New perspectives on science communication

Faisal Hossain

By Faisal Hossain and Claire Beveridge – University of Washington, WA; Colleen M. Iversen – Oak Ridge National Labs, TN; Patricia Silveyra – University of North Carolina, NC; Ali Nouri, Federation of American Scientists, DC; Alison Sheets  – Nike Inc. OR; and Ali Douraghy – Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, CA.

Today, brick and mortar establishments are on the decline. Many enterprises that rely solely on physical space for interfacing with their customers are struggling to survive as society opts for the convenience of the virtual world. However, the virtual world is shaping the real world in unexpected ways. We are witnessing an increasingly politicized and polarized media in which science has become an easy target. In the virtual world, science is often abstracted from its mission of improving our understanding of the world and portrayed as an item on political agendas, which the media can use to capture interest and evoke emotion and skepticism. In the worst cases, science has become undervalued and even marginalized. Societal response to this virtual shift can be observed in the emergence of terms like ‘march for science,’ and bumper stickers such as ‘Strong Science=Strong America’ or ‘Science is Real.’ However, responses like these often fall short of addressing the core societal issues and lead to harsher division and confusion amidst the public. Furthermore, we now understand that more scientific facts are not enough to sway the opinion of the public on science or scientists.

One thing is clear: Fresh and bold ideas are needed. Programs for science communication need to tackle the marginalization of science with approaches that are authentic, unifying, and hopeful.

THE NEW IDEA: MORE PERSONAL STORYTELLING OF SCIENCE

We believe that one solution is to demonstrate that science and scientists are relatable to everyday issues and relevant to everyone’s life. According to the non-profit organization called Story Collider, “personal stories can be much more successful than lectures in generating interest, improving comprehension, and influencing the real-world beliefs of most audiences. Experience tells us that such stories can make an indelible mark on listeners and tellers alike.”

Much of the public view science, engineering, and medicine (SEM) as intellectually abstract disciplines beyond their basic understanding. According to one survey, 81% of Americans could not name a living scientist. Thus, the vast majority who do not know SEM professionals on a personal level may also feel disconnected from the humanity behind the SEM roles. However, we believe that the sense of intimidation and dissociation that the public may feel in the face of abstract science can be remedied through the vulnerability of a shared personal story, from one human to another. Every scientist, engineer, or medical professional has a story to tell– these exciting, poignant, and hopeful stories can inspire and at the same time help the public understand the importance of SEM. Take farmers for instance, who grow food that everyone depends on. Without science, farmers would not be able to grow the huge quantity of highly nutritious food the way they do today. Farmers use GPS for precision agriculture to maximize the amount of food grown on each acre; they benefit from biotechnology to improve yield

Today, the personal stories and creative inspiration of SEM professionals have no place on the mainstream platforms for scientific publications. Thus, we see the need for a new platform for the creative expression of science. This can be a digital platform in the virtual domain where young SEM professionals nationwide can publicly share their personal stories in a distinctive audio-visual style on who they are and why they are passionate about science. These are the real stories behind the professional titles and scientific discoveries that involve childhood dreams, compassion for the ill or impoverished members of society, love of the environment, countless coffees, sudden inspirations in the shower, serendipity, pain and joy— all cast in the fabric of the everyday lives of ordinary people doing extraordinary work.

WHAT THIS PERSONAL STORYTELLING ON SCIENCE CAN ACHIEVE

Although public communication can have various goals, the primary objective is to break down the complexities of a subject into a concept and language that the audience will understand and be convinced to support. However, today’s communication strategy for SEM needs to go a step further. It should principally aim to encourage diversity in SEM and build engagement with the public. Accessible and personal stories of professionals from underrepresented backgrounds in SEM can allow younger generations to see clear and approachable examples of the diversity of race, gender, and ideas in SEM. With that, younger generations from diverse backgrounds can see that they are not merely welcomed, but empowered and invited to be part of the SEM community. Personal stories can also allow the public to see the missions and passions of individuals behind the scientific knowledge and application, which can shine a different light to societal understanding of why science is important for their lives and their world. In return, personal storytelling can make scientists better communicators. The good news is that we are now seeing a growing realization of the importance of personal storytelling within scientific organizations. For example, the American Geophysical Union partnered with Story Collider in recent years to showcase to the 20,000 strong community the personal face of science. Last year, personal stories of Women in STEM were featured in a collaboration between the National Academies and Story Collider. However, these efforts are mostly isolated, single efforts. We believe that what is needed now is a more centralized and organic effort that encompasses communities from coast to coast and celebrates and welcomes the personal stories of scientists and their science.

TWO EXAMPLES

Below are two examples from our co-authors that demonstrate the power of personal stories.

 

 Story of an Ecosystem Ecologist-

Dr. COLLEEN IVERSEN

 “I am a scientist.

 “I am curious. I walk through a forest, dissatisfied with the dappled light dancing over green leaves. I want to know what is hidden beneath the surface. The rhythmic pulsing of roots being born, living, and dying. They are the life support system for the towering trees above, and the compost for a multitude of creatures, big and small.

“I am an explorer. I dig into the tundra, down, down—a few inches that span millennia—until I reach the permanently frozen soil and have to stop. I wonder, how does the living interact with the dead and decaying? What does the future hold for a frozen ecosystem that is quickly thawing?

“I am a mom. I hold my boys in arms that have been made strong from digging in the dirt. I rescue a worm from the chubby fingers of a toddler that has dug it from its moist home. I dream of the dark matter that sparks the imagination of a boy with green eyes.

“I am the wife of a stay-at-home dad, the daughter of scientists, the great-granddaughter of immigrants.

I am a scientist.“

Story of a Bionic Woman – Dr. ALLISON SHEETS

Alison Sheets’ love for science came from her love of sports. Her gymnastics coach in school, a physicist at Army Research labs, used his physics knowledge to make training tools and understand how strength/speed influenced performance. By high school, Alison had already realized that physics could take her very far – not just in the gym, but also in her career. Although biomechanics and bioengineering had not quite emerged as a major in the US when she was in college, mechanical engineering gave her a way to think about how the body moved (while she also competed on the gymnastics team). In graduate school, Alison made computer models for gymnasts swinging on uneven parallel bars to understand how their strength and size affected performance. She admits that she is probably better at thinking about sports than playing them. Which is why she now works at Nike making amazing products for consumers to help them reach their goals that are built with her love for science.

THE WAY FORWARD

In the coming years, we hope to solicit personal stories of diverse, leading scientists, engineers, and medical experts from across the United States and the world. We embark on this venture with excitement about the possibilities for these stories – we envision science comedy shows, scientific documentaries, comic books and storytelling festivals, and perhaps one day commercially successful films involving SEM. Such an effort can also potentially blossom into a nationwide movement for young SEM professionals that encourages creativity and SEM advocacy, achieves diverse representation of race, gender and perspectives, and builds easy-to-cross bridges of scientific understanding for the public.

[Note: This piece was written by a group of authors who are part of New Voices in Science, Engineering and Medicine under the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the position of any particular organization or institution.]

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash