The importance of connecting science and society – a writer’s view

Mar 27, 2020 | Blog

This blog post is written by Kelleigh Greene

The Changing Landscape of Science Communication

For the last few decades science communication has been steadily evolving. Gone are the days when scientists exist outside of mainstream society, rarely venturing beyond the walls of their labs or offices. Technological advancements have brought with them an era of unprecedented connectivity, with many scientists gathering on social media to network, discuss hot topics, and share their research with other scientists and non-scientists alike.

Historically, hard lessons have demonstrated the importance of openness, transparency and sharing in science. Some of you will remember the scandal that unfolded in the late 1980s and early 1990s around the fatal bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease. In a prime example of how not to communicate science to the public, the severity of the risk was concealed, leading to hundreds of preventable deaths.

Breaking down the barriers between scientists and the public is becoming increasingly important. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, it is more apparent than ever how important accessible and accurate scientific information is to society. Because these global problems often require scientific solutions, such as the development of new vaccines, the public should have the opportunity to engage if they choose to.

However, traditional information sources plus many of the newer communication channels have multiple disadvantages. Peer-reviewed journals still monopolise scientist to scientist communication, but the technical language necessary for scientific rigour poses significant barriers to non-specialists. The blogs and social media accounts of scientists and institutions generally need to be individually sought out, and are at risk of being drowned out by the vast number of competing voices.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media are prone to inaccuracies and sensationalising stories to attract readers. In the absence of a source of factual, accessible scientific information, many people rely on the media for guidance on issues such as COVID-19. With the sheer number of news reports surrounding the disease, filtering out the superfluous narrative to find the facts that will help individuals protect themselves and their families is extraordinarily difficult.

Rethinking how we communicate science to the public has given rise to a new suite of publications that aim to fill the niche left by other methods of science communication. Scientia is one such publication. Although Scientia shares some similarities with other forms of science communication, it brings together different attributes into a whole new format.

For example, Scientia is open-access and free to readers, preventing information being hidden behind paywalls. The writing style emphasises accessibility over scientific terminology, ensuring it is understandable to non-specialists and non-scientists. Scientia’s articles provide a snippet of a researcher and their work, commissioned by the researcher themselves, and thus are resistant against the sensationalising seen in the mainstream media. Additionally, being written by scientists ensures the information presented is factually accurate.

Writing for Scientia

I began writing for Scientia a few months ago. Initially, I was simply excited about the opportunity to write about some interesting science. However, it turns out that writing more, and in this format, comes with some unanticipated benefits.

For example, I have discovered that writing about other researchers’ work helps me to maintain perspective on my own work. Like many PhD researchers, the intense focus on a highly specific topic for extended periods had started to give me tunnel-vision. Taking a day out around once a week (on average) to learn and write about a different subject is a wonderful reminder that as scientists, we all share some fundamental goals.

Most of the resources that the researchers provide to the Scientia writers are highly specialised and aimed at their scientific peers, such as peer-reviewed journal articles, conference presentation slides, or posters. A large portion of the writer’s job is to filter out the most important bits of information and then ‘translate’ it into clear, accessible language. In addition, the article needs to form a cohesive story to engage the reader. It is true what the proverbial ‘they’ say about practice; I have indeed discovered that the more articles I write the easier it has become to talk about my own research without getting tongue-tied.

With practice, I have (mostly) become much faster at writing too. Though unfortunately, I am still not immune to the occasional bout of writer’s block. Even with all the resources, snacks, and Music for Concentration playlists in the world, some days the words just refuse to flow. What I have discovered is that my previous tactic of ‘stare at the blank screen until something happens’ is wildly inefficient at solving the problem. Out of necessity I’ve had to develop better coping mechanisms, and my hope is that this will be extra beneficial when I start thesis-writing in earnest. Fortunately, publications like Scientia that hire writers are understanding of busy schedules. They give their writers a decent amount of time to complete articles, so that they can plan their own schedules accordingly.

As someone who is on the cusp of making some important career decisions, having the opportunity to write for a science outreach publication has helped highlight the range of roles available to scientists leaving academia. Each article published takes a team of individuals, from editors, writers and graphic designers, to media experts, content coordinators and publication managers. As new science publications and new communication formats arise, so do the number and range of career opportunities available.

Who knows, perhaps your dream job in science has yet to be created.

Further reading

A selection of articles written by Kelleigh for Scientia:

Genetic Control of Destructive Fruit Flies

Lilac Limes: More Than Just a Pretty Fruit

Help from Above: Using Drones to Combat Pine Forest Pests

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