Recently, I was reminded how so often scientists speak a completely ‘foreign’ language from the general public. When my family came to town for my dissertation defense, my dad sat down on my couch the evening before with the giant three-ringed binder filled with page after page of research, results, statistics, and interpretation (read: my blood, sweat and tears) that comprised my Ph.D. dissertation, trying to understand what the heck his daughter had been up to for the past six years. He had hardly gotten through the first page of the abstract when he had to bust out his Blackberry to Google words - allochthonous inputs, whole-stream respiration, primary production. Needless to say, the terminology of stream ecology research exasperated the man and he stopped reading, opting instead for my own plain-speak interpretation of the work. I patiently answered his key questions: What do you do? Why is it important? Why should I care?
OK, so dissertations aren’t really meant for public consumption, but I think the concerns of my father are legitimate ones that we should consider as we strive for the public understanding of science. Scientists ought to do a better job translating their science to the public. But how?
Congress has one thought about how to go about it - By training the next generation of scientists. In a law passed and signed by the President this past August to improve U.S. competitiveness through significant investments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics research and education, Congress has instructed institutions receiving awards under NSF’s Integrated Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program to “train graduate students in the communication of the substance and importance of their research to non-scientific audiences.” I am sure we all have memories of at least one scientist in our lives who fits that stereotype of being uncomfortable chatting with anything but a computer, let alone looking a person in the eye! Communications training for up-and-coming scientists seems like a great place to start changing this stereotype.
Even a major scientific journal is thinking about this issue. In a November 2 editorial in the journal Science, Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy addresses the importance of science communication and the accessibility of the language of science to laypeople. In response to concerns about Reports and Research Articles that are too technical or hard to understand, Science is trying out a new experiment in each weekly issue now through December. For each Research Article, Science is providing an “Authors’ Summary” that in one page answers some of those same questions that my dad asked me. Readers are asked to provide their feedback on this experiment in an online survey: www.sciencemag.org/sciext/easurvey
You too can do something to improve the communication channels between scientists and the public. Be it through media interviews, volunteering your time working with visitors at your neighborhood nature center, or writing a science column for your local newspaper, we each can contribute to the translation of science.