By Dr Sarah Morgan

Scicomm: Building a Sledgehammer for the Walls Between Science and Society

I’ve been wracking my brain about how to structure this piece, and have picked so many starts and specific topics that I’ve tied myself up into a delightful hot mess. I typed 9 pages of notes on the day and have had numerous follow-up discussions. Each and every one was wonderfully rich, somewhat opinionated and never resolved.

There is just so much to talk about, from the #GoingPublic conference of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, that we are going to be talking for a long time. (which is lucky since it’s taken me so long to get this piece out…).

One of the sound bites that remained with me was the thought that this conversation, about scientists speaking out in public, might be one that needs to be repeated every generation: each time it will reach someone new. I see great similarities between this idea and feminism, which in itself further highlights the sexism undercurrent to the discussions around scicomm efforts in New Zealand. Uh oh: all the controversial topics are coming out.

I’m going to break this up into sections, and review what a) struck me as the most pertinent, poignant points raised during the conference or b) were clarified by my attendance. It’s interesting that the main points turned out to be about scicomm in general, rather than specifically with regards to scientists speaking up on controversial issues in public.

  1. Hypercritique, including sexism

This is number one because I see it as the major roadblock holding scientists ‘above’ the general public. If we hold ourselves and our peers to such lofty measures of perfection, no effort is ever going to be good enough. No effort is ever going to be recognised as having value, even if it is very small. I believe every effort at such a point has value, even if negatively received by the public (to a certain degree); the action of getting scientists out there will help along the path to normalisation of having scientists in society.

Hypercriticism in this scicomm context is a reflexive denigration of engagement efforts. It tends to be couched behind phrases illustrated by some as having been the direct recipient of. One’s achievements in the main stream media are not ‘worth’ anything, your expertise is not specifically on that topic therefore you have no ‘right’ to speak up on it, your way of doing this is outdated/bad/wrong etc/my way is better/you should be doing it like that, your research isn’t even that good, you’re not even a professor yet etcetera: peers being reflexively and overtly negative in response to scientists who have made efforts towards engagement with the public.

I use the word ‘reflexively’ because I don’t think we even realise we do it anymore. We are all trained to critique the papers we read, to critique our own and others methodology, manuscripts and grant applications. It’s a habit – one that is valuable in the context of the scientific process – but detrimental in the scicomm/society space where being personable and establishing social connection/empathy are the keys towards engaging a lay audience.

Several presenters spoke to this point, though not all directly. As mentioned earlier, there were examples of comments received from scientific peers, but also opinions from a perspective of ‘harden up, ducks-back the comments’, which raised further discussion and again dovetailed with the sexism in science theme – at which point do you stop ignoring negative aspects of the local culture and push for change at every opportunity? I strongly suspect the level of antagonism/scorn/vitriol received from one’s scientific peers as a result of scicomm efforts is rather gender dependent.

Revolution: Find something complementary to say about a scientific colleague’s scicomm efforts and imagine saying it out loud to their face. Expert level: go say it out loud to their face.

Fight the subconscious hypercriticism habit.

  1. Public expert vs public intellectual

This is intertwined with the first point on hypercriticism, in that it is very easy to judge another person as one or the other, but very difficult to judge oneself – especially after any measure of success in your endeavours, which might reinforce your personal belief in one direction or the other. Hypercritique comes in with the verbal cutting down of people supposing themselves to be public intellectuals rather than experts. “You don’t even study that topic – what right do you have to be on the news speaking about it?!” New Zealand’s infamous tall poppy syndrome is rife within this conversation.

Side note: It has a word! Ultracrepidarianism is the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge.

I think the public has come some way towards accepting the expert, but less so the intellectual. Or perhaps the difficulty comes in with the public being as unable to identify worthy intellectuals as we are personally as scientists. Trust is put in anyone who speaks up with authority until a point where they show themselves to have zero clue – usually in a highly embarrassing and public manner. The public intellectual is a rare beast, and appointment is obviously fraught with danger. The public expert on the other hand is able and encouraged to speak up at any point when their topic of expertise is brought into the public eye. Until we can clarify the role of the public intellectual, perhaps we should focus on encouraging the public expert to speak up, and encouraging more and diverse public experts to make their mark in the media.

I’d also like to re-raise a point here, though it takes us on a tangent:

The message is very much so that the government requires a science advisor to help make decisions for the good of the country: as opposed to a science advisor to society, to support them in their requirements of their government.

The public intellectual in a position of chief science advisor to the New Zealand public, is a powerful dream. An office which could become known for its unbiased and effective research, answering any question at any point, providing the data for backing up stories in the news and elsewhere. Weigh in on public debates or controversies. Communicate the science behind 1080 or vaccinations or oil drilling to society from a position of elected authority…can scientists as a group not provide this function? Was this part of the dream for the Science Media Centre and scientists in conjunction?

Revolution: Talk about your work within your community when it comes up in the media. You don’t have to be on TV or radio – ring the local schools and see if the teachers want to bring it up in class, try the local Rotary or Women’s Institute meetings.

  1. The Celebrity Scientist

This is, of course, tied up with the first 2 points and very poignantly illustrated in the USA where anyone with a PhD and some amount of showmanship can start their own science/health literacy-based TV show. However, my bugbear is that turning scientists into celebrities completely flies in the face of the normalisation of science in society goal. Wrapped up in the second point, any measure of media success can very easily thrust a scientist from their comfortable and somewhat safe role of public expert into the public intellectual role where they are called upon to give their opinion on topics and situations vastly removed from their professional expertise. However, I believe that normalising scientists in society would be helped greatly by more scientists speaking out on more topics, with the proviso that they are sure to phrase it as their own opinion. After all, the academy is full of over-educated, strongly opinionated individuals who are as human and subject to the same flaws as the lawyer or the builder. Having this more openly acknowledged would help the public see scientists as real people once again – but in a way where your offering your opinion is not concurrent with an appointment as a public intellectual/authority. When schools or engagement programmes are looking for a scientist to chat with a class or do an experiment or presentation– why go for the semi-famous one who’s on TV or the radio all the time, which will not go any way towards normalising science or the tertiary study environment (a goal of schools with low rates of students going on to further education). I suggest instead finding the regular Dr Bloggs, who has no notoriety whatsoever, but knows her subject just as well. Perhaps even open the field and try to find a scientist who attended your school, or lives in the area. Least I ruffle too many feathers – I do not mean to say that having recognisable, ‘celebrity’ scientists in mainstream media is bad – I just don’t think all engagement efforts with the public should remain solely in their court.

If there was one lesson to take away from the conference (according to the gospel of me) it would be, not surprisingly, collaboration. Collaboration not only between scientific peers (and in an encouraging, supportive manner – down with hypercriticism!): but between sectors, fields – all things. Find a journalist and build a relationship. Find a policy/ministry employee and build a relationship. Find a school, find a sports club, find a new lab, find a community group, find a blog, find a mind – and communicate with it.

END I’d like to thank Te Pūnaha Matatini for getting me to the NZAS conference this year. I think the best part about academia is the collaborative and community atmosphere that is illustrated so perfectly at conferences. Academia, and science in particular, will always be better when we work together, when we collaborate and learn with and from each other. The New Zealand Centres of Research Excellence are a beautiful example of this, and Te Pūnaha Matatini is pushing the boundaries connecting academia with business and industry.

Dr SM Morgan is a Research Fellow at the Liggins Institute, University of Auckland, working on translation interventions in the health literacy field.