Science communication has become amazingly popular. As 2014 approaches, so does an interesting new chapter in my otherwise strictly academic life – a small appointment in my university’s Centre for Science Communication. Jumping on this bandwagon seemed an appropriate move for me, as I am both a dyed-in-the-wool academic Neuroscientist, and an enthusiastic science communicator. In considering what I might make of this opportunity, I have been giving thought to my science communication activities to date, as well as those of others, and asked myself: What are these efforts actually achieving? And how can we improve our already rather impressive efforts?
In much of the somewhat informal science communication that I undertake, and am familiar with, there appears to be a tacit assumption that our efforts are having long-lasting effects – conveying the wonder of science and what science has discovered, exciting people to appreciate and even support science, enthusing and inspiring further enquiry especially in the young. But how much of this really happens? Are there long-lasting effects of an experience that sinks-in on some level? Or are we providing yet another ‘edutainment’ that is fun while it lasts, but, similar to so many websites, essentially goes in one ear and out the other. To me this is the big question in science communication, and alas one to which solid answers seem scarce. Recognising that this field is rapidly approaching monumental proportion, and is riddled with a mix of experienced opinions and researched facts, I would like to consider just a few of my favourites here.
Getting girls interested in science. As a girl, I am particularly interested in understanding what gets girls into science. There have been a variety of theories about why girls don’t go into careers in science, and many of them don’t seem to jive with my personal experience. I have heard people claim that girls brains aren’t quantitative like boys; that they just don’t think scientifically. Current research, however, suggests that although boys and girls may learn differently due to differences in the ways their brains develop, there is no inherent bias in their innate intellectual abilities [1, 2 , 3, 4]. I have also heard that science is not taught in a way that makes it relevant to girls. While this may be the case in some instances, as I female scientist, I struggle with this one – might I have done better in maths (in which I possess a BSc(Hons)) if I had been asked how many dolls I could buy for $5 instead of how many toy boats? Surely, there must be more to it.
Fortunately, recent social psychology and education studies have begun to dig deeper into the issue, and are shedding some very interesting light on the reasons why girls may choose not to pursue careers in science. Of the many interesting new insights, there are two that I find particularly striking. Firstly, smart girls appear to see a vast array of careers available to them and so are not drawn specifically to any one of the options, whereas smart boys almost always head for science [5, 6]. Another study suggested that bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice . Because young boys tend to lose interest rapidly when encountering something difficult (and thus often disrupting the classroom), they are often told that if they just work a little harder at it that they will eventually get it. By contrast, young girls naturally apply themselves to tasks better than boys, tend not to be as disruptive in class, and consequently reap the reward of praise for a job well done. Thus, the theory goes, when encountering something difficult, like science, boys are better equipped to put in the extra effort needed to achieve, whereas the girls become discouraged by the belief that they lack the ability.
If these new observations help explain why there is a disproportionately low number of girls in science, and if science communication efforts are aimed to increase the number of girls undertaking science in school, then one must ask whether our current delivery methods are addressing either of these issues, and perhaps others that may come to light with further research. I rather suspect they are not. Close collaboration among educators, social psychologists, and scientist science communicators (especially of the XX variety) will be key to devising a variety of further strategies that captivate girls’ interest in science.
Public lectures & community engagement. There is no doubt that some proportion of the general population enjoys public lectures, finding them enlightening and informative – witness the success of TED talks. But people who enjoy the public lecture/TED-style format, tend to be already interested in science, recognise its wonder and importance, and may be quite science savvy. In order to reach a broader audience, it is paramount that we learn more about our target audience. Why do some people gravitate to popular science and others not? For the others, what are the appropriate media, content, and pitch to get them engaged? In reality, there’s probably not a one-size-fits-all format, so variety may be our best approach.
In New Zealand, when contrasted with Australia, the USA or the UK , there are disappointingly few popular science TV shows for either children or adults. Given this deficiency, it may be that simply increasing the variety of science TV programming will extend the reach of science, and bring greater science literacy into our communities. Another approach may be to inform adults via kids. Many of us probably have well-organised home fire safety (and even escape plans!) as a consequence of our children learning this information at school and brining it home to the benefit of the entire household. Understanding better the drivers of this behaviour will allow us to develop methods that bring science literacy and conversation out of the classroom and into homes across the country.
Blogging. Science blogs are all the rage, and take many forms. I like to think of bloggers (and I include myself here) as e-orators, with some message or other to impart. They may popularise new scientific research in lay terms. Or serve as clearing houses that provide overviews and personal opinions in a particular field of study. In addition, blogs have become the undisputed territory of modern-day science skeptics and activists. From a science communication standpoint, however, I sometimes question their impact. Impassioned and level-headed bloggers prepare well-written and well-argued pieces, tackling a variety of controversial topics. In many cases, however, we make the fatal assumption that force of argument, eloquence, or merely the act of laying out the data and explaining it in simple terms, will somehow convert even the most vehement denier to take the science-informed conclusion. It seems so obvious – just give people the relevant information, they will see where they have erred, and adopt the science-backed opinion. But people who dismiss scientific evidence in preference to erroneous notions rarely do it out of complete ignorance. Understanding what causes people to cling to their ideas even in the face of clear and clearly contradictory science is essential to using science successfully to inform opinion. In the mean time – keep on blogging!
So, where shall focus my Science Communication efforts? Good question. This is not easy territory. Moving forward will require science communicators, neuroscientists, social psychologists, educators, philosophers, and others to work together to answer some fundamental questions about communication, perception, and the human mind. What is it about fantastical stories, be they scary or too-good-to-be-true, that causes otherwise intelligent people to dismiss logical argument? And once people have adopted a point of view, no matter how ill-informed, why do they cling to it like a life raft? How do we best achieve some modicum of science literacy in the otherwise uninterested? How best do we obviate the gender and cultural barriers that account for the paucity of women and non-pakeha ethnicities in science careers?
The answers almost certainly lie in understanding how our brains use our experiences to create our world for us, providing context and meaning to our actions and our lives. Armed with this knowledge, and using it wisely and creatively, science communicators will have the opportunity to realise their full potential. Given my background, I see this stock-take and re-arming as a place where I hope my expertise can contribute to the effort. As a start I am excited by two incipient projects: working with Maori science students to increase engagement of Maori kids in the biological sciences, and working with young people to improve mental health and health literacy in adolescents.
The ultimate goal of science and science communication, to my mind, is to ensure that research can inform best policy and practice, thereby improving the lives of all people in manifold ways, and ensuring health, security, and happiness. This is not merely de rigueur. It is essential.