and I reach a much larger audience than I ever would behind the pay-wall of an academic journal.
But if we do find ourselves at a cross-discipline conference, we should be mindful that omitting complex detailed information without detracting from the message is a much more effective way to convey the science. There’s nothing more satisfying than people taking an interest in your work – especially when you’ve slaved behind a bench for years to get that one pretty graph – which they can’t do if they don’t have a clue what you’re saying.
There are multiple pressures on researchers including teaching, supervising students, publishing papers, not to mention months of writing grants and grant rebuttals, it’s a wonder we have time to talk about our work at all. But if we do come out from behind the bench and talk only in jargon, then we’re not reaching anyone and there’s not much point in that.
*KISS = keep it simple stupid
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