Science Communication: it’s difficult to be simple

By: Hector Haddock

As biomedical scientists, we should always stride towards the same goal: to impact our communities through our work. Whether we are future physicians or basic researchers, our work will ultimately provide us with a platform from which we can significantly improve the lives of those around us. However, in order for us to reach and impact our communities, we must be able to effectively communicate our science with them. Imagine, for example, that a scientist discovers that eating apple pie is dangerous for the brain (an extremely radical example, to say the least). Clearly, he/she would feel an overwhelming need to warn everybody about the dangers of apple pie and recommend that they not eat it. However, if the scientist fails to present people with a convincing and clear argument on why they should not eat this “dangerous pie”, they will keep on doing it.

Even in this extreme example, we see that the impact of our science (at a community level) is completely dependent on our ability to communicate our data in an approachable, engaging, and interesting way. Not only this, but the vocabulary we use must be accessible and understandable to the recipients. That being said, the process of communicating our science following these guidelines is not as straightforward as it seems.

Even amongst scientist, clear and concise communication is often quite difficult to achieve. In fact, recent evidence suggests that the readability of scientific papers is lower now than what it was back in the 19th century. Although there are other confounding factors that play a role in this decrease in readability (for example, more complex techniques), this still demonstrates that efficient communication is often relegated to a secondary role within the sciences. If we as scientist are not able to communicate our work efficiently within ourselves, how in the world are we supposed to communicate it with our communities?

Personally, I have given a lot of thought to this question. Indeed, if the value of science communication is found in its ability to impact our communities, then we must make it our mission to learn how to effectively communicate our science. For me, this has been a tedious and continuous process. Although I have taken scientific writing and communication courses, I admit that I still have a long way to go if I wish to make my science accessible to all. Throughout my journey I have found that the most difficult part of this process has been unlearning what I originally thought was “proper” scientific communication. When I first started communicating my science, I was under the false ideal that I had to use big fancy words and complex sentences. Afterall, I was taught as a kid that scientists were “smart people”, and that to be a scientist you had to “talk like a scientist”.

However, I have now learned from my mentors that this could not be farther away from the truth. A good scientist is one that knows how to communicate effectively amongst different audiences; technical and detailed amongst peers, clear and conscience amongst non-scientists. Above all, a good scientist recognizes the importance of transmitting a message in the clearest way possible, so that people can actually understand what you are trying to say. The true value of a statement or sentence is not in its complexity, but in its comprehensibility. Whether you are communicating your work to your fellow lab members in a meeting, or to your family at the dinner table, you have to do it in such a way that your message is completely understandable to those that are receiving it. This is the only way that we can guarantee that the essence and value of our science is understood by everyone in a clear and unambiguous way.

I truly believe that this process of learning how to effectively communicate my science is almost never ending, particularly in these modern times were we constantly have new media outlets and social platforms from which we reach out to communicate our work. That being said, one of my main goals as a scientist is to come as close as possible to being at the frontline of this process, so that I can make sure that I can share my work to all sectors. In doing so, I hope to have a more profound impact at a community level, since people will understand the messages I will convey to them through my data. Without doubt, this will prove to be the ultimate validation as a scientist.

Communicating Science (Sheril Kirshenbaum, TEDx Talk)

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