Effectively Communicating Your Science

Are scientists that use social media communicating science effectively? Or just self-promoting?


This is a summary of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology session with Paul Berg (Nobel Laureate), Joe Palca (NPR), Megan J. Palmer (Deputy Director of Practices SynBERC) and Cara Santa Maria (Huffington Post Senior Science Correspondent) at Experimental Biology 2012.

Angela Hopp storified the tweets from the session and you can read them here.

In summary, the panellists all agreed that communication of science to the public was important and scientists that are good at communicating should be valued.

Paul Berg stressed the importance of science communication for risk management, and stated that, “all scientists should think beyond their results”, think about the wider implications of their research, and be prepared to defend what they do. He also raised that he would like to see the public represented at science policy discussions and that would be achieved through a media presence and more effective communication.

Joe Palca discussed how he didn’t see ‘news’ in science and that he doesn’t apply a news model to science. He encourages scientists to speak to journalists about science and to stop, “dissing scientists that are good communicators”.

Megan Palmer entered science communication, as she was frustrated with restrictions on stem cell research. She emphasised the value of communication in order to get funding for research and influence policy. She gave 3 tips for communication; 1. learn the system 2. become a better listener and 3. practice. Scientists are the ones at the forefront of science and need to be the ones starting the conversations. She suggested blogging as an avenue to start communicating.

Cara Santa Maria made some excellent points based on the difference between how the public and scientists see science, how that can be a barrier, and how to communicate science in a way that bridges that gap. She emphasised science stories could be about the method and the person, rather than just research outcomes, and talked about humanising science. She also emphasised the role of blogging and social networks as a way of communication and encouraged communication to get policy in schools changed in the USA.

The debate really hotted up when Paul Berg shared his views on blogging and social media. He said he would not promote those as a way of communication as they are designed only for self-promotion, and self-promotion is not science.

In a room with a number of science tweeters and bloggers, this statement went down like a study with no control group.

My viewpoint is, as scientific conversations are happening already on social networks (and journalists/policy makers are present on them) not participating in them would be a missed opportunity. There is also the opportunity to speak to a wider community via social networking (not everyone, but a community). Also, you can use social networks and blogs to change inaccuracies that have been reported.

Maybe Paul Berg doesn’t realise the nature of these conversations. Yes, self-promotion is part of them, but also there are different ways to use these networks, twitter allows one on one or broadcast communication to a large audience, blogs allow for detailed discussions and explanations of scientific principals and news, others allow new ways to share science (like figshare). But it certainly highlighted a viewpoint that some people, including senior and highly respected scientists have about bloggers and social media users. If the senior scientists take this stance, will communicators who use social networks be penalised in a scientific career? How can the scientific community really celebrate good communicators (as the panel said) if attitudes like this are present?

The session focussed heavily on writing as the main form of communication. They didn’t really explore other ways of communication, like participation in science in schools projects (STEM networks), science in pubs or science festivals.

I would be interested to see other peoples reaction to what was said in this session. I haven’t seen any other blogs published yet (but I am sure they are brewing). I also know, that Au magazine reaches quite a few non-scientists, so I would be interested to hear your view points about how you see scientists interacting on social media platforms.

Heather Doran is the official ASBMB blogger for the Experimental Biology Conference 2012. On twitter @hapsci

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