10/03/2014 07:33 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Evolving Culture of Science Engagement

As a kid, I was a popular-science junkie. Back in the 1980s, I was able to feed my habit with a steady stream of paperback books, a few glossy magazines, and the occasional special on public television. Today's offerings run the gamut from polished shows on radio and television and full-scale documentary films to snarky blogs, playful online videos, live events in pubs and theaters, and "citizen science" projects that connect volunteers with ongoing research projects.

More than just the medium has changed; the message has, too. Many prominent efforts to engage non-specialists these days are crafted as personal narratives. A new generation of science communicators has adopted classic techniques of storytelling, with an emphasis upon scientists' subjective experience, casual informality, even strategic uses of humor. Often the focus is on mysteries and what remains unknown, rather than a triumphant litany of stable truths.

Last year some colleagues and I gathered 74 participants from the realms of scientific research, communication, education, and outreach for a workshop at MIT. We were struck by some remarkable changes underway in the motivations, forms, and responses to science in popular culture. We recently released a report on our findings.

At our workshop, many participants spoke passionately of their goal to bring elements of scientific practice into wider circulation -- to share insights about everything from mutated genes to black holes with broad audiences. They also sought to describe the processes of scientific inquiry in ways that captured the messy, everyday travails of research better than older caricatures had done.

But many of today's leading science communicators distanced their efforts from objectives that had seemed self-evident a generation ago. Though none spoke out against education, several participants emphasized that their primary motivations had little to do with learning outcomes or the laudable goal of fostering an informed citizenry.

They spoke instead about ideals of artistic expression and emotional connection with an audience -- of sharing what it feels like to try to learn something new about the natural world. Across multiple media, today's science-engagement landscape features stories that turn on moments of exhiliration and deep intellectual satisfaction, to be sure, but often set amid routine frustrations, personal ambitions and vulnerabilities, petty rivalries, and penetrating self-doubt. The emphasis is often as much on expressing oneself as informing or inspiring others.

The personal turn is not in itself brand new. The Double Helix, first published in 1968 by molecular biologist James Watson, carried the subtitle, "A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA." A reviewer in Science magazine scoffed that "habitual readers of gossip columns will like the book immensely." Many surely did -- but the commercial success of Watson's book did not inspire many followers.

In 1985, for example, famed physicist Richard Feynman published two books, both of which became bestsellers. "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" featured vivid, personal storytelling -- safe-cracking at wartime Los Alamos, learning to draw nude models during his down-time at Caltech -- but virtually no science. Feynman's other book that year, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, was an accessible treatment of the work in quantum physics for which he had earned the Nobel prize. QED was brimming with metaphors and line drawings but devoid of personal stories. Even the iconoclastic Feynman respected a bright line between scientific description and personal commentary.

Three years later, physicist Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, broke with such conventions. Hawking narrated his account in the first person, interspersing stories of his apprenticeship in the field, his family life, and his struggles with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) amid descriptions of his research into the warping of spacetime and the fate of black holes. The book sold more than 12 million copies during its first decade and quickly became a template. A colleague of mine, working on his own popular physics book in the mid-1990s, had his manuscript returned from an editor because he did not appear -- as a first-person protagonist -- until midway through the narrative.

So the personal turn is not a product of the Internet or cellphone selfies. But there can be no doubt that the proliferation of social media, inexpensive tools for digital production, and broader cultural shifts in self-expression and self-presentation have expanded the range of scientists' styles and sensibilities when engaging with broader audiences. (Imagine if Feynman had a Twitter account.)

What might today's trends in personal narrative, artistic expression, and informality portend for scientific authority in contemporary culture? Watson, Feynman, and Hawking wrote from a presumed position of authority; they had already scaled the heights in their fields. For younger scientists today, authority might derive instead from how an audience perceives the authenticity of a personal tale. Humor, emotion, and storytelling can lower the barriers between scientists and non-specialists. Whether such increased familiarity with scientists -- foibles and all -- will make it easier or more difficult for, say, climate-change denialists to convince voters to ignore scientific consensus remains to be seen.

Our workshop revealed a broad range of motivations, styles, and strategies among today's scientists and science communicators when aiming to engage a broader public. Many practitioners are busy crossing traditional boundaries and deflating hierarchies that had once seemed second-nature -- between objectivity and subjectivity, professionalism and informality, wonder and knowledge. What we don't yet understand -- and what deserves equal scrutiny -- is how, why, and to what ends various audiences encounter science in their everyday lives.