PLOS BLOGS welcomes Sam Illingworth, a professor of physics and science communication, with this guest post. Read his full bio below.
By Sam Illingworth
This is a snippet from a recent dinner party conversation:
Random: So, what job do you do?
Me: I’m a university lecturer
Random: Cool, what in.
Me: Science communication.
Random: What now?
Me: Science communication.
Random: And what is that exactly?
Me: Well, it’s kind of a new field. Basically it looks at how scientists can better communicate their research to each other and the rest of society, and why they should do so.
Random: But I thought you had a PhD in Atmospheric Physics or something.
Me: I do.
Random: So why aren’t you a lecturer in that?
Me (defiantly): Because I believe that this is a field of research that is of great potential benefit to a large number of people. As the great American astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “Science is an absolutely essential tool for any society. And if the scientists will not bring this about, who will?”
Random: So does that mean that you aren’t a scientist anymore?
Me (meekly): I also teach physics.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the conversation, the point is that this it is a handy microcosm for how some people view science communication, and science communicators in general. Not everybody is as blunt as my dinner companion, but there is no doubt that some science communicators are made to feel undervalued and under appreciated.
The extent to which this is true became evident during a recent session that I convened at the European Geoscience Union’s 2015 general assembly. During a discussion with the audience, those who identified themselves as science communicators indicated that they were sometimes made to feel second-rate, either by more traditional research scientists, or by people who did not understand what it was that they did.
When asked why they thought this was the case, one of the reasons given was that science communication is perceived as being easy; that you turn up to a school, a science festival, a café etc., deliver a speech and then simply move on to the next activity.
This is quite clearly not the case, but from my own personal experience in the field, this does sadly seem to be the view held not only by some scientists, but also by some members of the general public. Someone else in the audience pointed out that this was similar to the inaccurate view that professors ‘just teach’. The reality of course is that teaching is an enormously difficult job that can be made to look easy by people who are very good at their jobs (an issue that is explored further in this journal article).
And so it is with science communication. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate how difficult it can be to communicate science in the right way is to look at how easy it is to get wrong. In recent years there have been many examples of questionable science communication, from the inconvenience caused in the UK by the Met Office’s ‘BBQ summer scandal’, to the trial of the six Italian scientists for their inability to effectively communicate the risk of the L’Aquila earthquake. Like other areas of science, science communication isn’t something that just happens; it requires careful planning, dedication and practice.
Ironically enough, as a community we are quite poor at communicating our successes, but this is what we need to do if we hope to be treated with parity. Ultimately though we should try to not let it get to us. Anyone who has seen the eyes of a child light up as they are introduced to the majesty of science, or who has helped to connect and empower a previously estranged member of society via the medium of science will know that this is enough.
I like to think that if I went to the same dinner party again, the conversation would go a little bit more like this:
Random: So does that mean that you’re not a scientist anymore?
Me: Carl Sagan also said, “science today is the way of thinking much more than it is the body of knowledge.” The processes that I adopt and the rationale behind my current research is pure science. And, might I add that whilst my research is important to me, what is even more important to me is knowing that I am responsible for actively ensuring that society is better able to understand the effects of science, both positive and negative. To me that is worth far more than a few dozen citations and a slight bump in my h-index.
Random: You had me at Carl Sagan.
Sam Illingworth is a lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK. His research involves looking at the ways in which science interacts with society via different cultural media. When he is not doing that he likes to write bad poems about good science, some of which can be read here.