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Good communication matters in all things science — but scientists aren’t always keen

By: Lara de Moissac

October 7, 2021

Opinion

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Good science communication tells a clear story.

Taking a science communications class was a requirement of my MSc program at the University of Saskatchewan, and it has turned out to be a skill that I use every day.

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One of the most important things I learned in that class is that communicating science can be difficult and it takes practice. Joshua Schimel, who wrote Writing Science, said that successfully communicating as a scientist isn’t simply a function of the quality of ideas, but the language used to describe them.

I’m sure many other scientists have said the same thing about scientific communications through the written word.

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The same can be said about the quality of a presentation. If presenting data were the only objective of a scientist, then we would only communicate results by writing papers or through reports — but that information would be lost and not communicated with the intended audience. This is one of the flaws of the scientific community.

One of the reasons I went to graduate school was to be a better scientific communicator — to be able to take current research findings, distill them down into manageable chunks of information, and to be able to convey the message accurately. Extension work has always been part of my career goals. Of course, a certain amount of critical thinking is needed to do this task — knowing what good research findings look like, or being able to spot weaknesses in a study are key.

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The more practice you get at refining the key messages of a study, you’d think you’d get faster at it, but it’s not always the case. Another barrier to communication can be scientists themselves. Many are introverts, and, for the most part, scientists tend to keep to themselves (yes, this is generally speaking).

Every once in a while, though, you will find a scientist who is extroverted enough (or even an introverted extrovert like myself) to speak in public, who can get their message out clearly and confidently. The scale of that audience might have sway on how willing the scientist is to put their work out there.

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We’re certainly not all meek and timid, but it can be a daunting task to present your findings in front of peers or strangers, but it’s an important part of the peer-review system and it has to be done.

Shyness only explains a portion of the reluctancy of scientists to communicate, though. Some scientists want to get their work out there, but are unable to because of other limitations.

Some scientists spend a huge portion of their time securing funding for their next projects, instead of finessing presentations to get new information out to their peers or the public, depending on how funding structures are set up.

Some universities are even opposed to scientists communicating with the general public about their work, which is such a shame to say the least.

There are many scientists that are doing an excellent job of reaching out through social media — Dr. Samantha Yammine (@science.sam on Instagram) and Dr. Raven Baxter (@raventhesciencemaven on Instagram) are just two of many wonderful scientists that have embraced a social platform, and have become science communicators.

On Twitter, there are fantastic scientists in the agricultural field that communicate on a regular basis. Maybe they’ve made a point of including social media in their communication strategy, or have had positive experiences with it and find that as a tool, it’s working — and to them, I say keep going, keep sharing glimpses into the scientific process, because it’s necessary.

Sharing the scientific process — the question, researching, the hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, analyzing the data, and reporting conclusions — is important because it provides transparency in solving a problem. That’s generally what scientists are trying to do: solve a problem, or further the field of research in order to ask a better question, or the next question. If you don’t provide all of the steps you took to get to your conclusion, nobody can double-check your work as part of the peer-review process.

Which is why a person should never say “I researched blank topic,” because it takes years to form and execute all the steps of the scientific process, as opposed to reading about it, watching a video with only a fraction of the information, and forming an opinion.

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

– Neil deGrasse Tyson

All of this to say, that there are also bad scientists and science communicators out there too, who don’t follow the scientific process with strong moral codes and act without integrity. Unfortunately, they’ve made their way into mainstream media or social media. Which is why every scientific tidbit of information has to be questioned these days — both for soundness of data collection or statistical analysis, and the validity overall. Critical thinking takes practice and you could work on it for the rest of your life.

Even previously published research gets re-evaluated and improved upon. That’s one of the great things about science, it admits when it’s wrong after new discoveries are made, and gets itself onto a correction course — with help from good science communicators.