Science Resists Communication

There’s a stark difference between how universities and other scientific institutions handle the dissemination of their knowledge. To me, universities are often like dragons sitting on top of heaps of gold in remote mountainside caves. Who would make the fucked up voyage to Smaug when down here in the meadows of the Public Domain, there are benign leprechauns throwing gold about willy-nilly? We have zoos begging us to take an interest in their research, science centres advertising Indiana Jones exhibits on billboards, museums with full-size reconstructions of dinosaurs, and all of them give us the courtesy of viewing us as customers that they need to appeal to. Meanwhile, the university dragon belches a flame from the miniscule opening to its lair like you can try, but I might crisp your fingertips.  

Mt Academia 2

What I mean is this: if you want to learn what’s going on inside a university, YOU are going to be the one who has to do the work to find out, whereas other scientific institutions try to make this process as easy as possible for the public. Universities and professors can be shockingly resistant to communicating their research with the public. As a Master’s student who loves science communication, it can be downright maddening.

So why do universities seem to keep their doors closed even though they have a hand in the vast majority of the research that eventually makes its way into museums, zoos, and the like? Why let the responsibility of distributing the most important commodity produced by universities, and arguably the easiest to mishandle – knowledge – fall squarely upon other groups? In my experience I’ve noticed three main reasons:

  1. Fear of getting “scooped”: researchers are concerned that if they make any aspects of their unpublished research public, other researchers will publish it before they can
  2. Culture of isolation in the “ivory tower” of academia: academics are mainly encouraged to communicate their work with other academics in forums exclusively available to those within the university system; there is very little culture/tradition of sharing outside of the academic microcosm
  3. Evasion of social responsibility/burden: universities feel it’s “not their job” to communicate science because other institutions will do it for them

#1. Scooping.

The problem of “scooping” is a systematic one that is symptomatic of a larger problem within academia; one that I don’t feel thoroughly prepared to get into in this article. But I will offer this: for the most part, I think professors overestimate how much predatory interest other groups have in their datasets. What’s more, you don’t have to share sensitive data to communicate about what your lab does: simply sharing a photo of students in the field with a one-sentence blurb about what they’re up to goes a long way to help draw back the iron curtain. The problem comes when professors consider even an act like that to threaten their lab’s interests: I once spoke to a professor who worried that people would be able to locate their field site using a photo posted on Twitter, and this could threaten the security of that field site. Maybe there’s more to the story and this professor was justified in their worry, but to me this seems a bit unreasonable. At some point, we have to have a modicum of trust in the public.

While there is some logic to be had in point #1 (sure, I concede that “scooping” is a risk, albeit one I wish we didn’t have to worry about), points #2 and #3 are arguably far more concerning because they are structural and self-perpetuating cultural elements that work to isolate universities from the rest of society.

#2. Isolation in the Ivory Tower.

While I would agree that it’s important for academics to have spaces to communicate and debate with others in their domain of research, and thus would not suggest to do away with exclusive forums like conferences and seminars, I contend that it is a problem that this is the only way we are trained to communicate. We distance ourselves further and further from reality by closing ourselves exclusively into such clubhouses, and ultimately we do ourselves a disservice by reducing our own outreach and relevance to society. It is clear that science continues to carry a legacy of being reserved for the upper class, and just as gentlemen scholars of the past, we are still reluctant to let go of our VIP passes.

exclusive darwin

(side note: the internet should be considered a landmark technology purely because it enables us to make these things.)

I argue that we absolutely have to let go of these liberal elitist ideals of exclusivity if we want science to survive: the advent of the post-truth era more than proves that. What is most shocking is that university-educated groups reserve the right to roll their eyes at climate change deniers and creationists while simultaneously doing little to nothing to communicate their own knowledge. This is equivalent to rolling your eyes at yourself. Another way academics could benefit from outreach is through the increased understanding, support, and investment of the public in their research, which ultimately increases funding opportunities. University researchers owe a huge debt to other institutions like science centres that help to maintain and expand public interest in science. Without these groups research funding would surely drop even further, because the average university professor is not doing a lot to market themselves. Universities should be learning by example and training their students to communicate science in ways that are more accessible to the public, and more than that, get the public to understand why they should care.

#3. Evasion of Social Responsibility.

Here’s the crux of the matter: it is very easy for universities to shunt the burden of advocacy onto other groups, especially considering the high work load and level of multi-tasking a professor is expected to handle. This kind of outreach is yet another thing on the overworked professor’s list, and granted, a lot of professors are literally too busy. I’m gonna draw a hard line here, though: this is the kind of thing university researchers should never be too busy for. If there is no time in your schedule for this type of work, I would argue that you should try to make time for it and reduce the amount that you are free-riding on the efforts of other institutions.* While communicating science has a direct benefit to researchers by increasing public interest and investment, it’s also just something they should do as a service to society. University research is hugely funded by taxpayer dollars, but there is surprisingly little effort put into letting the taxpayer know what exactly it is they’re funding. The public has a right to that information, and here in Canada scientists fought hard to retain that right: so why aren’t we exercising it? Furthermore, who is a better expert in your area of research than yourself? The quality and credibility of science communication relies a lot on the source of information, and could only be bolstered by the contributions of academics.

*Unfortunately, surviving the period leading up to tenure makes propositions like this a bit untenable, because professors are directly judged on the sheer quantity of publications they are able to mass-produce during this time period. Untenured professors often find themselves in a mad rush to adequately beef up all of their metrics (number of publications, impact factor of journals published in, etc.) in an effort to lock down job security, and that leaves time for precious little else; I have a lot of sympathy for that struggle for balance.

So now we know a lot about why I’m angry about this. I hear you say: surely it’s not all a garbage-y garbage town, Sarah? Surely there is at least some manner of metaphorical raccoon feasting on that garbage and turning it into cute raccoon babies that we can celebrate?

raccoon comic

I may have spent too much time making that.

Of course, yes: there are a huge number of initiatives helping to battle these entrenched attitudes of exclusivity and paranoia regarding sharing science and research. Most universities now offer lecture series that are free and open to the public such as the Cutting Edge lecture series at McGill University (usually poorly advertised, but we’re getting there). Many labs have excellent student-run blogs and websites that maintain a flow of accessible information to the public, like the Wild49 ecology research group at the University of Alberta. Some professors even partake in blogging for a wider audience, however I find a lot of professors’ blogs are a bit too focused on academic-specific discourse to be friendly towards a much wider public (a really great professor-run blog is Small Pond Science). In Canada, Laurentian University has recently begun teaching a Master’s degree in science communication: the only one of its kind in the country, but hopefully a sign of things to come from other universities.

And there is even hope for change when it comes to scientific publishing: journals are increasingly bringing down paywalls to become open-access to the public (there’s even a new browser plug-in that helps you access science for free!), some journals now ask for “lay summaries” (a summary of the article that reduces the use of scientific jargon to be clear for non-scientific audiences), and there is a noted recent trend that scientific writing itself is becoming more casual and less technical on average (especially for biologists – represent!). The worldwide turnout for the recent March for Science also included a lot of scientists having their voices heard, and I am particularly inspired by the young scientists around me. The movement towards better science outreach is being propelled forward by students and I am thrilled about whatever role I may have to play in that.

These are all signs that change is underway to try to bring research out of universities and into the hands of the public, and I have a lot of hope that things are going to improve dramatically over the next years. Not only does science owe this to society, but it must also engage itself better if we want it to survive and flourish.

Note: a special thanks to Shrinkhala Dawadi for editing this post (and helping to tone down my urge to be slightly passive-aggressive).

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2 thoughts on “Science Resists Communication

  1. Pingback: Faces of Fieldwork | sarah nason

  2. Pingback: Why it’s not cool to be a scientist. | sarah nason

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