By Chiara Facciotto
Many researchers still see science communication as a waste of time, as something that is simply stealing resources away from their “real job”. Here are a few reasons why that was never true.
A moral duty
As researchers, our job is to discover scientific breakthroughs that will improve society and help humanity take care of the planet. But what good does it do to keep such knowledge dusting on a shelf? Or, even worse, what if those breakthroughs are misunderstood by the general public?
One example is the case of Vieri Fusi and Mirco Fanelli, two Italian researchers that discovered a maltol-derived molecule that could kill cancer cells in vitro (i.e., they tested this molecules on cells growing in a petri dish). Cancer researchers know that this is a promising result but not yet a “cure against cancer”. Even so, a so-called journalist manage to spread a hoax video saying that this cure existed and that pharmaceutical companies were blocking it from being delivered to patients. The result: people with family members terminally ill from cancer started calling the two researchers, asking if they could give them a cure that sadly didn’t exists.
Believe it or not, I received this video twice from friends asking if it was true, and every time I think about it I am reminded about the damage that scientific misinformation can cause in our lives! It’s every scientist’s duty to contribute to building the bridge between academia and the public, to foster science literacy and promote trust in the scientific method.
You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother
We have all heard some version of this phrase (usually misattributed to Albert Einstein) and it indeed carries a deep truth: if you cannot explain what you do in simple terms, do you truly understand it? Being able to break things down in simpler blocks doesn’t only help you to be a better communicator. It can also make you more competitive in grant applications, help you make your science more understandable to other researchers and, last but not least, it forces you to dig deeper and question the basics of what you do. And each time you do this, dots connect and your vision is broadened.
And by the way, to test this theory, this year I did try to explain my current research project to my grandma. I used a presentation I had prepared for a public talk, and I really loved the surprised look on her face when she realized she was finally understanding what I do.
Make sure you get funded
Research is mainly funded with tax money. But right now, with all the fake news stealing the attention from rigorous scientific research, we have entered a vicious circle in which the general public doesn’t trust researchers and doesn’t care about their results, which leads to politicians not caring about investing resources in the academic community. This leads to less funding being devolved to universities and research centers, meaning less chances for you to keep your job in the future.
So be selfish and help yourself by making sure the public understands the importance of your work! You don’t know how? Check out my next post for some suggestions.
About the author:
Chiara Facciotto is a PhD student in Bioinformatics at the University of Helsinki and a science communication enthusiast. Her science outreach projects include, among others, TEDxHelsinkiUniversity and The Science Basement. You can follow Chiara and comment this post in Twitter: @chiara_facciott