A few weeks ago, in the wake of the news that an effective vaccine for COVID-19 had been developed, a popular persona in the science communication Twittersphere shared a thread on COVID-19 immunity. The intent of the thread was to explain to a nonscientific audience how the vaccine protects against the virus. While this is an admirable goal, the thread was promptly met with an influx of replies pointing out a mistake in the information. As I perused the profiles of those who supplied the correction, I repeatedly noticed “virologist” or “epidemiologist” in their bios. The thread-writer, on the other hand, is a chemistry professor. It wasn’t difficult to determine who was right—indeed, the chemist issued an apology and deleted the erroneous tweet.
Communicating science beyond the academic bubble is necessary to enhance public understanding of health and environmental issues and help individuals make well-informed personal decisions. I believe this so strongly that I have made the time during my PhD at Northwestern University to participate in many science communication training courses and conferences, write for a blog that covers scientific topics for a lay audience, and work with other contributors to make their pieces more accessible to the general public.
If you are a scientist who hasn’t yet honed these science communication skills, don’t hop on Twitter for your first attempt. Instead, look for opportunities to practice science communication in a low-stakes environment in which you can receive feedback from professionals.
I also believe that scientists who engage in science communication must acknowledge that their area of expertise is deep but narrow, and recognize the limitations in their own knowledge. That is not to suggest that they only write or present on their own research, but rather, that they consult with an expert if the topic is outside of their discipline. Fact-checking with a scientist who works in the specialty will prevent the inadvertent spread of misinformation, and the process of doing so may yield interesting new tidbits that can be incorporated.
It is equally imperative to emphasize that being an expert on a topic doesn’t automatically make a scholar qualified to communicate it to a nonscientific audience. In response to this year’s global reckoning with the importance of science in our lives, I’ve noticed a rise in the number of “explainers” in my Twitter feed. These public-aimed explanations of scientific phenomena come from scientists with appropriate credentials, but often do very little in the way of explaining. One RNA biologist shared a complicated analogy involving a library, books, paper, a recipe, ingredients, and a cake to explain mRNA-based vaccines. I can’t propose a specific alternate analogy because I am a chemist with no expertise in this area. But I can say that one where you don’t need a written key to keep track of what each item represents would be a huge improvement.
Science communication is a science in and of itself, one that requires rigorous training and instruction. My science communication training courses taught me how to identify and eliminate jargon and develop effective analogies through which to explain complex concepts (effective being the operative word). They had textbooks and written exercises and objective evaluations, just like my science courses. You cannot simply assume communication expertise—imagine if someone just decided that they were a physicist and started trying to contribute to the field without the necessary background! Doing a poor job communicating science to the public will only create confusion and widen the gap between science and society that you were trying to close.
The mere title of “scientist” lends us a certain authority, and with that authority comes the responsibility to ensure that our communication with the public is accurate and clear. If you are a trained science communicator, seek out experts from your network of contacts when applying your skills to new areas of science. And if you are a scientist who hasn’t yet honed these science communication skills, don’t hop on Twitter for your first attempt. Instead, look for opportunities to practice science communication in a low-stakes environment in which you can receive feedback from professionals. The free Science Communication Online Training Programme (SCOPE) through Northwestern and ComSciCon conferences are valuable resources available to graduate students. Additionally, a growing number of universities are providing science communication training for faculty. Inquire at your own school about whether any science communication courses are offered, or request to virtually participate in one at another institution (which should be easier than ever these days). I believe taking these measures will ensure that our good intentions yield the desired result—making science more accessible to everyone.
Sarah Anderson is a PhD candidate in the chemistry department at Northwestern University and an aspiring science writer. Check out her Twitter page @seanderson63 for more of her work.