My kind of pressure

First of all a disclaimer: I am a science communicator heading a communications department at a biomedical research institute, the MDC. As I wrote in my last blog post I am looking for signs of pressure to scientists to communicate. When I tweeted about my questionnaire, more than 750 people saw the tweet (THX to all who retweeted!), and 10 of them clicked on the link. Several other scientists and communicators picked up the tweet, so I’d modestly double the impressions on Twitter to 1,500 (I did post it on Facebook as well but I won’t bore you with all stats). The stats of the blog post show that 123 people saw it, I got around 10 replies or comments. A huge THANK YOU to all of you who replied on Twitter, Facebook, here at the comments‘ section or directly via email. First approximation: less than 10 percent of those who saw the tweet clicked and less than 10 percent of those who clicked left a reply. Bummer.

This meagre result is, however, in accordance with the replies I got. It is basically only intrinsic motivation that drives scientists to communicate to a broader public („science2lay“ communication, S2L). No pressure. There are incentives, i.e. there is money provided by funding agencies to disseminate the results of the funded projects; sometimes, these agencies – for instance the European Union – demand that scientists disseminate the results. Pressure? In the last 15 years or so that I am doing communications I saw quite a number of digital graveyards for this kind of mandatory dissemination. What I heard myself and from other communication officers was scientists asking: „Oh, we have some money that we are required to use for dissemination. Can you recommend a person who will set up a website for us where we will put all the information?“ In the offline world, this is equivalent to a brochure (the PDF of it can go on the aforementioned website…)

On the other hand, I saw the rise of science communication with new formats such as the extremely successful „Long Night of Sciences“, an event developed in Berlin and spread out to many other cities and regions in Germany. Countless scientists of all ages and many different disciplines started to talk to lay people; there are science slams, there is FameLab, there are events designed for children of all ages, and even a barge that is temporarily refurbished as a swimming science center.

So where’s the problem? I see it on both sides. Scientists seem to get wary or tired of trying to educate a public seemingly immune to scientific reasoning (see the antivaxxers or the people who deny that climate change is real). The public, on the other hand, is overfed with results from science and pseudo-science. Advocacy organizations use science, and pseudo science, to convince people that, for example, animal experiments are useless or rats fed with genetically modified corn are more prone to develop cancer (a study that gained huge media attention and was retracted). Many different fields of science have become heavily politicized: stem cells, fracking, climate studies, genetic engineering of plants, of animals, and possibly of humans, to name but a few.

My personal conclusion is: We need science more than ever. We need hard science, i.e. basic research, as well as applied science and humanities, to tackle global problems. We need rigorous quality control for science. And we need to talk about it!

We need science communication more than ever. As a member of the public, I want to know about the nonsensical and completely made-up  connection between vaccination and autism, about the dangers of miracle cures, about sea-level rise, its probability and its implications. I want bad science to be uncovered. I want scientists to debate the ethics of their work and the ethical implications of their results. I want to know where my tax-payer’s money went.

I, as a communicator, can only do part of the job.  Authenticity and depth of information can only be provided by first-hand experts. I need you, scientists! You got to help me. You have to. Period.


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