How society shapes science and TEDx HH
August 2017. This year has been turbulent with respect to the relationship between science, politics and public opinion. Science has been constantly called into question, challenged and untrusted by those in positions of power who hold unfounded beliefs, rather than working towards having an understanding of the knowledge that underpins scientific theories. Unfortunately, this scepticism rapidly filters down from the top. For us scientists, it has been frustrating to see the fruits of our efforts ignored rather than used as they are intended: to help future generations and to make our world a better place.
What does that mean, to make the world a better place? It means a world without deadly diseases, where the vast majority of us have clean water from our taps and access to technologies that can dramatically improve our ways of life. Like a fridge. While not essential, a fridge means we can keep our food bacteria free, reducing the burden of global illness. Fridges can also dramatically reduce food wastage, which is currently one of the highest sources of carbon dioxide emissions on earth – that’s right, not cars, not factories. Without science, we wouldn’t know that over a third of the world’s food is wasted every day, while over 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. We wouldn’t know that our food wastage is contributing to global warming. And that global warming is more than just “a trend”.
In April of this year, scientists across the world gathered to stand up for science, and the role that it plays in shaping our society and making our world a healthier and safer place. I attended the March for Science in Munich, where I am currently doing my postdoc training. During the March it occurred to me that scientists can’t stand up for science alone. There are simply not enough of us. Instead, we must recruit the masses in spreading our message. And the most effective way for us to do that is to communicate the impact of our science directly to the public.
I’ve had many discussions with colleagues who have been against communicating their science. “There is no time.” “It is not my responsibility.” “I’ll be ridiculed.” “Its up to the mainstream media.” However it doesn’t stop us from openly complaining that a journalist has reported some scientific findings completely out of context, or missed the point. The meaning is lost and the vicious cycle is perpetuated, where science is misunderstood and scientists are afraid to engage with the media.
However I believe that this can be easily addressed with a little bit of thought and care.
When I was invited by the organisers of the German TEDx series to give a talk in Hamburg, I knew the issue that needed to be discussed. I wanted to highlight that the relationship between science and the public is far more intimate than we have believed, and it is now more important than ever that this relationship is strengthened. The public are responsible for voting in the governments and leaders who decide how the federal budgets are distributed, including what portion is devoted to science education and research. The only way we can guarantee that the public are informed on the importance of funding science and technology is to communicate it to them.
As I discuss in the talk, the relationship between science and the public is two-way. As much as it’s scientists’ responsibility to communicate science, it’s also the public’s responsibility to be informed. This can be overwhelming for the regular person with the amount of information (and misinformation) that’s available. I want to make a call to scientists to get involved in easing the process and do the following.
When you have a new publication or new findings, write a lay-mans paragraph about what it means and what are the implications. Keep it short and simple, and to the point. Use language that is accessible to everyone, and post it online. Somewhere, anywhere. For example, on your Facebook as a public post, on your LinkedIn, on Twitter, on your department website. Use important keywords so that it’s easy to find. If we all do this, we will slowly change the culture and improve the relationship between science and the public. It also will make it easier for the mainstream media to explain our findings accurately.
Without further adieu.