A chefs primary job is to cook, that at the end of the day is his product. Yes, he has to order the produce, organise the menu, prep the ingredients, but at the end of day, his primary job is still to produce that plate of food for the consumer. A scientists job is to produce knowledge, and that comes in a form of a paper or presentation — his product at the end of the day is the piece on which he communicates that knowledge that he has produced through hours and years of dedicated research. Through that lens, I see experiments as a form of mise en place (the preparation a chef does before service) for scientists — yes without a good mise en place, the service is doomed for failure — however the consumer does not care about the mise en place, they care about the final product — the dish served up to their table. If a chef has done the best mise en place, but fails to deliver at the end, it is all for naught.
Given that a scientists final products comes in the form of a communication, executing that final step, be it writing up or presenting ones results, would be one of the most crucial aspect of a scientists life, yet for most part, practising scientists lack the training to do so, especially so when it comes to communicating to lay audiences. Don’t get me wrong, without good experiments, the product will never be good — similarly, without a good mise en place, the dish would not be good — and by no means am I saying that a scientist should focus on communicating results at the expense of experimentations needed to obtain said results. What I am suggesting, is that focus needs to also be placed on the how scientists deliver the final product. With the same ingredients, the final steps can make the difference between a world class dish, and one that is lacklustre. The way a dish is plated can also make a whole lot of difference — one eats with ones eyes before their mouth. Similarly, given the same set of results, the difference between acceptance or rejection by a top journal, or the difference between attention being paid to your presentation or your audience switching off, can come down to how well you are at communicating your results.
In the 2 years I have been doing my PhD in the medical faculty, I have seen a lot of amazing scientific “mise en place” with PhD students — experiments done with high finesse, students dedicated to producing top notch data, staying in their labs for extremely long hours chasing the data crucial for publications. Unfortunately, I do think this at time comes at the expense of training in presentation skills, be it writing or presentations. Taking it a step further, while many scientists eventually learn to write and present for a scientific audience (ie publications or conference presentations) due to the brutal “publish or perish” nature of academia, few become adept in their ability to communicate their findings to lay audiences.
A questions commonly posed by scientists here is why would there be a need for scientists to communicate to lay people? A response to this was written by Alan Leshner, the then Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in an editorial in 2003:
“The centrality of science to modern life bestows an obligation on the scientific community to develop different and closer links with the general population… We need to move beyond what too often has been seen as a paternalistic stance. We need to engage the public in a more open and honest bidirectional dialogue about science and technology and their products, including not only their benefits but also their limits, perils, and pitfalls.”
I have also previously written about the issues that occur when theres a disconnect between the scientific community and the general population.
Overall, what I’m trying to do in this post is to make a case for PhD students to spend some time developing our skills in communication, be it for the advancement of our own academic career, or for the obligation of us as scientists to communicate our findings to the general population. Platforms such as Nerd Nite provide opportunities for academics to present their work, and communities such as Deepteck provide opportunities to discuss and workshop ideas and presentations. In the end, it all comes down to the will and time set aside by researchers to develop communication skills.
What have been your experiences and thoughts about science communication? What do you think are your biggest issues with writing or presenting? Do you think you have enough support from the faculty and what do you think can be done? It would be great to hear your opinions down at the comment section below.
*disclaimer: the use of the masculine pronoun through this piece is used as a function of simplicity and by no means suggest an emphasis on only addressing male scientists nor is it a comment on women in STEM.