By Jonnathan Medina-Ramos
Chemistry Ph.D. Candidate at
Virginia Commonwealth University
I have to admit that when my friend, who is Colombian and a chemist like me, talked to me about his interest in sharing and discussing scientific information with the general public– that is to people of different ages, educational and cultural backgrounds, professionals or not– the idea sounded kind of boring and almost like a waste of time to me. Why someone like me, who has spent 12 years of his life studying chemistry and 6 of them doing laboratory research would want to explain his work to an audience that has little to no clue about chemistry? First of all, getting rid of the scientific jargon has proven very difficult for me whenever I try to explain what I do to anyone that is somehow interested in hearing about it. Because of that, I’ve had to make tremendous efforts in the past trying to find analogies that can illustrate my research in more simple terms in order to allow my listeners or readers better understand the ideas that seem so familiar and somewhat more clear to me. Secondly, what would be the point of doing all that? I could understand the relevance of communicating with my peers in seminars, posters sessions or through written papers, but even that could become an ordeal; Hence my question, why bother talking about science with non-scientists?
A few days ago I had the opportunity of attending the workshop “Communicating Science” offered by the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publishers of the top journal Science) at VCU. The attendees were people from different disciplines, including psychology, biology, mathematics, medicine, forensic science and chemistry. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss the importance of being able to talk about your scientific pursues to people outside your field and learn to do so effectively. There I came to learn that in the United States the general public is more interested in science that I thought: 91% of Americans are very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries, 82% express support for government funding of basic research and 60% regard scientists as people of “very great prestige” second only to firefighters! (Sources: AAAS “Communicating Science” workshop 2012 and Science and Engineering Indicators 2012-www..nsf.gov/statistics). Then, doing some research of my own I found that the perception of science expressed by Colombians is really high as well, and it’s been reported that the general public finds researcher scientist to be the most prestigious profession. However, unlike Americans, the investment in research and development is considered insufficient by the general public in that country due to a lack of support from the government (Jesus Martin Barbero in: La percepcion que tienen los colombianos sobre la ciencia y la tecnologia. Colciencias Colombia, 2005, p. 41)
Of course I was amazed after learning of the popular perception about science in the United States and Colombia, and more than ever before I realized that we scientists, from all disciplines, have a great responsibility with society because a great number of people are interested in listening to what we have to say, and want to know about the discoveries we come up with. The general public feel they can trust scientists, and that trust cannot be compensated with anything else than scientific work of the highest quality. On the other hand, together scientists and non-scientists that are citizens of democratic countries like the United States and Colombia participate in the election of the government which decides where the tax money goes, and how much of it is destined to fund scientific research. In other words, the interests of the general public influence, at least to some extent, how much funding is given out to universities and institutes for research.
Nowadays it’s becoming more evident that the work done by scientists does not end in the laboratory, the office, café or hospital room; not even after papers or theses are written and published. Sooner or later scientific findings permeate information sources that are more accessible by the ‘general public’ like television, the internet and even social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google+. NASA and the NIH are examples of scientific institutions using the social media to spread knowledge to a growing and overwhelmingly heterogeneous audience. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the AAAS is now offering workshops like ‘communicating science’ at research universities and that my colleague friend is so interested in talking about science with all sort of people over a cup of coffee. The demand for scientists capable of sharing their thoughts effectively to a wider audience is increasing, and people like me that find it so hard to make their complex science available to a general public should probably remember the following quote by Albert Einstein: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”