Advocating Science: It’s Our Job

Every year during the holidays, scientists the world over are leaving their lab-caves and venturing out into the real world to interact with friends, family, and the general public. They’re lured away from experiments, grants, manuscripts by the promise of parties, food, and fun.

How will you share science this holiday season?

Inevitably, there comes the moment when they are asked by a non-scientist, “So, what exactly is it that you study?” *SCREEEEEECH* Stop. This is a crucial moment! Before you answer, consider the following three scenarios:

Scenario A: You launch into a convoluted and long-winded explanation of your research, much like the prepared speech you use at conferences and scientific social events. As you speak, your audience goes from mildly interested to completely bored to plotting their immediate escape. They politely cut you off, excuse themselves, and spend the rest of the party avoiding you.

Scenario B: You blow off the question. You’re tired of explaining your research to people who “just don’t get it,” and rather than suffer through one more awkward conversation that ends with the other person walking away confused (as in Scenario A), you respond along the lines of, “Well, I could explain it to you, but it’s not really important and you wouldn’t understand it anyways.”

Scenario C: You lead with the most interesting, relatable, and easy-to-understand tidbit about your work that you can think of. Your audience is intrigued. They keep asking you questions, and before you know it, 30 minutes have passed and you’re still talking science. Your audience totally learned something new and now has a deeper understand of your work. Also, you both had fun talking about science! Awesome!

Do any of these sound familiar to you? Let’s review the pros and cons of each.

Scenario A is good because you actually tried to explain your work. A for effort. Where you went wrong is you assumed that you could start where you usually start with other scientists, and then backtrack/fill in gaps based on how much you audience understands. This won’t work. People like to be told a story, and if you’re constantly interrupting that story to explain and define things, you won’t hold their attention.

Scenario B is every science advocate’s worst nightmare. Please, please do not do this! You’re basically reaffirming the stereotype that scientists are socially awkward, self-serving elitists. You’re talking down to your audience, telling them they’re not smart enough to possibly understand your work. This scenario has zero pros, only cons.

Scenario C is exactly what you should strive for. It might not be the case that your audience embarks on a 30 minute chat about science every time, but they didn’t feel patronized or confused and didn’t walk away.

I am sure that scientists and non-scientists alike can identify with scenarios A and B. Unfortunately, if you find yourself experiencing either one of those, you’ve failed at your job as a science advocate. Think about it: science funding comes from where, exactly? Non-scientists. Yes. People who hand out the money directly may be scientists (like the NIH), but people raising the money are usually not experts. They might have a personal interest or connection to the funding (example: someone giving money to the pancreatic cancer foundation because their father died of the disease), but they are by no means a researcher themselves. It is my personal opinion that every scientist needs to be aware of this. Not just because we care about the money, but because we care about the research. We care about the discovery. The money is just a necessary tool to be able to continue doing and learning. Without public support, science will falter, and all the amazing things we wanted to learn will be left undiscovered because we couldn’t muster interest in our work.

So, how can you be a better science advocate, like in scenario C? Practice. There a few little tips and tricks to communicating science to non-scientists, but just like anything, you’ll get better at it the more you do it, experimenting with different explanations and making a note of what works and what doesn’t. Kind of like doing research, right?

I’ll follow up next time with a post with some of the tips, but in the mean time, think about your own experiences. Scientists – what have you found works? Non-scientists – what do you wish the scientists would do better?

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