We need to convince the taxpayer

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Science communication should go beyond peer-reviewed journals and conferences if the public are to engage with scientific developments, argues Jonathon Rees

Ask scientists who they most need to impress, and only a few will come up with this answer: the taxpayer.

If scientists can’t make the case for investment in science, then the public can hardly be expected to. And politicians are less likely to support investment in research if the taxpayer isn’t enthused about the value of science.

But let’s dispel, once and for all, the notion that scientists are naturally not great communicators. There are some really terrific communicators in the science community. I’ve had the privilege of working with them and there is a great deal of good science communication already happening.

The tough truth is, however, that we have to raise our game – and this means everybody in the science community, from researcher and engineer to publisher and the manager of science organisations. It is not just a job for communicators, although professional communicators can help to embed communication within an organisation.

Assessment puts the pressure on

There is already institutional pressure on researchers to integrate communication into their work, and this is to be welcomed. In the UK, for example, the new Research Excellence Framework will from 2014 require researchers to demonstrate they have a plan for public engagement. This will impact on the £1.7bn of university-based research funding each year.

Let’s hope, however, that researchers don’t become better communicators just because they have been told to. After all, the public’s understanding of science is fundamental to a democracy, vital to our economic and social progress, and essential to our ability to address challenges in energy, environment, food supply and an aging population.

Scientists already have a very effective mechanism for communication among themselves through peer-reviewed journals and academic conferences. But the spread of information should not stop there. Science communication is too often the announcement of research in a one-dimensional way. We need to be better at creating context and understanding how science fits with public concerns, economic and environmental challenges, and our responsibility as an informed community.

There has been a tremendous amount of grumbling and misunderstanding recently about what is called the impact agenda. Of course the science community must demonstrate the impact of its work. What’s not clear to enough people is how that should be done – and how this impact is measured and communicated. My view is that scientists and politicians are saying the same thing – but in a different language – and they don’t yet recognise the extent to which they agree with each other.

Whether we’re doing the science or publishing it, we must get better at understanding and expanding the context in which it exists. We need to think more clearly about our audiences (sometimes known by that dreadful term ‘stakeholders’). These are people who don’t read academic journals; and they include government and politicians, the public, and the business and investment community – most of the world, in fact.

Traditional science publishing is largely inaccessible to these people. But that’s not the intention, is it? It’s just that it’s always been like that, going all the way back to when only the elites could read. Now it is only the elites who can – or do – read about science.

Ironically, with more and more information available, people aren’t asking as many questions as they should. It’s not because they know all they need to about science, investment in research, and its role in their lives. People are on the whole considerably more engaged with reality TV, and the antics of celebrities, than they are with the really important issues of our age. That is a real threat to the future of well-resourced research.

This relative lack of engagement is caused by several things. Science has become increasingly complicated to understand, and much of it is now either so far away (in space) or at such a tiny scale (nanotechnology) that it is hard for people to relate to. And understanding the science of today depends on there being a bedrock of knowledge about some basic scientific principles which our predecessors uncovered. These are tragically missing from the popular understanding.

Getting government in gear

I recently saw the chief executives of seven important funding bodies share a platform to talk about how research will address society’s grand challenges. There was nothing wrong with what any of them said. It was what they omitted to say that caused alarm. There was virtually no mention at all of the role of policy, regulation and legislation in the harnessing and implementation of science.

This implied to me that we don’t sufficiently understand the role that government and the science community must play together. In a great many instances, we already have the scientific answer, but we are waiting for policy to create the environment and the incentives in which it can become useful. There are millions of tax payers. Don’t we want them on our side?

Jonathon Rees is a founder and director at Proof Communication, a science and technology communication company