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Science Communication


As a PhD student at WIU studying environmental science I realize there are many skills required for one to become a successful scientist.  Graduate student and post doc training often requires the ability to learn and master extremely difficult protocols and techniques. This training tends to produce individuals who are highly specialized and extremely competent but often lack the time to communicate with the general public.

Scientific writing and publishing is an important task of researchers.  Communicating with peers through peer-reviewed journals advances scientific research and discovery.  However, it is equally important to communicate science to a broader audience.  Effective communication is one of the biggest challenges facing the scientific community today.  Helping people understand the importance of scientific theories and how to avoid misinformation is basic to scientific literacy.

Being able to explain science to the general public can have a tremendous impact on your research and your career path.  Scientists not only must be proficient in technical writing but also in marketing and sales if they are to be successful in acquiring funding.  Can we explain our projects to our neighbors, our parents, our senator, and to the tax payers who support the research? And if so can we do this in such a way that they understand the importance and implications of the topic?

In a society and in a time when scientific literacy is being bombarded daily by propaganda and politics, engaging in clear communication becomes essential for the future of science and the advancement of society through discovery and technological innovation.  Scientific outreach can serve as a way to inspire a sense of wonder for planet earth. 

Credit Rich Egger
Terri Tobias

As a researcher, one of my favorite outreach activities is working with school children.  My subject of interest is the study of fungi.  This is often a popular topic for children and most adults also love this topic particularly if talking about morels.  People are often surprised however, to learn about the many potential fungal applications for sustainable agriculture.  Effective communication is not only educational, but it can also transform research into sensible public policy, grant funding for discoveries, and most importantly improved partnerships to solve the world’s greatest challenges.

The way in which we can communicate science is also changing.  Information can spread quickly to a wider range of audiences through social media.  Communicating complex scientific ideas via social media can also raise its own set of challenges.  Speaking accurately and remaining relevant without becoming sensationalistic in 280 characters or less takes talent and skill.  Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook can encourage effective science communication.  Social media gives us the ability to connect to people with different backgrounds.  It can provide users with diverse newsfeed topics they may not otherwise be exposed to.   

I often share or retweet the latest outreach articles from agencies like the National Science Foundation.  It is extremely important that the general public understand the significance of the investment of their taxpayer dollars in funding science.  We cannot expect taxpayers to simply support these agencies without helping them understand their importance and the impact of research on the future of our country.

The internet can make false and misleading information as accessible as trustworthy scientific news.  And discerning the differences can be difficult for many readers.  Nevertheless, social media platforms have the immense potential for reaching large populations of people. This allows us to not only educate people about science but also engage the public in the process of science.  Engaging the public in science can promote public support for research and counteract harmful scientific falsehoods.  And more importantly it can contribute to catching the attention and interest of the next generation of researchers.  

Communicating with the general public calls for much more concise approach that emphasizes the how, what and why we should care.  Making our science meaningful to the public requires us to rethink traditional science communication.  In addition, I also think that we have a responsibility to our immediate communities to share the process of science with those who are interested.  I have spent several weekends in the past year participating in what I like to call Science Saturday.  During Science Saturday along with my lab mates, we spend time teaching basic lab tasks to local high schoolers and citizen scientists.  At Western Illinois University and with the support of the National Science Foundation, we have been able to support several local rural high school kids.  These types of efforts build bridges in our community and makes science more accessible.    

Science communication and outreach is about the potential of science to make positive impacts on societal challenges and to inspire the future problem solvers in our communities.   Science is for everyone and every single person is a stakeholder in science.  This doesn’t mean that everyone should be a scientist, but it does mean that everyone should have access to scientific information that is presented in an understandable manner. I encourage all of you to take a minute today and visit or add some science blogs and news to your Facebook page. 

Here are just a few suggestions:

Terri Tobias is a PhD student studying environmental science at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.