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July 2014

Communicating Science in the 21st Century

How to update the public image of today's scientists and engineers

Brian Doyle

The “Blue Marble” showed the American people a new perspective gained through the advancement of science and engineering. Credit: Image courtesy NASA Johnson Space Center Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth

While the unkempt, aged Einstein has become the iconic scientist, the young, handsome man is the true image of a revolutionary mind that published some of the most influential work in modern physics.

When is a picture worth more than a thousand words? One of the most shared photos in the world was taken on December 7, 1972. Long before Instagram and Facebook made sharing photos nearly effortless, this image, dubbed the “Blue Marble,” captivated the minds of a generation. It unabashedly showed the small role our lives play in the space our planet occupies. But, perhaps most importantly, it demonstrated the extreme technological advancements that enabled a rocket to be launched into space and let us cross the boundary from science fiction to reality.

It is these moments in time that capture the essence of science: exploring grand ideas and attempting to create understanding and perspective out of the unknown. Unfortunately, the image of the scientist in the eyes of the general public is not keeping up with the advancing nature of science communication. Science writer Jessica Morrison, former American Association for the Advancement of Science Mass Media Fellow, describes this phenomenon. "Many people think they don't know a scientist. When asked to name one, they throw out the likes of Edison and Einstein. They don't name their neighbor, family member, or friend who is a scientist."

So what can scientists and engineers do to improve this public persona?

Step 1: Let people know that scientists are regular people too!

The quintessential image of a scientist, evidenced by the typical response, is the crazy white-haired photo of an aging Einstein. Ralph House, Liaison for Outreach and Communication in the Center for Solar Fuels at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, brings up the important aspect of the picture. "What people don't see very often is the picture of a young, handsome Einstein in his mid-20s. That's the face of Einstein when he published his theory of relativity. But that's not the image that people associate with scientific brilliance." As a member of the scientific community, you need to work to dispel the pretense of unapproachability that is so often associated with a scientist.

Breaking down this absent-minded, unapproachable archetype can be seen as a type of translation. Emily Pentzer, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Case Western Reserve and previously with the Polymer-Based Materials for Harvesting Solar Energy Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC), relates to this idea. "Think of organic chemistry like a foreign language--if you were dropped in the middle of another country and given no guidance, you probably aren't going to like that country very much." Pentzer goes on to say, "The role of the scientist and engineer is to translate that technical language to those without a background in it. By taking this approach, you are setting up your students for a positive view of the sciences, regardless of whether they decide to make a career in a scientific discipline."

It is exactly this idea that has been successfully implemented through television series such as "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," presented by Carl Sagan, and the follow-up series presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Creating interest in the sciences without getting lost in the extreme technical details gives the general public access to the exciting scientific advancements. Enoch Dames, a postdoctoral researcher at the Combustion Energy Frontier Research Center, elaborates on this idea. “Media is so impactful in our society. Through popular science shows like 'Cosmos,' people who wouldn't have otherwise sought out science are drawn to it because it is entertaining in a way most science education is not."

That doesn't mean you have to be in the classroom or on a television series to make a difference. Casual interactions such as a conversation at a weekend soccer game or the neighborhood block party are ideal for making science more accessible. By making a point to describe what you do in terms other people can understand, you are helping create a more accurate picture of the people making a difference in the scientific world.

Step 2: Acknowledge that the voice of the general public matters to scientists!

While it is sometimes easy to say science is without influence from the political world around it, let's take away this veil of science done in a vacuum. The actions of scientists and engineers are very much intertwined with public appreciation for science and the agendas of political appointees who determine funding levels. No decision is made without bringing in the biases of our experiences, and if a politician or other leader's experience with science is negative, then the future of science is without a solid foundation.

Lynn Trahey, a member of the Center for Electrical Energy Storage EFRC, believes it's important to let the general public know how their tax dollars are being used in ways that affect them. "If the public is aware that funding scientific research will help extend the life of their cell phone battery or lower the cost of their electricity bill, and they are aware that scientific funding levels are voted on by politicians, they may be more supportive of political candidates who support the research being done in this country," she notes.

Scientists thus have a civic duty to reach out and explain the impacts of their research in a way that is understandable to the public. By extolling the positive effects of your science to the general public, you are emphasizing the importance of sustained funding in an environment of limited financial resources. This civic duty extends beyond this generation. Trahey adds, "It's important to get kids engaged, tap into their natural curiosity, and give them positive STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] role models." We need the next generation of scientists and engineers to see this innovative, interactive 21st-century image of a scientist.

Step 3: Take advantage of the resources around you to get involved!

While a scientist's responsibility extends beyond the corners of the lab, they are not without support. More than likely, a team exists at your school or company to help with media and public relations. Take advantage of these professionals who understand how to leverage public communication and can help assemble the resources to share your work with a broader audience. Kara Manke, Ph.D. student in the Solid-State Thermal Energy Conversion Center and a program organizer for the science communication conference ComSciCon, suggests using some local resources. "Look toward museums as an opportunity for outreach. Many have existing programs that cater to younger students. Also look in your city for an event dedicated to science, like the Cambridge Science Festival, for example." These kinds of opportunities engage the existing infrastructure of science outreach and communication.

Chances are there is also an outreach coordinator in your discipline who can help connect you with local high school, middle schools, and elementary schools. Someone like House can help these outreach efforts. He says, "At our outreach center at UNC [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill], we've had somewhere on the order of 10,000-15,000 interactions over the last five years. People will buy in if you explain it [scientific concepts] and get them actively involved." Programs like these can be as in depth as you want to make them. Perhaps you can volunteer to judge a science fair or take a small group of students on a tour of your lab. Maybe you want to put together a curriculum meant to give high school teachers a chance to see new experiments they can bring to the classroom. For either end of the spectrum, there exist many options that can be done with the time and energy you have to commit.

Even without a large support staff, the wondrous advances of science and engineering have enabled scientists and engineers to have many platforms to communicate. As a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher, you could put together a few YouTube videos on your project catering to the general public or start a blog about topics in your particular discipline. Morrison suggests, "Use available technology to make an introduction in the world of science communication. Twitter is a great way to get introduced to prospective journalists and editors of publications. This is also a good time to determine what your target audience is and cater your communications to that audience."

The first step to communicating this new image of a scientist starts with saying yes to an opportunity. Each of the people quoted in this article chose to be involved with science communications through this EFRC newsletter sometime over the last 5 years. Today, they are engaging the public in mass media journalism and leading efforts in outreach and scientific development. While their career trajectories may differ, these individuals have worked to change that antiquated image of a scientist and have experienced firsthand the impact broad understanding of science can have.

Hopefully, you can take the opportunity to spread an updated picture of a scientist. Maybe one day, you will name the scientist down the street instead of the crazy-haired Einstein. Perhaps this new image of a scientist will be worth more than a thousand words and will inspire its own generation of scientists and engineers.

About the author(s):

  • Brian Doyle is a third-year Ph.D. student working in the HeteroFoaM Center and in the Center for Innovative Fuel Cell and Battery Technologies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is working to characterize the structure-property relationships in doping of ceramic electrolytes for solid oxide fuel cells with the goal of developing the underlying principles for future rational design. Throughout his future career, he looks to engage the education infrastructure ranging from academic research to public policy formation and science communication.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.