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’ve recently been thinking about this: There are a lot of Americans who don’t know a single scientist.

This is one of our biggest failures as a community. When we March for Science in April, we’ll be fighting for our right to freely communicate with the people whose taxes fund our work and the legislators who we hope will use our work to inform policymaking. But we haven’t done a good job of actually communicating with people about what we do.

As a first-year graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, I’m spending the year trying out different laboratories before picking the one where I’ll do my thesis work. Along with observing experiments, I get to watch how senior scientists interact with the public. The depressing truth is that many don’t.

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They’re busy. They’re running labs, teaching students, applying for grants, and communicating their work to other scientists. Sharing what they do with everyone else falls by the wayside. And this matters, because when researchers don’t explain how we do our jobs and what the scientific method means, it’s harder for you to compare our conclusions and how we got there to stuff that’s dreamed up on the internet.

This is how it plays out: As a nation, we cannot separate the community consensus that vaccines are safe and beneficial from voices hawking the disproven idea that vaccines cause autism. It’s easy to dismiss climate scientists talking about the impact of global warming when the people who profit from it constantly assure consumers that one source, fossil fuels, isn’t really that bad.

Even worse, scientists are often quick to judge those who don’t agree with them. When people don’t want to reckon with the role of their cars in fueling climate change, when they can’t believe that we share a common ancestor with gorillas, we often treat them with disdain.

It’s been nice to see the #actuallivingscientist movement gain steam on Twitter. I’m hopeful that it will put more faces to what we do every day.

Explaining the way we actually do science, especially to people struggling to come to terms with what the evidence points to, is challenging. The science most of us learn in high school and even college is foundational, but often not enough, because it gives you a conclusion and not always the trial and error of getting there. The science performed on TV shows gives people an idea of the types of technology we use to ask questions about nature and the universe, but it leaves out experimental design, synthesizing information from multiple sources, troubleshooting, and repeating experiments again and again to get information.

I sometimes wonder if explaining research is hard because there’s an experiential gap that helps me understand, for example, that the technology used to create GMO food is more or less the same technology used to create certain medicines. I’ve used that technology in my research. Knowing the latter is safe makes it easier for me to reconcile that the former is safe.

And now we have a president who has questioned the overwhelming evidence of vaccine safety. A president whose policy keeps brilliant minds out of the country for fear of the corrupt ones. And he is supported by people who far too easily dismiss what we do in favor of “alternative facts.”

So, to protect what we do and its value in society, more and more scientists are becoming activists. This, again, is a hard thing to do, and not everyone thinks it will help. We’re having to set aside the dispassionate observations we make in the lab for passionate arguments for our freedoms. This is the battle for the legitimacy of science, a battle we helped create because we still haven’t figured out how to show people what we do, why we do it, and why it’s important.

So we’ll march. And then we have to get to work. Going forward, we have to be stewards. We have to share without condescension and be patient and helpful as people balance uncomfortable truths. We have to integrate into our communities as voices on the ground. We’re people who care about the health and well-being of the human race. That’s why we sequester ourselves in our labs working for cures, or in front of computers trying to understand weather patterns, or out in the ocean, gathering samples of water, fish, and plants. But we have to do a better job of communicating if we want the default to be evidence-based policy for us, the people, and not for profit. I hope it’s not too late to reverse our failings.

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  • I left grad school a few years ago and with it a research career. Now I am working with a local church to get a science educator on staff that can help bridge communities historically at odds. We’re trying to start science seminars that most scientists are used to, for the general public, in an atypical environment. I think this kind of outreach is what extension was supposed to be, but the academic model has kind of saturated the folks who are already listening. My frustration at the academic insularity and my desire to be “in the field” brought me to this new career path. Anywho, I am always looking for people who want to jump in with seminars to share. I am still working on the model, but it’s almost there. Thanks!

  • Extremely important and insightful. Thank you so much for articulating this problem! I have been working in the field of science education for over 20 years and would love to help the public understand science.

  • There are events and resources that are positive responses to this issue.

    The national network, Portal to the Public, provides strategies to connect scientists and educators who are dedicated to public engagement with current science. https://popnet.pacificsciencecenter.org

    Locally nearly 40 professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine have become Science Communication Fellows and participate in Meet the Scientists! programs. http://www.discoverymuseums.org/fellowships

    The upcoming Family Science Days at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston are a great opportunity for the public to meet scientists and do hands-on activities – February 18 and 19 http://meetings.aaas.org/family-science-days/

  • Awesome ideas. How do I get involved? What if we used reddit Ask Me Anything and had a scientist appear every single day until April’s march? That would be very cool.

    • I know a professor researching disease at CU Boulder every summer who would love to participate. Who could help start this thing?–contact me.

  • There’s two good books related to this topic: “Don’t Be Such A Scientist” and “Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story” by Randy Olson both cover how scientists can better communicate with the public. It used to be that journalists did a lot of the communicating for scientists, but now scientists have to do that job.

  • You had me all the way until you threw politics into the mix. Silly rabbit leave the politics to statesmen and worry about what is important.

  • Wonderful post Sara .. It was really thought provoking. The kind of limitations Science is facing.. whether it is Brexit or Trump’s ban, We as a Science fraternity must come out even Stronger. What I personally feel is that Our voices and sentiments could have echoed in multiple folds if we would have had related well to common man or the people who are not so much into Science.
    As a Moecular Biology student I feel that the communication part becomes quite relevant here. We have to popularise science in an engaging manner. We have to take the initiative. Let’s not immerse so much into our personal achievements that we forget our responsibility to make Science accessible to all. All we need is time, effort and a will power to bring a change.

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