Opinion: Welcome to SciComm

New to science communication? Here’s how to get started.

By | March 9, 2017

PIXABAY, TUMISUSomething happened in science after the 2016 US presidential election. It wasn’t a great discovery—rather, a great awakening. Many scientists realized that there might be some problems with the new administration. Some started to speak up.

Then, the transition happened. In a short period of time, executive orders were signed, federal agencies were reportedly silenced, funds were frozen, and the scientific community lost its collective mind.

Scientists erupted in protest on social media. The Badlands National Park’s Twitter account went from around 10,000 followers to now more than 240,000 followers after posting facts about climate change (the tweets were later deleted). The March for Science was mobilized—first through Facebook—and will occur on Earth Day with satellite marches planned in more than 350 cities around the world. The nonprofit 314 Action, which is dedicated to helping scientists run for political office, has received a previously unseen level of interest from members of the scientific community.

See “Science Policy in 2017

In short, scientists are engaged like never before in the pursuit of communicating with audiences outside of the scientific spectrum. To some, science communication, or “SciComm,” isn’t anything new. To others, this is a new age, in which some scientists feel a calling, if not a responsibility, to communicate their research.

SciComm is my job. After earning a PhD in biology, I came to Washington, DC, to pursue a career in science policy and communication. I worked for a federal agency and at a couple of nonprofits before winding up in my current gig at the American Geophysical Union (AGU), where I now teach my peers how to explain their research to non-scientists.

But for many active researchers, SciComm is an additional duty for which they are not compensated or professionally recognized. Talking to the public, reporters, or politicians is not something that scientists are usually trained to do. I can understand the criticisms: Scientists are so pretentious and elitist, and Why can’t scientists just talk like normal people? But scientists aren’t trained to talk to everyone; they’re trained to talk to other scientists.

The divide between science and society is deep and complex. While fault can be placed on both sides, there are many people working to help scientists connect with society. There are numerous organizations that have developed SciComm-training programs. Aside from the AGU, there is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the SciComm nonprofit COMPASS, the science storytelling organization The Story Collider, to name just to name a few. Universities, scholarly associations, and even governments also offer support.

Scientific engagement is nothing new. Scientists have always been reaching out and engaging outside of the lab. However, the awareness around science communication has never been higher, and for that, I am encouraged. Scientists are fired up, ready to go.

So, my fellow scientists: welcome to SciComm. Let’s get started.

Shane M. Hanlon is an ecologist, educator, science communicator, science-policy advocate, and storyteller. He teaches science communication for the American Geophysical Union’s Sharing Science program and produces/co-hosts the Washington, DC, chapter of The Story Collider.

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