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Talking science

If scientists do not participate in public conversations about science, decisions affecting science will be made without them.

Decisions that influence the legality and funding of science are increasingly being made in political forums, where the scientific process may be misunderstood or even discounted. Scientists frustrated by the outcomes of these decisions frequently assign blame to politicians or to a lack of respect for science in the general public. Although these may be appropriate responses in some cases, the time has come for scientists to take a more proactive role in influencing debates about science policy and making clear to the general public the value that science provides. Indeed, as the people best placed to convey the importance of scientific research, scientists must be advocates for the work that they do. Chemical biologists—already well versed in promoting crosstalk between scientists with diverse expertise and conducting research that spans fields that directly impact the world at large—are particularly well positioned to lead in this endeavor.

There is a growing disconnect between the contributions of science to society in the form of tangible products (such as electronic devices, medications and diagnostics) and society's recognition that these products are direct outcomes of scientific research. Despite this dissociation, there is ample evidence for the public's ongoing commitment to science. Millions of people walk, run or train to raise money each year for organizations that support scientific research; philanthropic foundations set up by nonscientists routinely adopt scientific missions; and tax payers around the globe have a long tradition of providing financial support for science. Scientists should take advantage of and foster this interest. By making themselves accessible to nonscientists, they can also help translate enthusiasm for science into an augmented general understanding of the scientific process.

With these goals in mind, scientists need to acknowledge that science advocacy is an important and attractive career choice. Scientific knowledge and critical thinking are essential for effective science advocacy, starting in the classroom and extending to boardrooms, courtrooms and all levels of government. Young scientists should consider alternative careers where they can apply their rigorous scientific training to directly enhance society's understanding and appreciation of science and influence public policy. In parallel, scientists who choose to remain in the laboratory should recognize the value of public advocacy and support rather than ostracize colleagues who become more actively engaged in public discourse. Scientific mentors should recognize that science advocates provide a critical service to the public that likewise serves science and should encourage students with interest and skills in scientific advocacy.

Although many scientists opt to focus their efforts on research, all scientists have ample opportunities to positively influence the public's perception of science. Effective advocacy can be as simple as spending some time answering questions about science from friends, family and strangers when opportunities arise. Informal conversations with the curious represent an excellent opportunity to engage nonscientists and can be made quite successful by keeping a few general guidelines in mind.

  • Know your audience. Clarifying the level of pre-existing knowledge and the nature of the interest upfront can lead to more rewarding and productive conversations.

  • Keep it simple. Conversations to satisfy the curiosity of nonscientists do not require the use of a comprehensive scientific vocabulary; for many nonscientists, the language of science is foreign, and jargon can alienate rather than illustrate and might reinforce the perception that science is not something a nonscientist could understand. Although scientific accuracy should be an aim of general discussions about science, it needs to be calibrated by an understanding of the existing knowledge and perspective of the discussion participants. Ultimately, these conversations can be incredibly useful without transferring the sophisticated insight of an expert to the nonscientist.

  • Use a relevant example. This can be as simple as highlighting a technology that nonscientists benefit from without perhaps even recognizing the science behind it (for example, how their home water filtration system works, how their pain medication works and so on).

  • Remember that it is a conversation, so listening is essential. Feedback provides an opportunity to clarify any misconceptions as well as to extend the conversation.

Equally important and perhaps more challenging is the task of providing nonscientists with insight into the scientific process. Because all research does not have an immediate application, it is important for the public to understand that long-term investment in basic research programs is a vital part of discovery. Although scientists debate whether science is best served by hypothesis-driven or outcome-driven research, the application of the scientific method is always iterative, and scientific models are always limited by the data at hand. Despite these caveats, there is a time for gathering more evidence and a time when the weight of the evidence merits action. Scientists need to help the public understand the difference, so the scientific process itself is not used by politicians to delay or derail difficult policy decisions. Educating the public and politicians about the scientific process can minimize these delays and make it clear to all when the time to act is at hand.

As a scientist in today's world, it is hard to imagine how anyone can miss the profound impact science has on everyday life: from the grocery store to the doctor's office, from alternative energy to the frenzy for electronic devices, the evidence for the value that science offers is abundant. As the ways in which science can be conducted and scientific advances can be employed come increasingly under scrutiny—from pending decisions on stem cell and synthetic biology research in the United States to the implementation of genetically modified foods in Europe—scientists should take advantage of and create opportunities to transform the public's interest and enthusiasm for the products of science into an increased awareness that their ongoing investment in scientific research adds value to their lives every day. It is clear that decisions that have an impact on the funding and legality of future research will profoundly affect the livelihood and careers of scientists, and these decisions will be made whether scientists engage in the process or not.

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Talking science. Nat Chem Biol 7, 127 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nchembio.535

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