In his first days in office, President Donald Trump is already leading his administration on a crusade against science. He’s blocked the USDA and the EPA from sharing their own research with the public. He’s reportedly planning to ban the EPA from funding scientific research, and considering a “case by case” review process for its research. In this post-truth, alternative fact world, it’s more important than ever for scientists to promote their research and demonstrate not only why our work matters but why it is irresponsible and dangerous to keep the public in the dark.
Those of us who haven’t been gagged by the new administration have a responsibility to communicate openly with the American people, get comfortable with communicating with a lay audience, and support those of us who already do. We can’t all be Bill Nye the Science Guy or Neil deGrasse Tyson, but we can all learn to communicate effectively enough to ensure our research is represented accurately in the media. We owe it to the scientific community and to society as a whole to own the narratives about our work and put our own research out there.
Becoming your own PR agent might seem like a daunting task on top of seeking funding or securing tenure, not to mention teaching and doing scholarship, but it’s absolutely vital. The current skepticism of science and widespread denial of scientific facts is due in part to the failure of some scientists to communicate publicly. Activity surrounding #ScienceMarch and #USofScience in the last two weeks is proof that many of us have gotten better at it and are already engaged, but these are all-hands-on-deck times.
I get the hesitation to “dumb down” your work. So much of science is saying precisely what we mean: we learn the language of our discipline and then we use those words because they’re meaningful. But there’s a big difference between the incorrect representation that we eschew in some science coverage and a willingness to soften jargon enough to make it work for non-scientists. If getting someone to pay attention to the story means that I have to be a little less precise with my language, then I do that. If we want people to understand and embrace science, we have to first draw their attention—that means using language that is understandable and, dare I say it, more “click-worthy” than the vocabularies of our disciplines.
In online platforms, particularly, there are very short windows of opportunity in which you can make an impact with someone given the other distractions in that space, and there’s only a certain threshold you can reach in a single online article. If a reader isn’t immediately engaged, or quickly overwhelmed by jargon, they’ll move on. But once you have their attention, some readers will start following links to learn more and then perhaps see and understand more of that “foreign” language.
I also understand the fear that many of us have: being labelled a narcissist simply because you turn the spotlight on your own work. But it’s time to get over that. If you are doing good science, then write about it, talk about it, share it, tweet it. If you admire the work of other scientists, then promote theirs, too. Under normal circumstances, there is a tidal wave of non-science content across media platforms for our stories to compete against. But this is one of those rare times where the very endeavor of scientific discovery—whether and how it gets funded, who gets to do it, where it can happen, whether it’s worth doing at all—is near the forefront of the national conversation. More people are listening, and they need to hear our voices.
If you aren’t concerned about the skepticism and lack of public understanding of science, at least think of this: Is there a kid out there who could be the next great scientist who might not be reached if we don’t do this now? How much anti-science messaging does it take before a young person dreaming of becoming a scientist loses hope in that prospect entirely?
Let’s tell our stories and let’s do it in a way that puts all of our best and most compelling work in front of more people. It’s our surest bet to convert their skepticism into understanding.