Communicating Science to the Public

The (wo)man in the white lab coat. A pop culture symbol. A mad scientist. Big Pharma. Curing disease. Animal testing. Ethics. Morality.

Lots of things spring to mind when picturing a researcher at work in the laboratory. Some people understand that what we do pushes the limit of human understanding and is hopefully for the betterment of mankind. Others think we are toying with gods work, are nefarious in our plans and don’t give a toss about animals of any sort. Science is neither good nor bad but can be used for either.

It varies largely on the country we look at. Germany, for example, has a high scientific literacy rate among the general population in comparison to the UK. A greater emphasis is placed on the importance of basic scientific thinking throughout primary and secondary education.

Communicating science to the public is always important but especially so in countries where the scientific process is not as well understood or taught.

This category will contain hot topic articles about issues regarding scientific breakthroughs and methods which are often misunderstood, challenged by the vocal minority for the wrong reasons or misrepresented by the media

As an added note: please don’t obtain your scientific updates through tabloid papers – the stories are almost always twisted or completely farcical. The Scientist and New Scientist are both great sources of bite-size science updates from multiple research areas. 

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Why is it important

 

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ratbotcomics.com

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Huge amounts of scientific funding come from the public purse. I myself am funded by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) which is the largest UK public funder of bioscience.

In an age of such rapid scientific and technological advancement we risk widening the gap between scientists and the public.

Considering millions of pounds from the taxpayer fund UK research, it is only right that the public be informed directly regarding new breakthroughs as well as future directions for specific areas of research. The public should be observers of research and not left in the dark.

The majority of policy makers and people in positions of power that can change the regulation of science are themselves not scientists. It is extremely important that a clear relationship based on transparency is maintained between scientists and non-scientists so that policy makers, who often succumb to the will of misinformed members of the public, do not bombard researchers with suffocating new regulations that harm research in this country.

Regulation and tight control when handled correctly is a good thing. All studies must have ethical approval. We can’t just perform studies for the sake of it. There must be a clear, reasoned argument for doing so. Anyone performing studies on animals, for example, has intensive training in surgical techniques, animal husbandry and behaviour and everything else to minimise animal use and suffering (this is a topic I will be covering at a later date including the importance of the Three Rs – Replacement, Reduction and Refinement). This can only be a good thing. Animal welfare is put first. Collecting data comes second. Any good in vivo scientist will tell you this.

Unfortunately, and quite surprisingly, public trust in scientists is decreasing and this is shaping policy makers attitudes towards the negative. We are now seeing more regulations put in place that will actively harm research efforts without providing any clear benefits. There needs to be a balance between regulation and scientific freedom. Too much weight on either side and massive problems can arise.

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What happens when we don’t communicate

 

Public trust in science falls and pseudoscience permeates the public mindset which influences policy makers.

.The world at the moment is an odd place. Humans have never lived longer. Cancer survival rates are better than they have ever been. Diseases that used to ravage and kill are now under control or all but vanquished. All of this is due to scientific advancement.

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workamajig.com

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Why then do we have large parts of the population denying evolution, claiming vaccines do not prevent disease, denying that climate change is a human-driven process and that animal use in research does nothing for the benefit of humans or other animals. Increasingly, we are seeing pseudoscientifc ways of thinking permeating the discussion. It’s against this anti-science backdrop that we now have vocal groups challenging the validity of the science and ethics of animal research – the basis of almost all medical advancements in the last 100 years.

Clearly there has been a collapse in communication (or perhaps it was never fully established). Worryingly this sort of thinking isn’t restricted to general members of the public but also pervades policy makers. The people who decide what we research, how we do it and how much money we can have to achieve this.

Some of their view points are truly shocking for people with such responsibility – most of these examples come from the USA.

Back in 2012 U.S Rep Paul Brown produced a laughable rant at Liberty Baptist Church:

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.“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old”

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Now I don’t know about you but considering this man sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, it’s a little bit worrying. I’m all for religious freedom – believe what you want to believe but at some point you have to look at the cold hard facts. There is no evidence at all that the earth is 9,000 years old but overwhelming evidence that it is much MUCH older. Religion and science do not have to be mutually exclusive but people like this make that hard to believe.

Worse still, on that same committee, the science committee,  these sort of view points are widespread.

The committee chair, Ralph Hall,  believes global warming and global freezing are the same thing and that neither are linked to human activity because god controls it. 

In a shocking misunderstanding of what a ‘green house gas’ is, republican Dana Rohrabacher suggests cutting down the rain forests will halt green house gas emissions. Considering rain forests absorb a third of all man made emissions, cutting them down would be a catastrophically bad idea. Again, this man is on the House Science Committee. How?! How has this happened. This pseudoscientific outspokenness seems to be more pronounced in America than the UK but these sort of individuals still reside here – they may not think trees produce green houses gasses but they still aren’t aware of the daily workings of a lab or how we conduct our studies.

There needs to be a balance between regulation and scientific freedom. Too much weight on either side and problems can arise. The people who determine this balance need not be scientists (at least some should be) but the more they understand the scientific process and the more scientifically educated they are the better and the easier this balance can be maintained. We cannot allow a situation to arise where more and more individuals (like those discussed above) sit on science regulation boards.

Most importantly of all- as these policy makers are influenced hugely by the public perception of science, the public needs to be closer to what we do and actively engaged with.

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So how do we communicate?

 

The good news is that some individuals in positions of power know the importance of science communication and have asked scientists directly to take responsibility. John Porter, a former Republican congressman, told an audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting that…

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 “… if the public and policymakers never hear your voices, never see science, never understand its methods, the chance of it being high on the list of national priorities will be very low … You can sit on your fingers or you can go outside your comfort zone and get into the game and make a difference for science … Science needs you. Your country needs you. America (*cough* UK *cough*) needs you fighting for science!”

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This is an excerpt from a brilliant article in Cell addressing Animal Research in Neuroscience and how we can better inform the public of it’s necessity.

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We can engage the public in a variety of forums: Open public seminars, webinars, website (like this one) and university open days to name just a few.

This is an opening to the Science Communication Section. Check this space soon for further articles. The next article will be looking at the use of animals in research.

-Science Guy

4 thoughts on “Communicating Science to the Public”

  1. Hi Science guy,
    I found this article very intriguing. I live in the North of Ireland and we also have our creationists and they are very vocal.
    One problem for science when faced with this sort of thing is that science has to prove everything. The likes of creationists simply have to believe something to make it real to them.
    Regarding science and the disconnect with the public. I think science does itself no favours here. Scientists need to learn the language of the average person.
    Too much science stuff is described in language that only another scientist would understand.
    I have watched so many scientists on tv trying to explain a new breakthrough and they may as well have been speaking a different language. When they go into “science speak” people have tendency to switch off.
    Every benefit to modern society can be traced back to science but unless scientists can find a way to communicate its importance to ordinary people the creationists and others like them will continue to be heard.
    Keep up the good word. Sites like this really help.
    Regards,
    Eddie

    1. Hi Eddie,

      Great comment – agree with you 100%.

      I personally am not religious but I hold nothing against those who are. Most of my family are scientists or doctors and I think that’s made me rely on evidence and facts when looking at the world – not just personal anecdotal evidence but things that can be tested in a straight forward manner.

      Unless we heal this rift forming between the public and scientists I believe it will continue to get worse and that ultimately shapes regulation. It also doesn’t help when tabloids produce a load of garbage articles on ‘scientific breakthroughs’ that shape public opinion unnecessarily.

      For example, a new technique has developed an early but reliable model of a mouse heart – the paper suggests that in the future it may limit our need for real animals when testing heart related therapies – this is a good move in the right direction but would be a very small drop in animal usage in practical terms. 100s of different fields require animals for basic research.

      The sort of headline the Daily Mail would go with is ‘Why are animals still being used in research when artificial ones exist?’

      It’s important that WE tell the story as it is rather than letting others do it for us. Approval for animal work has continued to decline since the early 2000s but the reasons aren’t clear – there simply aren’t yet reliable enough alternatives to animal models otherwise we would have switched!

      Thanks for stopping by

  2. Hi there Science Guy,
    You make some fantastic points, and without a good understanding that communication is key, people like myself, a common kind of guy who isn’t used to all of the scientific lingo, get rather dissociative.

    In my opinion, one of the greatest scientific speakers of our time is Michio Kaku. He’s a great example of how you can explain extremely complex ideas in ways that even I can follow, stay interested, and understand.

    Thanks for the great post!

    1. Hey there Brian,

      Thanks for stopping by. You’ve hit the nail on the head there – It’s very easy for scientists to only interact at length with others of their ‘own kind’ when actually it’s really important to branch out.

      The sort of work we do is ultimately (or should be) for the benefit of everyone – everyone should therefore be aware of what we get up to.

      I’ve watched a load of Michio’s post in the past! A great man. Somehow he makes theoretical physics understandable!

      Cheers

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Filtering out the pseudoscience