Field of Science

Guest post: Communication - it's not just for cells!

This guest post comes from a real life friend of mine (yes I do have friends in real life). He's currently doing a PhD in developmental biology, and has just started an awesome new blog.

Genetic modification! Stem cells! Genomes! Cloning! These “buzz” words are constantly used by the media in discussions of biological research. These are the words that incite panic and fear in the average tabloid reader. The phrases that make politicians cut science funding, and that make people run screaming when you innocently tell them you work in *deep, ominous, scary voice* science.

Hi, I’m Ret, a good friend of the Lab Rat. From the real world! I also spend far too much of my time locked away in labs, although I work on slightly bigger systems than bacteria. I am currently studying for a PhD in developmental biology. I also strongly believe in the power of good publicity. I believe that scientists need to work much harder to clearly and accurately report their findings to the general public.

For hundreds of years science has been the fodder of the academic, providing all the great advancements as it filters down from the ivory towers of learning, but to the person on the street it is the stuff of horror films; creating patched together monsters and unspeakable abominations of nature. In recent years, with unlimited access to the Internet and the increasing dominance of the media over public opinions, people have really started to take an interest in what we’ve been doing all of these years. An interest that has been fuelled by the economic downturn; the people want to know what’s been happening to all their money. There was a time when we would have rejoiced that people are finally paying attention, yet instead many of us use the typical academic response; we hide behind long words, inaccessible terminology and confounding acronyms.

Having just graduated from university I am very aware of the emphasis that many courses now place on the importance of good presentation skills, which enable us to stand up at conferences and tell a room full of our peers all about what we’ve been doing and why it is significant. What we are not currently taught is how best to communicate with those who are less fluent in the ways of academic research; How to simplify and “sex up” our findings so that people from any background can easily grasp and understand the benefits of what we are doing.

Up until now we have been leaving this job to the media. In the world of journalism, however, a high readership is generally more important than complete scientific accuracy. The eyecatching headlines that result from this are at the root of many public misconceptions of biosciences and only by committing ourselves to direct communication with as many different groups of people as possible can we hope to rectify these grave and long standing errors.

A current favourite of mine is the recent NASA announcement of bacteria which substitute phosphorus in their cells for arsenic, thus providing a new basis for life; or so they claim, even going so far as to imply that this is strong proof for the existence of aliens, and is a revolution in our understanding of science. This is a classic example of the misrepresentation of biological research, (although, having read the paper, it sounds like the research in itself may be a little dodgy). It is however a great example of how to drum up good publicity. I discuss this in more detail on my own blog, but as a starting point, it seems rather odd to me that NASA happens to make this big announcement about discovering potential proof of aliens just days after once again receiving a lot of bad press for once again delaying the shuttle launch. Can anyone say distraction technique?

If we do not engage with the populace, if we do not help them see why our work is important, then they will continue to shy away from us. Without public support all fields of science are subject to unnecessary limitations. Stem cell research globally was significantly inhibited by the short-lived US research ban, a policy brought about by public fear. Terror is keeping the human race from making the most of what it has, we are unable to alleviate poverty and starvation because we are prevented from widespread use of GM crops. Our work with animals is so misunderstood that many who work on animal models are forced to suffer constant hounding by protesters. Most researchers in our fields are here because they want to help; they want to cure the sick, feed the starving and ultimately save the world. However, to see the benefits of this we must bring about acceptance of our ideas so that they can be widely implemented where they are most needed. Hence, communication of our research should be as much a part of our lives as doing the experiments in the first place.

A major factor in this miscommunication, that we all need to work hard to address, is the conception of time. In the 21st century, everyone is used to getting what they want right now! Unfortunately that’s just not the way science works. Start talking about oncogenes and people expect the cure for cancer in the next 6 months. Mention pluripotency and before long the media will be raving about regrowing organs. Influenza, HIV etc. They want it now. Why haven’t we done this? Why haven’t we done that?

The idea that people get from the media, and even from science education up to late degree level is that science is quick. When you did practicals in science class you mixed some stuff together and got a really clear answer in an hour or two. It was perfect, definitive, clean and quick. What you don’t realise until you start doing your own research out at the boundaries is that it’s all a fix. Many modern techniques, even the simple ones involve extensive preparation and incubation times. You can easily spend a week on one set of samples just for them all to fail to work out and for you to get no results. Real significant research is often a very slow process involving many repeated experiments and huge amounts of failures and this is something that many other people just don’t understand; something which is truly foreign to the journalists reporting our findings and to the majority of their readers and something which is easily glossed over, even in our own writings. As it stands, it is only when you do research that you come to appreciate just how much effort went into every tiny detail. How every gene, every protein, every interaction is the product of dozens of PhD projects.

It is for us, as the new generation of academics and science professionals to go against the status quo, to make our work as accessible as possible to everyone and to actively engage with people on a level that they can relate to. Only by doing this can we hope for people to see the true potential benefits of the work we dedicate our lives to, and to understand that there is no quick and easy shortcut to the answers that we are seeking. Only through this can we hope to restore faith in research and save our field from a fast approaching demise at the hands of economic collapse.

The focus of my blog will be accessible science; I hope you recommend it to all of those friends and relations who are always asking you about the latest science news stories. I also invite you to write a guest post, I am looking to cover a broad range of different fields and would be extremely grateful if you felt like sharing your current research with the rest of the world. I also aim to accurately report on the big bioscience news stories. So if you think there is a big story that I should be covering; a serious case of distorting the facts, please let me know and I’ll do my best to provide reliable coverage.

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