Why scientists need to engage the public with good science communication

Last Wednesday, I attended a science communications masterclass held at the one-north Festival. The talk was given by Professor Juliana Chan, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University by day, and editor-in-chief of Asian Scientist Magazine by night.

In her talk, she focused on the importance of communicating science to a general audience, shared several practical science writing tips, and introduced various business models and career opportunities available in the science communications industry. So, as science journalist infant I asked myself: what is science communication all about and why is it that the public should be well-informed about science?

20160803-masterclass-2At the talk and out of frame: me. Photo by Asian Scientist Magazine.

Quoting the words of a certain scientific advisor from the UK, Prof. Chan shares the same sentiment that the process of doing science is not finished unless it has been communicated, and touches on three reasons why scientists and researchers alike should strive towards good science communication.

Pay back to society with knowledge

Often, when a public research grant has been approved, researchers might feel that their obligations in research are towards their research institutes. However, as Prof. Chan points out, the funds which are pumped into public grants mainly come from the taxpayers, who are inadvertently our friends, family, and even colleagues! It is sometimes difficult to remember that the government sees science as a means that can solve problems and improve the livelihood of the people. Scientists aren’t the only ones concerned with scientific progress; non-academic laymen should also know about the latest trends in research and development.

Shape attitudes as a scientist’s moral responsibility

At first glance, scientists shouldn’t be too concerned with any ethical implications of their research, because that’s why policy makers exist — to regulate the science, right? Not necessarily true. We need to listen to the real experts because if the public wishes to influence any new government policy that is backed up by science, scientists should not assume that the implications of their research would be understood by the public.

The public should be able to receive as much scientific information as they need to decide if any new scientific discovery or technology is going to add value to them. As Prof. Chan comments: “It is almost our obligation to educate [the public], to explain why they should not be afraid of these new technologies, and encourage them to extend their support.”

If the scientific literacy of the general public improves, then I believe that the public would be less afraid of discussing ethically sensitive topics such as human gene-editing, genetically-modified food, climate change etc. Hence, Prof. Chan adds that: “In some ways, it may lead to increased public support for research funding.” Power to the people!

Find collaborators

Nowadays, scientific research is seldom done alone but within vibrant teams consisting of different experts. This makes the nature of modern research very much inter-disciplinary. Communicating science to a wider audience could help scientists find more collaborators to work with. Moreover, Prof. Chan says that a well-written science article can help other scientists gain a better understanding areas of research that are unfamiliar to them.

Good science communication can be flexible and easy

So those were some reasons shared by Prof. Chan on why scientists shouldn’t ignore practicing good science communication to a wider audience. Yet, I wanted to know how the science communication landscape is like here, locally in Singapore.

A large-scale survey led by Prof. Chan in 2015, which involved close to 1000 Singaporeans and permanent residents, revealed that when it comes to the general public learning more about science, only 58 percent of the respondents wanted to engage with scientists, whereas roughly 80 percent wanted to engage with the government and policymakers. It seems that there is still much more to be done in science communication, at least for Singapore.

It might be true that scientists are reluctant to engage with the media and government officials due to busy schedules, but Prof. Chan highlights this to budding scientists: “the degree of communication can be decided by yourself,” suggesting that even a simple tweet would be just as effective in reaching out directly to the public.

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