Opinion: Being scientists doesn’t make us science communicators

A A few weeks ago, when it became known that an effective vaccine against COVID-19 had been developed, a popular person in science communications shared a Twitterphere thread on COVID-19 immunity. The intent of the thread was to explain to a nonscientific audience how the vaccine protects against the virus. While this is an admirable goal, the thread was promptly replied to with an influx of replies indicating an error in the information. When looking through the profiles of those who provided the fix, I repeatedly noticed “virologists” or “epidemiologists” in their BIOS. The thread writer, on the other hand, is a chemistry professor. It wasn’t difficult to determine who was right – the chemist, in fact apologized and deleted the erroneous tweet.

Communicating science beyond the academic bubble is necessary to increase public understanding of health and environmental issues and to help individuals make informed personal decisions. I believe this so much that while doing my PhD at Northwestern University, I took the time to attend many science communication training courses and conferences, write for a blog that covers scientific topics for a lay audience, and collaborate with other contributors to make their pieces more accessible to the general public.

If you’re a scientist who hasn’t improved on these science communication skills, don’t hop on Twitter on your first try. Instead, look for ways to practice science communication in a low-stakes setting where you can get feedback from professionals.

I also believe that academics engaged in science communication need to acknowledge that their subject is deep but narrow and recognize the limits of their own knowledge. This is not to say that they just write or present about their own research, but rather that they consult with an expert if the subject is outside their discipline. Checking the facts with a scientist working in the field will prevent the inadvertent spread of misinformation and the process can result in interesting new tidbits that can be included.

It is equally important to emphasize that an expert on a topic does not automatically qualify a scientist to convey it to a non-scientific audience. In response to this year’s global reckoning of the importance of science in our lives, I noticed an increase in the number of “explainers” on my Twitter feed. These publicly directed explanations of scientific phenomena come from qualified scientists, but often explain very little. One RNA biologist shared a complicated analogy with a library, books, paper, recipe, ingredients, and cake to explain mRNA-based vaccines. I cannot suggest a specific alternative analogy as I am a chemist with no expertise in the field. But I can say that one that doesn’t require a written key to keep track of what each element represents would be a huge improvement.

Science communication is a science in and of itself that requires rigorous training and instruction. In my science communication training courses, I learned how to identify and eliminate jargon and develop effective analogies to explain complex concepts (effective is the operative word). They had textbooks and written exercises and objective assessments, just like my science courses. You can’t just assume communication skills – imagine someone just decided they were a physicist and tried to contribute in the field without the required background! If you do a poor job of bringing science to the public, it will only create confusion and widen the science-society gap that you wanted to close.

The very title of “scientist” gives us some authority, and with that authority comes a responsibility to ensure that our communications with the public are correct and clear. If you are a trained science communicator, seek out experts from your network of contacts as you apply your skills to new areas of science. And if you’re a scientist who hasn’t hone those science communication skills yet, don’t look for your first try on Twitter. Instead, look for ways to practice science communication in a low-stakes setting where you can get feedback from professionals. The Free Online Science Communication Training Program (SCOPE) through Northwestern and ComSciCon conferences is a valuable resource for PhD students. In addition, more and more universities are offering scientific communication training for the faculty. Check with your own school to see if there are science communication courses available, or request to attend another institute virtually (which should be easier these days than ever). I believe these actions will ensure that our good intentions get the result we want and make science more accessible to all.

Sarah Anderson is a PhD student in the chemistry department at Northwestern University and an aspiring science writer. Check out their twitter page @ Seanderson63 for more of their work.

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