Scientific Tweetability

Here at BEACON, we recently held our annual Congress, a conference where members from all five of our institutions come together to present research, network with each other, and brainstorm new ideas. One of the highlights of this year’s Congress was a talk by Titus Brown (@ctitusbrown on Twitter) about blogging and social media. Titus talked about how how these platforms work, gave some practical tips on how to proceed, and shared his experiences on how blogging and tweeting has affected his career as a professor, in both positive and negative ways. Notably, he’s drawn a lot of positive attention to himself and his work through social media – and this attention has attracted journalists, grant officers, and invited talks.

The talk inspired many BEACONites to open Twitter accounts and start blogs – including Rich Lenski, who has been blogging and tweeting prolifically ever since. (Seriously – follow him at @RELenski, and check out his blog, Telliamed Revisited!) 

Last week, I attended the annual NSF Science and Technology Centers Directors meeting. In case you don’t know already, BEACON is one of a handful of active Science and Technology Centers, or STCs. These centers are an innovative approach to scientific grand challenges, bringing together researchers from different fields and different institutions in a way that can’t usually be accomplished with typical, single-investigator grants. The theme of this year’s meeting was “Charting Today the Science & Technology of Tomorrow,” and a number of panelists were invited from the federal government, private corporations, and philanthropic organizations to present their views on the role that STCs could play in advancing science in the United States.

A prominent theme throughout the two days was effective science communication. This topic came up in nearly every session:

  • One of the first speakers was a member of the US House of Representatives, and in his opening remarks, he commented that he didn’t understand much of the science that we were doing, and he hoped that we would explain it to him. As requested, one of the first people who asked him a question tried to describe what his Center did in just a couple of sentences. Unfortunately, his “explanation” was full of jargon and buzzwords and it was clear to everyone that his explanation did nothing to clear things up for the congressman, who continued to frown uncomprehendingly during and after the explanation.
  • Later that day, a representative of a private grant foundation talked about the science that his foundation funds. He briefly presented one project, and stated that he was using this example “because it’s the only one I understand.”
  • Finally, several members of the National Science Board (NSB, the governing board for the NSF) talked about the importance of integrating the processes of science and policy-making. Scientists have a responsibility to provide continuous guidance to the federal government, but by the time the NSB is invited to comment on federal bills or policies, it is generally too late to change anything.

If you do good science, but nobody knows about it, does it matter?

Scientists are often portrayed as elitists and viewed with suspicion by some members of our society. Scientists who refuse to communicate in a way that others can understand are, in fact, elitists, who are actively excluding anyone who lacks their highly specific vocabulary. And they are hurting themselves by behaving this way. 

Communicating science effectively is not just about informing the public – which is important. It’s not just about getting K-12 students interested in science – which is also important. It is also about getting the support of decision-makers and funding sources – which is absolutely critical for the progress of science. 

Try it – try talking about your work to your non-scientist friends. Try getting it out into the world, in whatever way works for you. Social media is a great way to get started – it’s totally free and easy to use. Practice focusing on the “why” of your research – why do you study that particular problem, and why should anyone else care about it? The more you practice, the better you’ll be at communicating and the more the world will know and care about your work. And in the long term, your new communication abilities will help you get more grant money, more publicity, and more career advancement – and maybe even help make the world a better place.

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