My top five science communications lessons after a year on the job
A young science communicator dishes tips to help you reach your audience—and keep them interested.
By Koby Michaels, Assistant Editor for Focus
After graduating from UBC Integrated Sciences last May, I embarked on my first year as a full-time science communicator, working as an educator, filmmaker and curriculum designer for Actua — Canada’s largest STEM outreach organization (and of course editing this blog!). From the pine-beetle infested forests of Alberta to the Arctic fjords of Pangnirtung, here are five of the most important lessons I’ve learned.
Science is for everyone
Since their inception in 1901, the Nobel Prizes have awarded 885 awards — 836 to men. The combined populations of Asia, Africa and Latin American account for 84 percent of the world’s population but they’ve won just 12.5 percent of Nobel Prizes.
But great science — and the great scientists behind it — can be found in rich and developing countries, and among those with PhDs and those without. Science is about the method — ask a question, form a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, observe the results, share what you found, repeat — not who is doing it.
Despite what the list of Nobel laureates may lead you to think, science is not a thing only some people or some cultures can do. Take an example from our very own backyard — in 2016, UBC scientists confirmed that clay from Kisameet, BC had the potential to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Members of the Heiltsuk Nation had been using the clay medicinally for generations. In the Canadian Arctic, Inuit were telling scientists weather was getting less predictable before scientists uncovered data supporting what the Inuit had known for years.
If we want the best science solving today’s toughest problems, we need to include everyone. More inclusive science education, like UBC’s Math Catcher Outreach Program, can increase representation in science, making it stronger.
Ask questions and get it right
Whether you’re interviewing a researcher or asking someone if they understand the evidence supporting anthropogenic climate change, you can never ask too many questions.
Make sure you’re always accurate. The consequences of misinformation can be life and death (as overdramatic as that sounds). No one can know everything there is to know in science, and no one expects you to. Don’t remember Newton’s laws? Ask (or Google it).
It’s always better to ask now than to spend the rest of your career convincing people a misconception isn’t true.
Never underestimate your audience
Everyone hates being talked down to. Excellent science communication isn’t about dumbing down science. It’s about speaking the same language as your audience.
Anything, no matter how complicated, can be explained in an understandable way. Don’t believe me? Take a read through Thing Explainer, an illustrated book that only uses the most common 1,000 words to explain computer science, planetary geology, and rocket science. Randall Munroe takes it to the extreme with Thing Explainer, but his work proves science can be accessible.
Make it relatable
“Arctic’s melting permafrost could cost the global economy nearly $70 trillion,” reads an April headline from Global News. “CDC estimates 80,000 Americans died of the flu last winter,” cries a CBC headline from September. I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly never had $70 trillion in my bank account. I have to count how many zeros are even in a trillion (its 12 by the way) in my head. And 80,000 dead? I haven’t met 80,000 people in my life, how am I supposed to imagine that?
Humans are incapable of comprehending such enormous quantities. Headlines like these, citing studies and complex calculations with unimaginable large numbers, don’t help build empathy for the causes they are attempting to raise awareness for.
To paraphrase a 2015 report on consumer attitudes towards antimicrobial resistance from Wellcome Trust, a British biomedical research non-profit: Making findings feel relevant and real is vital and the ways most regularly used (cost or deaths) in the media do not achieve this. Specific personal consequences have more impact.
Stories about science need to impact the lives of its audience. Don’t talk about “superbugs” overrunning hospitals — talk about how a routine dental procedure could become too dangerous for you if none of the antibiotics work. Or how British Columbians can expect to have their summer become smokier due to worsening forest fires — a local result of climate change?
Now you have my attention.
Science communication is more critical now than ever
In 2000, measles, a potentially deadly pathogen, was declared eliminated from the United States. So far in 2019, there have been 681 reported cases in 22 states. Worldwide, 112,163 cases of measles have been reported to the WHO from 170 countries, including 39 cases from Canada.
Many of the recent measles outbreaks, especially those in North American, can be traced to people choosing not to vaccinate. This is a 97 percent effective vaccine which has repeatedly been shown to be safe in large scale reviews.
Poor science communication and misinformation about vaccines have a direct and consequential effect on vaccination rates — and therefore infection rates.
Accurate, impactful and well-constructed science communication is a crucial component to solving major global issues. Today — with misconceptions regarding vaccination, climate change and GMOs — solid science is doubted by the public because of (among other reasons) poor communications.
Great science communication can’t solve all our problems alone but it is an important tool to create a more educated and equitable world