The Importance of Science Communication
Aaron Blanchard, Emory University, USA
Science communication plays an increasingly important role in our society, but today’s PhD students have few formal training opportunities. The Communicating Science workshop for graduate students, formally known as ComSciCon, was created to help fill this gap by teaching science communication skills to graduate students from across a wide variety of scientific disciplines in an intensive four-day experience. ComSciCon is nonprofit and student-run, organizing workshops on both the national and local level. At these workshops, students convene with science communication experts and learn via a combination of hands-on creative activities, panels, and small-group and one-on-one discussions. The workshop is funded by a combination of academic entities (MIT, Harvard, UC-Boulder), scholarly societies (AAS, ACS, and OSA) and media organizations (Institute of Physics publishing, Science, astrobites, and HHMI Tangled Bank studios). At the national workshop, all 50 students’ travel and housing was fully funded to promote a more inclusive representation.
OSA sponsored my attendance at the ComSciCon 2017 National Workshop, which was held at Harvard University in mid-June. Because of past experience with K-12 and public outreach, I arrived at ComSciCon knowing that I had a passion for teaching scientific concepts to non-experts. I wanted to expand my passion for science communication to include writing, but I was unsure about where to start. Over the course of the workshop’s four jam-packed days, I developed a skillset, a social network, and a knowledge-base that has helped me kickstart a meaningful science communication hobby. I left the workshop prepared to write and publish written work in science communication magazines (for example, see my recent piece in nanotechweb.org). My biggest takeaway from the workshop is that the human element is important in science writing but is often overlooked.
Aside from improving my scientific writing skills, the workshop opened my eyes to many facets of public discourse that will undoubtedly prove useful when engaging with the public about important scientific topics. Furthermore, the workshop gave me direct contact with passionate and effective science communicators, further fueling my passion and providing me with tangible and accessible role-models to look up to. I now have a national network of peers and professional connections who are excited to help me brainstorm, edit, and publish my work.
A common theme throughout these panels was communication with populations who are skeptical (or even hostile) towards certain scientific conclusions. “Remember that most people trust most of what science has to say. Every time they take medicine or check the weather, they’re trusting science. People don’t self-identify as anti-science, but they sometimes have personal values that clash with some parts of science” said Below. I was impressed by my colleagues’ many engaging practical and ethical questions during our limited Q/A time – our discussions were riveting and unfortunately were cut off for time after every single panel!
The workshop was packed with attendees and experts with awe-inspiring stories. For example, I had lunch with an MIT post-doc who specializes in educating students while under government censorship. Her characterization of the educational challenges faced in highly-censored, authoritative third-world countries was saddening. However, I was equally moved by her steadfast resolve in overcoming these challenges. “When you can’t teach students about evolution, it makes it difficult to teach them about something that’s very important to their survival, like antibiotic resistance. But you can still teach them how to start asking questions, and if you do it right they will eventually begin to seek the truth out for themselves.”
Many of us came to ComSciCon with specific goals in mind as we held a wide range of science communication passions: entrepreneurship, K-12 outreach, podcast, blogging, and so much more. But by the end of the workshop, we all had one thing in common: we all took big steps forward in our understanding of effective science communication. We will continue to benefit from ComSciCon through the friendships that we formed and through our continued involvement in future ComSciCon events.