The chasm between science and society is wide and deep, illustrated most recently by events in climate science and calls for biodiversity protection. Scientists tend to blame it on society, but scientists also share the blame. It is thus essential that the scientific community — and scientists as individuals — begin to re-think our approach to doing science. This is particularly salient for biologists who study how natural systems work, given the widespread influence of human activities on Earth’s life-support systems and the profound dependence of humanity on other living things.
Scientists can distance themselves from society in four ways, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally.
- They tend to pursue a research agenda they are passionate about, often without thinking about how the energy devoted to a particular project serves society.
- Most scientists regard their job as finished when they report their results in a specialized research journal, adding a notch to their publication count.
- Scientists counsel that advocating for a particular societal position compromises their scientific credibility, so much so that the general credo is: “If you want to succeed as a hard scientist doing original research you do have to be a little careful about public communications,” as climate scientist James Hansen put it.
- And finally, many scientists feel that dealing with societal issues is some other profession’s problem, something that requires too much time and for which they have little support or expertise.
Bridging the science-to-society gap in biology will require that scientists shift our thinking about these issues. Scientists must first articulate how (or if) their research agenda contributes to society; this is especially important in cases where society funds the research.
At one end of the societal-relevance scale is ‘gee-whiz’ science — exploration for exploration’s sake, for the pure joy of discovery, largely undertaken without thinking beforehand about societal benefit. Science is full of examples of gee-whiz science, ranging from finding the biggest dinosaur or the smallest frog, to seeing solar systems light-years away, to unraveling human evolution, to observing the inside of a volcano. In the short term, gee-whiz science serves society by educating students and the general public about scientific principles and practice, stimulating our imaginations and sense of wonder, or even as pure entertainment — witness the popularity of nature-based television shows, books, and even fanciful movies like Jurassic Park.
When Charles Darwin sailed off on the H.M.S. Beagle, ‘gee-whiz’ science was exactly what was needed, because the natural world was largely un-observed and un-described. Only by putting together myriad discoveries could a coherent picture of process emerge. Over the last two centuries, the biological tradition Darwin exemplified has brought us a long way: we now know enough about how the world works to move biological research towards the other end of the societal-relevance scale, where the focus is on problems that concern not just the scientist doing the work, but also society at large. This includes research that the general public immediately embraces as important, for instance, understanding the human genome to the extent needed to enhance human health, or how evolution can catalyze epidemics. It also includes research that reveals problems society didn’t even know it had, for example, climate disruption and the biodiversity crisis.
This shift in what society needs — not just science for science’s sake, but to also using science to help recognize and solve societal problems — means that the goals of communicating science have to shift as well. Society now needs information from scientists not just in the form of interesting facts assembled in hard-to-find places, but especially as recommendations about how to manage the biosphere to maintain what humans depend on for their physical, economic, and emotional well-being. Scientists, after all, are the people paid to produce and collect the knowledge that is relevant to the world.
In that context, scientists must move beyond the old model of reporting research just in specialized scientific articles, in language comprehensible only to others in their research specialty. This means that our jobs are not over when our articles are published in peer-reviewed journals. The critical next step is making sure society is aware of results, so they can use the information as deemed appropriate, whether it is the wonder of nature conveyed by a zebra escaping a lioness in a viral YouTube video, or an op-ed that calls for action on some controversial environmental issue. Venues abound, from social media to more traditional outlets like general-readership magazines and public lectures, as well as the classes we teach.
Communicating science to non-scientists can be tricky, of course. Not least of the problems is communicating a result that society is not anxious to hear — as exemplified by studies relating to climate change or endangered-species preservation — which opens results to intensive scrutiny and makes it hard to hold the public’s admiration and attention. It therefore becomes doubly important to follow standard scientific protocols of rigorous methodology and peer review before disseminating results for societal consumption. It also becomes important to explain the positive implications or solutions to address issues that have a doomsday feel to many people. Public scrutiny and the search for productive steps and outcomes makes for better science: it makes sure we get our facts right and that we take positive action.
Scientists communicating our knowledge is just as important as the research work in itself. We are trained to write scientifically and to deliver results following defined standards and conventions. Different from this, is the great level of engagement that can be gained by drawing in societal involvement through communication by promoting storytelling in the sciences. Scientists have been finding that if they turn their research presentations into a story and share it with people who listen and share the practices, they have found that they can relate to the work because of how it is presented. It is important to continue to think of research and writing in terms of communicating at a different level. Using the principles of storytelling is a powerful tool. Using the desire to learn and improve how we communicate science can push one to explore new horizons.
The change in what society needs from scientists has come about rapidly, largely within the past five decades, as human populations tripled and caused previously unfathomable changes to emerge in the biosphere. The speed at which the world changed means that while society moved on, we continued doing science under an old scientific model (albeit with increasingly sophisticated modern techniques), and also under the now outdated assumption that it is somebody else’s job to fix society’s problems.
Fixing society’s biological problems, of course, requires societal buy-in and collaboration among people in many walks of life. But that all starts with good biological research designed to address society’s needs, communicating the science widely in meaningful ways, and realizing that biologists need to engage with society in developing solutions.
Contributions by Elizabeth A. Hadly, Anthony D. Barnosky, Jessica J. Hellmann, and Leah Gerber. Reprinted from the Soapbox Science Blog, May 2013.
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