People Science

People Science

Communicating Science and Technology

I’ll be addressing several questions in this post.

  1. What is the public perception of science? (And is it just done by men?)
  2. Do people think science is important?
  3. How much does the public need to know about science?
  4. Are scientists the best qualified to be communicating their work?
  5. How should science be shared with the public?

Certainly, there is value in education of any sort, but the premise here is that people’s time should also be spent learning about science and the many scientific principles that appear to govern our world.

Being well informed about why things fall down and not up, what a genome is and how your television can be controlled remotely would allow us to make better choices at the ballot box, sustain our planet for future generations and throw a mean(er) curve ball.

I am very familiar with the point at which eyes-glaze-over. My eyes typically do this when I’m presented with abundant information on one or several topics that I can see are important, and feel I should know about, but simply haven’t been schooled in them.

To address all of this I have three people offering their opinions. All work in the areas of medical and health sciences. Two are scientists and one is an editor of scientific publications:

Jay Draper, managing editor of publications at British Columbia Medical Association (BCMA), formerly the BC Medical Journal managing editor.

Fiona Brinkman, (@fionabrinkman) professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), co-director at SFU-UBC Bioinformatics Graduate Training Program, co-lead at Bioinformatics for Combating Infectious Diseases Project and previously the director of Bioinformatics at Genome Canada/Genome BC Pathogenomics Project.

Raymond See, scientific consultant, formally the program director for the SARS Accelerated Vaccine Initiative and the scientific director of PREPARE (Proteomics for Emerging Pathogen Response).

1. What is the public perception of science? (And is it just conducted by men?)

See states that the perception is a positive one and that they are well informed, and are more interested in what affects them personally, say if a family member or friend contracted a disease. He maintains that a lot of scientific work is covered in the press, because people are interested in what’s being done.

Draper concedes that there is likely, “Mysticism” around science for people not working in the field or without relatives who work with science. He also points out that people are far more concerned about science when it affects their lives from a health and safety perspective, perhaps as a result of movies and television shows.

Brinkman too, also refers to people likely getting frustrated and simply wondering, “Well how does this apply to me?” But her overall impression is that science is viewed positively. Brinkman goes on to talk about the changing attitudes toward women in science and brings up a humorous anecdote about the recent Higgs boson announcement that a national newspaper covered; but all things considered, she believes that up and coming female scientists need to see female role models, just as anyone in any field likes to see role models they can relate to.

2. Do people think science is important?

See is in little doubt that people do think science is important as they have a vested interest in knowing where their tax dollars are going; he has fears that their voices aren’t being heard when it comes to where research needs to be focused.

Brinkman is in agreement and comments on the world around us while highlighting the many things that have come about due to science. She also addresses the many things vying for people’s attention, in terms of healthcare, education and so on in our day-to-day lives, but illustrates the point that without science, we wouldn’t be able to maintain the quality of our lives, “We’re just in this little snapshot of time.”

3. How much does the public need to know about science?

“Enough to make informed decisions,” begins See and he goes on to talk about the H1N1 vaccine that was developed and public opinion around it at the time. See says that the chemistry and molecular biology behind the H1N1 may not be of interest to the people, but they certainly are interested in its testing, “Has it been deemed safe? What are the side effects associated with the vaccine? [The] things that pertain to [the public].”

Draper points out that the significant advances, “The breakthroughs … are really quite infrequent,” so perhaps people don’t need to be bogged down with the day-to-day plodding pace of scientific research.

Informing people at many different levels is how Brinkman would address this. Information needs to go out that can inform the public as a whole, to be digested quickly and easily; people also need to be given an idea of where research is going, what the future holds and why the work is being done; but also important is the detail, “there are many people … who are very fascinated. There are a lot smart individuals out there.”

4. Are scientists the best people to communicate their work?

“There’s definitely some that are fantastic,” starts off Brinkman, chuckling somewhat as she believes the reverse is true too. She suggests that the latter may be the case because of how science is spoken about among scientists, but more importantly, that it’s simply underappreciated within the scientific community. “Professors don’t get much credit for [engaging with the public] … a lot of [professors] just do it for the love of it and because they care.”

See’s stance is that scientists are the best people to do it, because from his experience the public are more likely to trust what the scientists says, rather than getting second hand from the media or some other source.

On the other hand, has Draper got a point when he says that scientists should not be the ones delivering information? “I think that should be [done by] professional documentary makers or journalists, with the help of scientists who know facts.” However, he does cite David Suzuki as an example of a scientist who has made a brilliant career out of communicating with the public, and that other scientists who have such a knack should perhaps also go that way.

5. How should science be communicated to the public?

Draper and Brinkman both say science has to be communicated in different ways. Whether it is via magazines, documentaries or websites; each mediums that allow for style, design and information to come together; it has to be done in a variety of ways. Brinkman points out that there may be a need to integrate science into everyday educational activities, but just as significant, “As the younger generation increasingly don’t use print media … or watch TV very much [and mainly use computers].” Brinkman says, that in being sensitive to this, science must be communicated in such a way as to be accessible online in different ways too.

Tremendous thanks to Raymond See, Fiona Brinkman and Jay Draper for their participation.

Please leave your own answers to these questions in the comments below.

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