3 Reasons You Don’t Want to Communicate About Your Research but Absolutely Should

August 27, 2014
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

Many scientists are understandably reticent when it comes to communicating their work or engaging in the policymaking process. I sympathize — truly, I do! — but here’s why I think you should go for it anyway.

Getting it right is worth the effort

More than a few scientists have been burned when they’ve tried to communicate their work: a reporter misquoted them, their public lecture produced blank stares, or they got a bunch of disturbing nasty-grams in their inbox. More concerning, their colleagues criticized them online, to their faces or (yuck) behind their backs.

Taylor Swift performing in Sydney in 2012

As Taylor Swift notes, players are going to play, haters are going to hate, and she’s just going to shake it off. Source: Flickr, Eva Rinaldi, via Wikipedia.

Hear me now and believe me later: Taylor Swift has the answer. You can, in fact, shake off bad experiences and move on. Every mistake or perceived failure is an opportunity to learn and get better. Indeed, scientists like Katharine Hayhoe have even taken very negative experiences — the kind few scientists ever face — and turned them around to positively communicate their work.

Scientists can find their communication comfort zone over time, too. A scientist who loathes public speaking might develop a talent for blogging or writing opinion pieces. Similarly, if your work has bearing on a contentious issue, you can figure out where you want to draw the line when it comes to making statements about policy. Science communication also doesn’t have to be broad or intimidating; it can be as simple as regularly meeting with stakeholders who use your research.

Making the time

Scientists are busy. Then again, everyone is busy: parenting, commuting, deleting email, figuring out how fast to spin blood samples in a centrifuge. Okay, maybe that last one is just scientists.

Still, that’s why it’s important to plan ahead for communications work. Scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson has noted that most scientific projects devote 90 percent of their resources to research and less than 10 percent to communicating it. He says it should be a fifty-fifty relationship.

At a minimum, when publishing new research, scientists should give themselves time to work with their press or public affairs office, talk to journalists and respond to requests for comment. Ideally, scientists can build robust communications plans into their research and refine them as they go.

More importantly, universities and other scientific institutions can do more to ensure that communicating research is part of scientists’ job descriptions.

It matters

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the only thing more powerful than an invisibility shield is the “Somebody Else’s Problem” field. At the root of most scientists’ reticence to engage is that the topics and associated risks they study are daunting and complex. They can seem removed from people’s daily lives and hard for society to respond to adequately.

Carl Sagan on TIME's Cover

There are very few scientists who can break through to mainstream culture, but every scientist can do more to communicate their work. Source: TIME magazine; October 20, 1980. Photo by Aaron Huertas.

Indeed, science communication can sometimes feel like beating your head against a brick wall of misinformation and apathy. And that’s exactly what makes it so important.

If scientists don’t communicate their research, who will? Usually people who don’t understand it or who have a vested interest in spreading falsehoods.

And just because there’s a lot of competition out there for people’s attention doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to break through.

There are millions of scientists and people working in science in the United States. Imagine if they all did just a little bit more to communicate their work.

We might not ever have another Carl Sagan – the world of the original Cosmos and Johnny Carson is gone — but if every scientist channeled just a little bit of their inner Sagan, surely we would become a more informed and rational nation.

And let’s not forget unbridled self-interest: Good science communication means more public support for science funding, greater understanding and appreciation for science, and valuable feedback from the people who are using your research.

Using the right tools

There are a ton of resources out there for scientists. The first and foremost are institutional communications offices. UCS has developed its own resources, too, and there are many more authors and groups who offer scientists guidance. The National Academy of Sciences has also gotten in on the game in a big way.

So what else gives you pause when it comes to communicating your work?

And how can we help you do more?

Feature photo courtesy of Virginia Sea Grant.