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Communication Breakdown?

University of California Davis scientist, John Roth, speaking this morning at the Cold Spring Harbor 60th anniversary phage course symposium, discussed the tendency towards bacteria and phage laboratories becoming increasingly marginalized at many universities. It?s ironic, really, given their still powerful role for elucidating molecular mechanisms. One reason, he suggests, may be as simple as poor PR and a failure to communicate science appropriately. With so much research couched in abstract

By | June 26, 2005

University of California Davis scientist, John Roth, speaking this morning at the Cold Spring Harbor 60th anniversary phage course symposium, discussed the tendency towards bacteria and phage laboratories becoming increasingly marginalized at many universities. It?s ironic, really, given their still powerful role for elucidating molecular mechanisms. One reason, he suggests, may be as simple as poor PR and a failure to communicate science appropriately. With so much research couched in abstract intellectual questions, he says, it becomes accessible to a smaller number of people. ?We haven?t made it clear to people - the importance to them.? And that, says Roth, is ?to our detriment.? This sentiment echoes back to a conversation I had last night with four scientists over drinks. One individual mentioned his frustrating experience being interviewed by a journalist with no science background. After spending an hour and half explaining basic concepts to the journalist, he ended up being misquoted and misrepresented in the story. Now, he says, he refuses to be interviewed by this journalist ever again. Who could blame him? Another scientist at the table expressed the same frustration. During the anthrax mail scare in the wake of 9/11, a journalist asked him to describe Bacillus spores to him. ?Are they small enough to fit on the head of a pin,? asked the journo? The scientist replied that indeed they are, at which point he was asked, ?Then how did they get them inside the envelope?? We had a terrific laugh at what seemed a perfect punchline, but it illustrates what can be a problematic disconnect between science and the media - in this case, on the part of the journalist. As both a scientist and a journalist, I see both sides of the argument clearly. I pointed out last night that I believe it?s the civic duty of every scientist to explain what they do when asked. Another at the table agreed, saying scientists are, afterall, using public funding. Unfortunately, too many scientists simply do not communicate their work very well and cannot translate what they do to the uninitiated audience, hearkening back to John Roth?s point. By the same token, science journalists do have a responsibility to understand some scientific fundamentals and to make sure that what they report is accurate, and certainly not sensationalism. They need to understand that even the slightest inaccuracy can result in embarrassing and problematic consequences for the misquoted scientist. Over breakfast Saturday morning, I was chatting with another science writer here for the weekend, a friend and colleague of mine, and we were discussing some excellent science journalists we know at major mainstream media outlets. Unfortunately, such outstanding individuals don?t necessarily stay at these media outlets for very long. Alleged shenanigans at the Neverland Ranch and Tom Cruise?s rendition of a jumping bean on Oprah?s couch trump the science pages in too many media outlets, meaning that the science pages are often the first to get axed. Ditto when there are budgetary cutbacks. The disconnect between scientists and the media is facing a communication breakdown - most recently evidenced by the absurd evolution debate and confusion over stem cells, for example. As our fields become more esoteric and funding becomes increasingly competitive, we can?t afford to not work at increasing and improving the communication of science, both at our institutions and in the community. Otherwise, it really will be a detriment to us.
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