by Emily McGrew
As scientists, we often get caught up in the day-to-day concerns about experimental controls and reading the next chapter for class, so we don’t take time to think about our context in the wider fields of biology, science and the world.
After a long day of presentations on very specific research topics, the speakers gathered together with the audience to discuss how ecology and evolutionary biology fit into a broader context.
The moderator illustrated his first question with a diagram showing how the effects of climate change get passed on to systems that humans rely on, causing an alteration in human behavior. He wondered if there was a way to proactively change human behavior to prevent this chain from functioning, instead of reacting when it does.
Overall, the panel’s response dwelt on communication. In order to change human behavior, people must be informed. Twitter especially, but also other social media sites, came up as a great way to connect with other scientists and their work. It seemed like many were using Twitter as something analogous to an open source publication network.
In terms of communicating to the public, methods for talking to journalists about complex scientific research and concepts were discussed. Outside of the traditional channels of journalists, though, there wasn’t much covered. Whether this reflected the limited time available and the fluidity of the conversation or a lack of ideas on communicating with the public was unclear, but the failure to piece together the use of social media and communication with the public at large is a vital piece of the puzzle that was missing from the conversation.
In the course of this discussion, an audience member raised perhaps the most contested perspective of the afternoon. He asked if the failure of the traditional scientific spokesman, in the tradition of Jacques Cousteau and C. Everett Coop, was to blame in the radical decrease in overall appreciation of science in the public sphere and articulated a desire for a new man to take up the mantle.
The gasps and furious whispers were audible as he wrapped up his comment, and immediately the rebuttals began. Among many objections to his position was the counter that there are still spokesmen for science, among them Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Another objection I would raise is that science does not need a single spokesman; it needs a wider variety of scientists, all of whom can connect with the public and be excited about science with them. A lone white man is no longer the best way to tell the story of science. Women, people of color, and collaborations all speaking about science are the components that will diversify the scientific experience and allow everyone to find a way to connect with science.
To defuse the furor that erupted after the spokesman comment, the moderator moved the discussion to the forward-looking topic of advice for younger scientists (especially exciting the undergraduates in the room). The panel’s advice ranged from the academic, taking more statistics and computer science courses to better understand the tools of a modern biological laboratory, to the practical, being able to break your research down into chunks that your (non-scientist) grandmother can understand. Other useful tips included actively trying to connect other scientist’s research to your own and asking questions, as well as gaining experience as a science writer as well as researcher.
The panel was, overall, informative not only about the specific field of science the symposium focused on, but also about how scientists communicate with each other and the public.