Tuesday, April 3, 2012

C is for Communication

Science communication is all the rage these days. Science Online 2012 was held in North Carolina State U in January, and planning is already in progress for SciO13. There are science communication blogs, academic programs, and workshops like the popular one in Banff. Articles in Nature News and The Chronicle champion science communication as an alternate career path for grad students uninspired by the academic path. But how do we define science communication, and how is it used?

Scicomm covers a broad spectrum of media types, from print to social media, to video and blogging. Established science communicators like Margaret Munro (CanWest News Service in Canada) and Ed Yong (UK science writer) have built successful careers in print media, while expanding into social media and blogging. But these days it seems everyone is a science communicator - from undergrads blogging about their science classes, to recent PhDs blogging about their research and that of their colleagues. The AGU had their first science video workshop in 2011, while CBC has kept their Quirks & Quarks radio show going for 35 years. Hell, even this blog adds to the many sources of scicomm on the web - some of us are good, others are better. :)

But what's the point of scicomm? Several purposes come to mind:

1. To promote the science done by a particular research group, or by a University. This is usually meant to increase publicity and result in enhanced grant funds and/or invitations to conferences and/or to consult with government, NGOs, and other groups. Scicomm for this purpose is tricky because of its promotional nature, which can lead to less than objective articles. I've seen great examples in my own field. Colleagues issue a press release to accompany their research paper, trumpeting that they're the first to complete a particular study. But those of us in the field know it's not true - and in some cases we know that what they're doing isn't particularly groundbreaking. It's just spin.

2. To keep the public informed of the many neat and exciting things going on in science. This is like the 'basic research' of scicomm - and my favourite kind. Here the public are treated to a mind boggling show of the latest and greatest innovations in science, things that make them wonder 'how did scientists come up with that'?! It's the type of communication that fires the imaginations of kids and makes them want to consider a career in science for themselves - kind of like those kids that see a cool car when they're 7 years old and keep that image with them until they have the money to buy their own.

3. To tell the public how science is useful. This is slightly different than #2, and is more like the 'industry applied' type of research. The type of communication that links nanotechnology to pacemakers, or new harvesting technology to forest fibre production. In many cases it proves to the public that investments in science - be they from public or private sector funds - are 'paying off' in some tangible way, and that science does have use in society.

4. To connect scientists and those interested in science. I started using Twitter after reading an article on the AGU blog. It's been a great venue for communicating - and sharing - science information on topics as diverse as wildfires in Colorado to the gutting of the Fisheries Act in Canada to the lack of snow in the Spanish Pyrenees. Twitter has increased my excitement about - and interest in - science, and also allowed me to explore the interconnections between the various aspects of my own research program while meeting others online.

There must be many other reasons to communicate science than just these four - in fact these all presume an audience and only the last addresses the interests of the communicator. What other reasons have you seen for science communication, and how do they help - or hinder - science?

1 comment:

  1. You may find the website of the Canadian Geoscience Education Network interesting.